One university’s climate change plan

How might higher education grapple with the climate crisis?

One example recently appeared from Harvard University.* A campus group there issued recommendations for how that institution could approach the problem. I’d like to summarize, then analyze, that document here.


Harvard climate education report cover 2022At the top level “The Future of Climate Education at Harvard University” concerns itself with teaching and learning. The tl;dr version: there should be a lot more climate crisis teaching.

The report calls specifically for four institutional changes within their university:

  1. Hiring more faculty to fully support rising student interests.
  2. Setting up a standing committee on climate education.  This might advocate for new climate programs, recommend changes to general education, and support cross-disciplinary collaboration.
  3. Creating an internal investment group, or “a climate education accelerator program.”  That could fund a lot of work, such as bringing in external speakers, supporting internal collaboration and connections, building a clearinghouse for university climate information, supporting residential learning changes, assessing and supporting new technologies, researching new degree possibilities, and connecting alumni to current students.
  4. Installing “an external climate education advisory committee.”  This would be good for garnering information and funding.

Given those four steps, the proposal calls for a series of themes, practices, and projects.

At a quantitative level, the basic idea is to have more teaching about the climate crisis: more classes, more programs, more certification options.  This entails hiring more faculty for the purpose.

Some of that education should occur within departments, but other parts of climate teaching should cross disciplinary boundaries:

the challenges posed by climate change are multifaceted and they span and embrace all disciplines. This means that the climate education tent must be large: no one area or discipline owns this space, rather contributions across the board are needed.

(“no one area or discipline owns this space” is a good phrase.  That’s something I’ve been arguing for a while, and is a theme in Universities on Fire.)   Wrangling multi- and interdisciplinary work for a large university involves some complexity. Accordingly, structurally, the document calls for more university-wide climate education cohesion and coordination.  It describes a pretty difficult terrain to work through:

At the level of new degree programs, a cross-School masters in climate and sustainability, for example, could draw on expertise housed in multiple schools including Harvard Business School, Harvard Kennedy School, and the Graduate School of Design as well as the experience of the Division of Continuing Education (the Extension School). Establishing pathways from undergraduate studies to Masters, Ph.D., and other programs (e.g., specialized certificates) is another substantial opportunity…

It cites one interdisciplinary center approvingly.

“The Future of Climate Education at Harvard University” addresses changes to student life as well as to faculty operations.  It applauds student peer learning:

The efficacy of peer learning is well documented, extends across disciplines, and has an important intellectual and institutional history at Harvard. The importance of involving students directly in climate education is amplified by the multifaceted nature of the climate challenge ahead. Our students come from diverse backgrounds and communities and therefore experience climate related issues in different ways. Furthermore, students who come to Harvard study in different programs and enroll at different career stages. The opportunity for business school students to learn from engineering students or for Harvard College students to learn from public policy students, for example, yields tangible benefits for everyone. Importantly, these exchanges might happen in classes, as part of research projects, or as part of joining a club or attending a public event. Bringing together these student experiences and perspectives will enhance the learning experience.

Former students – alumni – play a role in this vision, too.  Plenty are willing, it seems: “In our survey, 80% of alumni respondents expressed interest in playing a role in climate education opportunities for current Harvard students.”  Alumni could act “as a guest speaker in courses, suggesting project ideas, partnering on class projects, and mentoring.”  There is, apparently, planning for an “alumni-focused Climate Boot Camp.” The report wants such alumni work done systematically and in a structured way.

The report makes a point of not limiting this expanded teaching mission to faculty and students. It hails staff as well:

The Harvard community is rich with scholars who, in many cases, have real-world expertise relevant to climate challenges but who do not hold teaching appointments. Included in this group are postdoctoral and research fellows, research staff, museum curators, librarians, and other qualified employees who work in programs such as the Office of Sustainability or the residential Houses. These individuals represent an important resource for our students and community.

