The 2021 Earth Day summit and higher education

Starting tomorrow, Earth Day, the president of the United States will host an international summit about climate change.  Joe Biden will announce new American greenhouse gas targets and there are opportunities for negotiations and deals, possibly brokered by the US.

What does this mean for higher education?

In my research into climate change’s impact on higher ed I’ve broken things down into three areas, just like Gaul. There are immediate and direct impacts on colleges and universities, including physical threats to campuses, changes to research and teaching, and altering relationships with local communities.

There are secondary effects as well, which may be more important than the primaries. Think of how disastrous weather can drive climate refugees across borders, for example, which offer campuses strategic choices about engaging or supporting those populations. Rising demand for direct air capture (DAC) could spur academic institutions to expand research in and teaching about those technologies, while offering the possibility of campuses hosting DAC on site.  Climate-driven stresses to economies, food systems, and politics can each press on higher education.

A third area is when academics take an activist role in the climate crisis. We’ve already seen early signs of this, such as student protests against carbon-heavy institutional investments and researchers caught up in off-campus political frays.  Some American university leaders publicly lobbied the White House for certain climate policies.

climate change protest Michael Coghlan

How might Thursday and Friday’s diplomatic event connect with these three academic domains?  We can start with what we know about the summit. According to the White House, “[k]ey themes of the Summit will include:

  • Galvanizing efforts by the world’s major economies to reduce emissions during this critical decade to keep a limit to warming of 1.5 degree Celsius within reach.
  • Mobilizing public and private sector finance to drive the net-zero transition and to help vulnerable countries cope with climate impacts. 
  • The economic benefits of climate action, with a strong emphasis on job creation, and the importance of ensuring all communities and workers benefit from the transition to a new clean energy economy.
  • Spurring transformational technologies that can help reduce emissions and adapt to climate change, while also creating enormous new economic opportunities and building the industries of the future.
  • Showcasing subnational and non-state actors that are committed to green recovery and an equitable vision for limiting warming to 1.5 degree Celsius, and are working closely with national governments to advance ambition and resilience.
  • Discussing opportunities to strengthen capacity to protect lives and livelihoods from the impacts of climate change, address the global security challenges posed by climate change and the impact on readiness, and address the role of nature-based solutions in achieving net zero by 2050 goals.”

There are many points of potential connection here.  Starting with the first area, immediate and direct, we can imagine academic institutions taking steps to reduce their own carbon footprint.  As I’ve said before, that can include renovating old buildings or making new ones, blocking non-electric vehicles from campus grounds, reducing faculty and staff travel, changing up food service, pressuring endowments to divest from certain businesses, and more.  At an even more immediate level, some campus experts (in climate change, international relations, economics, etc..) can study and/or teach and/or explain the summit to their college or university.

In the secondary area, imagine how changes in the labor market impact higher ed. Will enrollment dip down if some would-be students see green jobs that don’t require bachelor’s or graduate degrees as alternatives to taking classes?  Conversely, will colleges and universities figure out how to place enrolled students in such jobs either as interns or graduates?  How will campuses adjust to the local decline of carbon-based or methane-generating-at-scale enterprises?

For the third area, the one concerning academics as activists on the off-campus stage, each White House bullet point has possibilities. “[A]ddress[ing] the global security challenges posed by climate change” is one where we could see faculty, students, or staff publicly supporting or criticizing various geopolitical actors through scholarship, public statements, demonstrations, or social media campaigns. “[T]he importance of ensuring all communities and workers benefit from the transition to a new clean energy economy” resonates strongly with the current wave of academic interest in racial justice.  “Showcasing subnational and non-state actors that are committed to green recovery” is something campus outreach and marketing might do to celebrate their own work, as well as a function scholarly communication can perform.

The point about “Spurring transformational technologies that can help reduce emissions and adapt to climate change…” could actually play out across all three fields.  In the first we can see academic researchers investigating and developing such tech, while also teaching about it.  In the second, we can imagine knock-on effects of changes to industry, such as a university benefitting from a local economic boom driven by a successful tech firm’s takeoff. In the third, we should anticipate members of campus communities agitating in favor of such R&D… as well as those who advocate for its control or shutdown, all depending on attitudes and politics.

There is much more to say here.  After all, there are tens of thousands of post-secondary institutions worldwide, each containing thoughtful, engaged, and innovative people.  I’d love to hear more ways academic connects with this summit in comments and elsewhere.

At the same time we should be cautious. This is a two-day event, after all, and it’s unclear what might actually emerge from the summit. It could play out as only one step in a longer process of negotiation and maneuver, or just misfire.  The question I’m focused on is: what does the April 2021 summit mean for academia worldwide?

(photo by Michael Coghlan)

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2 Responses to The 2021 Earth Day summit and higher education

  1. Joe Essid says:

    The hour is nigh. Climate-change deniers? Meet me in a dark alley.

  2. Jeremy Stanton says:

    I wonder if a future summit could include a showcase of the latest research, thinking, technology developments from academia. Something akin to the summit concept presented in The Ministry for the Future–a multi-day convention or “tradeshow” of all kinds of ideas, tech, models, lectures, conferences. Invite mainstream academia plus fringe/experimental/alternative groups. Imagine permaculturists mixing it up with carbon sequestration researchers, data analysts, blockchain developers, economists, etc… that could generate all kinds of hybrid / multidisciplinary solutions (Regen Network is an interesting example of what could emerge from such intersections — Academia could use its convening power to coordinate with the Administration to pull this together. Make it at least annual, if not every 6 months. There’s a good opportunity for academia to lead the way in a coordinated effort here.

    At the same time, campus leaders may want to consider what a post-industrial campus might look like, based on models for resilient communities, just in case the “the transition to a new clean energy economy” doesn’t work as planned (I’m thinking of all the new silver mines required for all those solar panels, limited cobalt (we need this for electric vehicle batteries but there’s a 10 year supply left on current trends), peak phosphorous, biodiversity loss, etc). This goes beyond low-carbon campuses to reimagining them as deeply adaptive cultures and centers of resilience and regeneration within their broader communities/regions. Sort of like mini Transition Towns. Let’s convert that campus lawn dead-zone into insect-supporting meadows, veggie gardens, and perennial forest-based food production ecosystems!

    I also see an opportunity for the traditional “ag extension” units at many state schools to evolve into centers of regenerative excellence to support initiatives in the adjacent communities, advising on low-energy/clean-energy systems for communities, providing knowledge and expertise to support ecosystems of small regenerative farms and urban/peri-urban agriculture / food-security efforts, ecosystem restoration, etc.

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