New York announces a climate change campus

How might higher education respond to the climate crisis?

One answer to this very large question is for a given campus to expand its academic teaching on the topic, across the curriculum.  A second answer involves expanding a college or university’s research work, also across the disciplines.  Over time, an institution’s commitment to building and sharing global warming knowledge increases.

As an alternative, we can imagine the creation of climate programs within larger universities.  Or in a more ambitious way, by creating an entire climate institution.  I speculated about this in my recent book, Universities on Fire, forecasting that “entire graduate schools and undergraduate colleges specializing in the climate crisis appear…” (4) Later on in the book I added:

Looking decades ahead, we can imagine an academy increasingly devoted to studying the Anthropocene through familiar academic departments and new ones. Depending on an institution’s nature and strategy, we may forecast new forms for such work: centers, institutes, academic programs, colleges within universities, entire standalone colleges and universities devoted to researching the topic.   (86; emphases added)

That is precisely what New York state recently announced.  Stony Brook University will lead the construction of the New York Climate Exchange on Governor’s Island.

According to the Stony Brook official page as well as the New York Times’ article, the Exchange has several distinct yet interconnected functions.

Stony Brooke Exchange rendering

From the project renderings page.

Research and development This is how the Stony Brook page leads off, describing the Exchange first of all as “a first-of-its-kind international center for developing and deploying dynamic solutions to our global climate crisis.”  R&D appears to be key.

It’s still early days, but the Stony Brook FAQ offers a list of potential research topics:

The Exchange will tackle the most important elements of the climate challenge: air, water, food, and energy studies. Some initial areas of focus include:

  • Green infrastructure for coastline resilience
  • Electric vehicle-to-grid integration
  • Circular organic waste management
  • Climate resilient hydroponics
  • Data visualization of extreme event impacts
  • Policy strategies for implementation of solutions
  • Advanced aquaculture for urban food security and carbon capture

Teaching One part of the new school’s pedagogical function involves teaching undergraduates and grad students.  Stony Brook makes it sound like its own branch campus:

The Exchange is an opportunity to amplify and expand the research already being done at Stony Brook in the areas of climate and sustainability. It will also offer a Climate Solutions Fellows program for graduate students, a Climate Solutions Semester for undergraduates

I’ve written that climate teaching should be interdisciplinary, and Stony Brook agrees:

Climate solutions are not limited to the so-called hard sciences and require an “all-of-the-above” approach including across the humanities, social sciences and healthcare. The Exchange envisions many interdisciplinary projects on Governors Island and welcomes ideas and inspiration from all fields of study. Additionally, we expect that the arts will be well-represented through performances, art installations, and other possibilities.

More teaching: workforce development The curricular strategy sounds based on jobs for the immediate community, with the Exchange “host[ing] job-training and skills-building programs for local residents to help them launch successful careers that improve our regional environment.”

Indeed, Stony Brook belabors the point, emphasizing that the Exchange isn’t a liberal arts space so much as a job training center:

The unique purpose of The Exchange will be to bring together the voices of all stakeholders so that solutions to our climate crisis are not just academic or theoretical, but social and practical — including research that becomes commercially viable and ideas that lead to immediate action on the local and global levels.

(Readers of American higher education history will recognize this centuries-old argument about theoretical versus practical teaching)

The Times article describes a statistical emphasis on workforce: “The campus will create more than 2,200 jobs, city officials said, and eventually serve 600 college students, 6,000 job trainees…”

Midjourney imagines_An_academic_climate_change_center_on_New_Yorks_Governors Island 2

One of Midjourney’s efforts on the topic.

Rethinking campus operations In addition to conducting higher education’s classic functions of teaching and research, the enterprise will experiment with its operations as part of its climate focus. “The design and operations of The Exchange itself will serve as a model for sustainability with a carbon-neutral facility that blends into the natural landscape of Governors Island.”

One goal is to be electrically sustainable.  According to CBS:

“It’s going to be covered with solar panels and have geothermal energy. So it will not need electricity from the grid at all. In fact, it’s going to give electricity back into the grid,” said Claire Newman, president and CEO of the Trust for Governors Island.

Blending these functions It sounds likely that climate study will cross institutional domains.  For example, the New York Times mentions that “[t]he climate hub will serve as a ‘living laboratory’ that features resilient design.”  I imagine faculty research, student inquiry, and the campus physical plant all involved.

Stony Brook offers this sketch of topics which can be integrated across those domains:

Environmental Justice and Inclusion

Reconciling global inequities, reducing burdens, distributing benefits more fairly, and redressing past discriminatory practices and their impacts.

Climate Interdependence

Adopting the “nexus” approach to sustainable climate change solutions with emphasis on the connection between the critical ecosystem domains of water, food, and energy.
Sustainable Urban Environments

Developing and demonstrating sustainable, affordable solutions for coastal urban environments, starting on Governors Island and extending outward into New York and beyond

How is this funded and supported?  The Times describes several sources:

About $150 million in funding will come from previously allocated city capital funding, city officials said. Another $100 million is from the Simons Foundation, founded by the billionaire James H. Simons, and $50 million will be contributed by Bloomberg Philanthropies, founded by Mr. Bloomberg, a longtime supporter of rebuilding the island. The consortium will raise another $400 million and cover operational costs…

Additionally, the Exchange has a lot of partners from academia, the corporate world, and local non-profits.

Things are in the planning stage now.  Construction itself won’t begin until 2025.  The Times thinks it’ll open for business in 2028.

One criticism of this project comes from Scotland’s Donald Clark, who sees the construction as flying in the face of climate change’s needs:

Let’s solve our carbon footprint problem by ‘building’ another campus in an island…. head, table, thump….

It has long been the knee-jerk reaction in Higher Education to shove up buildings, as if that were the solution to a problem. In this case, it’s exacerbating the problem.

I share Clark’s concern, as the Twitter exchange shows.  It also reveals a split in academic thinking about global warming.  One side follows the historical pattern of recognizing new or expanding academic endeavors by creating new material expressions (buildings, campuses, sites), infrastructure (jobs, programs), and by hiring people.  Against this is the broader economic thinking we see from no-growth and de-growth advocates, who would see us shrink our footprint, especially the richest “us.” Within American academia we could align this with the decade-running enrollment decline, or the so far scarce idea of deliberately shrinking a campus footprint (cf Gordon Gee’s recent move).

I’m also worried about how the thing will actually get built, given the enormous problems of building anything in the New York City area (cost overruns, delays, scope creep, etc).

At the same time I’m impressed by this group of partners committing themselves to creating an academic entity dedicated to the climate crisis.  There’s a lot of potential there, both locally and in terms of R+D for the world.

Are there any similar academic entities in the world?  How many more should we anticipate?

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One Response to New York announces a climate change campus

  1. sibyledu says:

    While there are certainly many campuses in New York, I am positive that none of them are built “from the ground up” for sustainability. LEED-certified buildings are rarities on college campuses: most colleges have one or two, but only one or two. At least half the time, it is less expensive to build a new building than to retrofit a 50-year-old building. So while it may appear to be wasteful in the short term, building new LEED-certified buildings will likely be beneficial in the long term.

    Frankly, I would imagine that a building constructed to be sustainable in 2023 will look different from one built to be sustainable in 2033. I imagine that we will not try to retrofit buildings built in the 1960s and 1970s, but tear them down and build from scratch.

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