Involving staff more actively in teaching will take funding:

Yet in many cases their time is fully committed to job-specific projects, and thus they are unable to devote significant time to other educational endeavors. Finding ways to support the engagement of relevant staff in climate education will enhance the breadth of hands-on and experiential learning opportunities available to students.

The report goes further still, calling on the campus to integrate co-curricular and extracurricular events into this new climate education system.  This will, of course, require “increase[d] coordination between class content and external experience and interests.”

Such out of class work includes residential learning, through the school’s “House” system.  That means more coordination, I expect.  It may involve students experimenting with climate-related lifestyle changes:

residential Houses could provide a testbed for students to grapple with their own willingness to make the changes necessary to reduce their climate impact as well as how to be part of a diverse community in which others make different choices.

Further, the report calls for making more use of the campus as a resource beyond classrooms and dorms: “Harvard is home to an amazing array of natural history collections and research sites that include the Museum of Comparative Zoology, the Harvard University Herbaria, the Arnold Arboretum, and the Harvard Forest.”

Making an upgraded climate education available will require improved advising and curricular structures.  First, the report calls on the university to “build out clearer pathways for students across the University who seek some level of specialization around climate but who might not want to join a concentration specifically dedicated to this.

Second, there’s a digital component:

Every student-facing advisor, program officer, etc, could be equipped every semester with an up-to-date digital playbook of opportunities for students who express an interest in climate. Further, members of the Harvard community and beyond should have access to a portal representing climate related events and news from Harvard.

The report doesn’t expand on the technological side, although it does recommend the institution offer “interactives and even simulations/games [which] can be created and reused across a range of courses.

The report would like such expanded learning to be certified in expanded ways.  It asks not only for more degree options in climate change, but also for smaller credentials: “certificate programs that would enable these students to add a year and take courses in the climate domain that would complement their core masters degree.”

The report also would like to see climate impacts on the career level.  Climate internships and summer work options need to increase. Students need better information about them.  Then career services can connect more students to climate-related jobs.

All of this work would occur within the higher education accreditation system. Here the report doesn’t express any concerns about being evaluated, but instead thinks they might influence other institutions through accrediting agencies and processes:

Harvard also sits within various accreditation institutions that could be encouraged to work with us to develop systematic approaches to articulating climate related competencies that we want our students to have as they enter the world. Can Harvard along with other organizations help to codify the importance of certain competencies and skills as they relate to climate?



As a call to expand climate teaching there’s a lot to appreciate in “The Future of Climate Education at Harvard University” for the rest of us not affiliated with that institution.  The very fact of calling for more such teaching and learning is badly needed and will hopefully inspire others.

The model the report outlines looks very sound, albeit grounded in an extraordinarily wealthy institution. Offering new credentials, creating climate curricular pathways, improving advising, expanding internships, boosting climate career support, connecting with staff, mobilizing willing alumni – other institutions may see ways to follow some or most of these in the near term future. Growing climate programming in dorms and student life just makes sense for colleges and universities with significant residential components, even without the Hogwarts level of hall structure.  That all such growth requires financial support should be obvious, but it’s useful to see a document stating this very clearly.  That this would also require some coordination should also be clear, yet realizing this will depend greatly on individual campus cultures.

The report is primarily an intrapreneurial document, as far as I understand it.  While it is publicly accessible, it is clearly aimed at winning internal Harvard funds to set up three internal bodies with the power to expand climate education.  I don’t know that school’s politics well enough to forecast the likelihood of success.  The document could also serve as a more generally entrepreneurial purpose in helping raise external funds for purpose from companies, foundations, high net worth individuals, etc.

In terms of climate change and higher education the report has a very narrow focus.  In my research I’ve laid out multiple ways for campuses to grapple with the crisis, visualized roughly here:

How higher education engages with the climate crisis_overall

“The Future of Climate Education at Harvard University” is largely focused in the teaching box, which makes sense for scoping reasons.  It does touch on campus grounds through its call to use certain non-classroom buildings. It connects with research early on, but only insofar as faculty conduct research and teach. There are several nods to the nation and world through mobilizing off-campus alumni, setting up internships and jobs, and working with the accreditation system. Otherwise, the bulk of the report is about teaching.

