Two stories for climate change and higher education

How will climate change impact the future of higher education?

In this post I’ll share two news stories that I think are useful prompts for this futures work, each in some different ways.  Both are behind paywalls, so I’ll summarize and excerpt for those who don’t have access.

(This is part of my ongoing series exploring climate change, education, and the future)

1: Campus climate activists versus state government and more

The Chronicle of Higher Ed reports on how the University of Iowa canceled a campus visit from star climate change activist Greta Thunberg.  The short version is that when news of Thunberg’s visit broke, a UI professor, Michelle M. Scherer, advertised it on Facebook.  A campus official opposed this.

The long version is more interesting, and includes a variety of key points.

The specific event in question involves three different themes in terms of practice and rhetoric:

  • climate change as politics: “a member of the college’s marketing team vetoed the idea, arguing that a notice about Thunberg’s visit would violate the university’s policy against promoting political causes.”
  • climate change as just scientific research and pedagogy, and hence apolitical.  “[professor] Scherer disagreed. ‘Climate change is science,’ she said.”
  • climate change as student activism: “students in [professor Scherer’s] classes were excited about Thunberg’s visit and engaged in the idea of climate action…”

The context around this one, small story adds further dimensions to the intersection of academia and climate change.  For instance, there’s the question of how campus leadership approaches the problem, and community dissatisfaction with that stance:

[C]ritics of the university’s alleged timidity are struck that its president, Bruce Harreld, has not publicly committed to mitigating climate change since a 2017 announcement that the campus would go coal-free in 2025. The announcement never uses the phrase “climate change.”

Then there’s the aspect of state government.  As a public university, UI has a close relationship with that legislature, even as the latter reduces funding to the former.  Since Des Moines went fully Republican with Trump, one might expect pressure on public academics to soft-pedal or stop all climate change action, and there’s some evidence that this is already occurring:

[I]n 2017, the legislature zeroed out the budgets of two longstanding university research centers addressing climate change: Iowa State University’s Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture and the University of Iowa’s Center for Global and Regional Environmental Research. Republican politicians originally proposed eliminating the University of Iowa’s Flood Center as well, before settling on a 20-percent budget cut.

“We saw what happened to the Leopold Center. There are more screws that can be turned tighter,” [University of Iowa corn geneticist] Erin Irish said, in comments that were typical of many The Chronicle interviewed.

Once more the use of “politics” as an academic management tactic:

“I’m sure anybody that’s thinking about how this is going to be perceived in Des Moines is thinking: Let’s stay safely in the lane that does not look like we’re being political,” Irish said.

Yet one UI representative insists on its independence:

The university’s interactions with legislators mostly concern appropriations, and climate doesn’t typically come up, Peter Matthes, vice president for external relations and senior adviser to the president, wrote in an email. “The university has never avoided the topic or asked a UI researcher to avoid speaking about the topic for fear of offending a legislator,” he added.

Francie Diep, the article’s author, poses good questions along these lines:

The situation at Iowa, not unique among public universities, raises key questions: What happens when what your legislature wants is at odds with your student body or your faculty? What happens as state universities’ budgets shrink, while the politicization of academic knowledge grows?

Student government also came into the story.  Last year Iowa student activists took one climate change step, and an entirely symbolic one, which nevertheless elicited pushback from off campus:

In 2018, members of the student government handed out fliers encouraging their peers not to eat meat on Mondays, as a climate-protecting measure. The move drew an enormous backlash, with livestock farmers complaining to the state’s Board of Regents, which oversees the university.

Note the threat perceived by students:

“I have never been told what to do by central admin, but internally, as student government, we’ve decided an initiative is not worth risking our state funding,” said Noel Mills, president of the Undergraduate Student Government.

As I keep saying, climate change is an issue that’s often about town-gown relations.  And “town” doesn’t just mean the immediate neighborhood.,

2. Giving up some land to rising waters

The New York Times reports on some hard decisions being made in the Florida Keys.  It’s a small case but one we’ll probably see reflected elsewhere and at scale.

The key issue: it’s difficult to mount climate change mitigation efforts when only a few people are involved.

