The future of higher education and climate change: part 5

What will climate change do to higher education?  How will academia respond?

Last week I offered a series of blog posts starting to explore this enormous question (1, 2, 3, 4).  I wanted to get my thoughts down and explore where they were headed.  Readers responded, from Twitter to Mastodon, email to Patreon.  Thank you all.

Earth in hands_lewishamdreamerIn this post I’d like to engage with those comments, and also develop some points I’ve thought about since the original four posts.  Here I’ll address three of the categories I floated (campus populations; physical plant changes; academic mission transformed).  In the next post I’ll write about the fourth (campus and the rest of the world).

1: Which populations are involved with this topic?

We discussed students, faculty, staff, and people working adjacent to academia (trustees, legislators, relevant business leaders, nonprofits, etc). We should add one more small but significant population to emphasize: financial managers in charge of institutional investment.  They may come under pressure to divest from certain industries and enterprises.  This has already begun with oil companies, and could extend to entities deemed to be accelerating climate change: car companies, airlines, bitcoin exchanges.

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2: Changes to the physical plant of a campus

This month’s California firestorm and associated power blackouts suggest some campuses may want to reexamine their electrical backup plans (by the way, who’s covering the impact on higher ed?). That is, as climate change continues and causes greater numbers of extreme weather, colleges and universities are at greater risk of being knocked offline and out of power.  Is everyone prepared with the right mix of generators, surge protection, cancelation policies, etc?  There should be opportunities for businesses and inter-campus collaboration to assist.

Beyond fire is the problem of water.  A recent Army War College report argues that access to potable water will be a rising problem worldwide, if unevenly.   Do all campuses have reliable water supplies, including for protracted crises?  To what extent are bricks and mortar institutions ready to transform their buildings and grounds to retain and store water?

Technology: last week I discussed a two-part question.  On the one hand, will institutions turn towards more digital work in order to avoid carbon-burning transportation?

fly now pay later_nez

On the other, will campuses decrease or block use of digital tech they deem to carry too high a carbon cost?  To that problematic I’d like to add another.  Will some new technologies use less electricity than current ones, thereby driving adoption?  I’m thinking of some 5G possibilities (Huawei is bullish) as well as self-driving cars (which might be more fuel-efficient than humans, if we deploy them correctly).

3: Climate change and the academic mission

How will academia’s teaching and research missions change during a long-term climate crisis?  People were especially interested in this theme.

It seems easiest to include climate-related topics within currently existing classes.  Maria Anderson mentioned statistics instructors using climate change examples in homework, examples, and tests.  We can readily imagine similar examples popping up in engineering, literature, history, political science, sociology, and other fields.

Others cited climate themed classes.

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  For example, in a blog comment Vivian Forssman referred to Canadian classes:

My project in British Columbia involves 7 universities who are developing non-credit courses that are being offered to working professionals, on their roles, responsibilities and professional actions re climate adaptation and community resilience.

(Vivian also wants to network: “I’m keen to connect with others who are focused on curricular responses to climate change.

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At a larger scale we’re seeing the appearance of linked classes.  Georgetown University now has a climate change undergraduate curricular pathway.  On the graduate level, climate change masters degrees are appearing (here are ten examples).

Change the system not the climate_jmenj

Meanwhile, as colleges and universities seek to prepare students for work, to what extent will climate change shape career options?  For example, campuses might emphasize educating students for green jobs.  They could also create or hone paths to professions most likely to be in demand as the climate crisis expands, such as:

  • firefighter
  • electric engineer (coping with stresses to power grids and stations)
  • Arctic studies, as polar regions lose ice and open up
  • agriculture (rising stresses to food systems)
  • disaster manager (obviously)
  • the full range of allied health, as human wellness comes under multiple threats
  • nuclear engineering, as existing power plants come under pressure or as some areas push for atomic energy as an alternative to oil and coal

How will disciplines fare that cannot clearly prepare students for climate crisis careers?  This question will become especially salient if that crisis drives increasing financial pressure on colleges and universities.

On a related note, will demand for military personnel rise in the face of growing political instability?

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  Or might it decline under a combination of federal budget cuts and automation?  Think of the implications for military history, for campus ROTC programs, the number of veterans who are students, and teenagers choosing between the military and college.

On the student life side, we should expect at least some changes to campus food culture.  We could see a larger shift to vegetarian or vegan dietary choices than we’re already seeing, as well as reliance on plant-based meat alternatives.  Student activism could drive this, as well as staff and faculty pressure.

Study abroad: will campus programs seek to avoid areas under increasing climate pressure, as governments issue climate danger warnings?  Or, in contrast, will some universities develop thematic study abroad programs aimed precisely at those areas?  For the latter, imagine Climate Crisis Study Abroad programs, combining humanitarian work (a la Peace Corps) with relevant academic study (area studies, engineering, etc).  Alternatively, if academics decide that long-haul air travel is bad for climate change mitigation, we could cut back on study abroad, perhaps replacing it with sustained virtual work or limiting destinations to areas accessible through low-carbon transportation (i.e., train from Paris to Eastern Europe or Chicago to Mexico).

In the next post I’ll follow up with the fourth category, campuses and the rest of the world.

(thanks to Esty on Mastodon, my Georgetown seminar students, and my wife for further discussion)

(photo credits: Earth in hands by Jasn; fly now, pay later by nez; let’s change the system, not the climate by Jeanne Menjoulet)

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2 Responses to The future of higher education and climate change: part 5

  1. Hi Bryan. Thanks for introducing the project we have underway in B.C. working with multiple universities to develop accessible courses on climate adaptation knowhow for working professionals. Here’s the website:
    As the fires rage, with the electrical power system in shambles in California it seems we are at a tipping point re crisis and awareness of why we all must act. I’m in South Africa right now, observing the impending water crisis, this year in Johannesburg. I’m here with a proposal to work with a university, to roll out Global North/South shared climate action leadership graduate programming.

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