It’s a bit unfair to criticize the document for what it deems out of scope (“here’s what I think they should have also said”) but I think it’s worth thinking beyond the pdf given the scale and urgency of the climate crisis, especially to the extent that this document influences academics in the rest of the world.

To begin with, there isn’t much room for addressing anyone else’s agency. Students appear in the report with a single demand – more climate education! – but we don’t see them doing anything else.  In those pages students don’t demand that the university endowment divest from fossil fuel stocks, although they certainly do, and that’s a very hard-fought struggle.  The report doesn’t see students protesting, say, faculty research which they deem worsens global warming, or pursues controversial geoengineering, or serving too much meat and too many animals products for meals.

Beyond campus students, the report doesn’t envision Harvard being impacted by the outside world on climate issues.  We could easily imagine, say, a state mandate to increase green power production and Harvard setting up solar arrays, wind turbines, etc., and how student learning could benefit from that.

At a different level, the report doesn’t see Harvard as making the crisis worse, either historically or at present. To what extent do its graduates go on to work in – or run – fossil fuel companies, or financial firms which gladly support such extractive industries?  Does Harvard’s approach to the economy, seen in its business school and placing students along Wall Street, contribute to the neoliberal political economy which clearly accelerates greenhouse gas emissions?  How many Harvard graduates and allies actively deny the crisis?

At a ground level, the report doesn’t speak to climate threats to those campus buildings or to the local community’s. To what extent will the Harvard community have to confront the rising Atlantic, increasing wet bulb temperatures in half the year, and worsening winter storms in the other half?  Practically, these are vital questions. Yet the report could have touched on them as precisely located within its call for climate education.  As I’ve said before, think of the internship, career, and research opportunities for a campus community and a nearby seawall, or creating cooling and warming shelters.

Perhaps Harvard instructors will instill in students the combination of knowledge, skills, self-reflection, and urgency needed to go out into the world and fight like demons to reform civilization in this enormous crisis. Maybe grads will become known as activists who work hard for adaptation and mitigation.  I don’t get that sense from the report, but perhaps I’m not charitable enough. Further, maybe expanding climate teaching will encourage Harvard faculty and staff to use their status and resources to intervene in local and global debates, becoming activists and public intellectuals to help humanity redesign civilization in the worsening Anthropocene.  Again, I don’t get that sense from the document, but maybe I missed it.

Earlier I’ve shared this “compass” visualization of how campuses might plan their climate course:

Campus climate change compass

Given the very limited scope of this report, I’d place this very close to the Conservation pole, since it doesn’t ask for fundamental university changes in the climate crisis. It does respond to the crisis in a basic way, but without asking for any substantial mitigative actions, so we can locate it slightly towards the Adaptation pole.  i.e., it recognizes the building crisis and asks for some actions in response:

Campus climate change compass visualization Harvard report 2022

I would love to hear what others make of the report.  I would also be delighted to host the report’s authors for conversation on this blog or on the Future Trends Forum.

(thanks to the Last Humans group for thinking through this report with me)

*I recognize the problems in paying attention to Harvard University as one institution among the world’s 20,000 or so.  Harvard is an exceptional campus in many ways with a talent for grabbing publicity about anything it does, and I hesitate before adding to that tendency. Some of you know I would rather discuss less media-centric institutions, notably community colleges and non-flagship state universities.

And yet I think this is worth our consideration, for several reasons.  First, perhaps Harvard’s reputation can work to the good if this report inspires more such work from other universities. Second, institutions without Harvard’s riches and cultural clout – i.e., just about every single one of them – might benefit if that university uses some of its extraordinary resources to innovate.

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