Florida Keys_Art N

Rhonda Haag, the county’s sustainability director, released the first results of the county’s yearslong effort to calculate how high its 300 miles of roads must be elevated to stay dry, and at what cost. Those costs were far higher than her team expected — and those numbers, she said, show that some places can’t be protected, at least at a price that taxpayers can be expected to pay.

“I never would have dreamed we would say ‘no,’” Ms. Haag said in an interview. “But now, with the real estimates coming in, it’s a different story. And it’s not all doable.”

Listen to that last phrase again: “it’s not all doable.”  Why not?  Let’s look at details:

The results released Wednesday focus on a single three-mile stretch of road at the southern tip of Sugarloaf Key, a small island 15 miles up Highway 1 from Key West. To keep those three miles of road dry year-round in 2025 would require raising it by 1.3 feet, at a cost of $75 million, or $25 million per mile. Keeping the road dry in 2045 would mean elevating it 2.2 feet, at a cost of $128 million. To protect against expected flooding levels in 2060, the cost would jump to $181 million.

And all that to protect about two dozen homes.

“I can’t see staff recommending to raise this road,” Ms. Haag said. “Those are taxpayer dollars, and as much as we love the Keys, there’s going to be a time when it’s going to be less population.”

The rest of the article focuses on the inhabitants of those two dozen homes, appropriately.  But what does this mean for education’s future?

First, think about this story in terms of town-gown relations.  Some campuses are located in regions likely to be hit by climate change, through rising waters (like the Keys), desertification, and more.  When local authorities determine that they cannot save spots in those regions, what is higher ed’s role?  Should relevant academic fields (such as political science, urban studies, sociology, history, engineering, ethnic studies) take a role in aiding, or at least documenting, the new sacrifice zones?  We can imagine campus activism along these lines, or agitation aimed at coaxing an institution into providing other assistance, such as shelters.  On the other hand, if a locality decides to help protect college and university properties, should we expect non-academics to become more resentful?

Second, extend the Florida Keys story to colleges and universities themselves.  Think of how a campus threatened by climate change has to plan.  Should an institution seek to preserve its entire corpus, or are there some grounds, buildings, and other facilities simply not worth the cost of protection?  How does a campus leadership make that call, weighing historical value, practical use, estimated cost?  We can imagine alumni and the current on-site population having overlapping ideas of what’s valued.  We could also see a capital campaign aimed at preserving certain campus sites against rising temperatures/water/desert.

…Now, these are two small stories.  One involves a tiny bit of just one American state out of 50, while the other concerns only a single campus out of 4,400 or so (and that’s just in the US).  So I don’t want to put too much pressure on them.  But they do have some indicative power.  Florida is at the leading edge of climate change in the US, based on its characteristics.  Iowa is a big state university, and about 2/3rds of American higher ed is public.

If we put these stories together and – for a moment – consider them signals of an emerging future, we can draw out some potential ways for climate change to impact higher ed in the rest of the 21st century:

  • Political tensions about climate change and its responses between students, faculty, senior administration, state governments, and business.
  • Budgets and funding as crucial battlegrounds.
  • Long-term analysis and planning – i.e., futures work – stirs political waves in the present.
  • Academic autonomy is at stake, including for individuals and institutions.
  • Climate change seems likely to remain a strictly partisan issue for a least a while.  It is also an aspect of the American culture wars.
  • Lane language (“Let’s stay safely in the lane”) seems to be rising in general.

One more note: I’m not sure of the viability of referring to climate change as apolitical science.  First, not everyone sees science as apolitical – I mean people across the political spectrum, right to left.  Second, while the analysis of climate change can be construed as narrowly scientific, responses to it are certainly political, from civic engineering to public budgeting.  Third, if climate change is this caught up in the culture wars, I don’t see extricating it.

What do you all make of these stories?  And is it helpful when I share some stuff from behind paywalls?

(Iowa seal from Wikipedia; Florida Keys by Art N.)

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1 Response to Two stories for climate change and higher education

  1. Erin Kazee says:

    Yes, it’s very useful when you share from behind the paywall. Thanks for your thoughtful analysis.

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