From 2023 to 2024: academia and climate change

2023 is almost through and we prepare ourselves for 2024. Today I’ll continue my reflections on the two years with an emphasis on one topic.  (Here’s my previous post.)

The past year has been the hottest on record, which is pretty widely known around the world, as so many people experienced heat waves, not to mention fires and storms worsened by global warming. Climate change has become more real for a lot of people.  As Bill McKibben writes:

the most important thing that happened this year was the heat. By far. It was hotter than it has been in at least 125,000 years on this planet. Every month since May was the hottest ever recorded. Ocean temperatures set a new all-time mark, over 100 degrees. Canada burned, filling the air above our cities with smoke.

There are other climate developments we can point to, like the recent COP meeting in the United Arab Emirates.  This managed to conclude with some progressive language, although was arguably kneecapped by being dominated by the fossil fuel industry.  Leaders of the United States and China met and agreed to more climate collaboration.  Decarbonization proceeded around the world, albeit unevenly.  Leading climate scientist James Hansen co-authored a controversial paper arguing that the climate was more sensitive to stresses than expected, which might indicate global warming is accelerating.

As a 2023 state of the climate report put it:

Life on planet Earth is under siege. We are now in an uncharted territory. For several decades, scientists have consistently warned of a future marked by extreme climatic conditions because of escalating global temperatures caused by ongoing human activities that release harmful greenhouse gasses into the atmosphere. Unfortunately, time is up.


We are seeing the manifestation of those predictions as an alarming and unprecedented succession of climate records are broken, causing profoundly distressing scenes of suffering to unfold. We are entering an unfamiliar domain regarding our climate crisis, a situation no one has ever witnessed firsthand in the history of humanity.

It’s not hard to find observations like this, pitched to varying degrees of intensity.

And yet the world has responded with what McKibben refers to as… an odd silence.  We’re experiencing a storytelling and mental mapping failure.

(In geological terms, we’re warming at hellish pace; but that’s not how the 24/7 news cycle works.) It’s been record-global-hot every day for months now: the first few of those days got some coverage, but at a certain point editors, and then readers, begin to tune out. We’re programmed—by evolution, doubtless, and in the case of journalism by counting clicks—to look for novelty and for conflict. Climate change seems inexorable, which is the opposite of how we think about news.

In higher education, the subject of my futures work, we’ve seen something similar. Overall, academia considered the climate crisis in 2023 and… blinked.

I traveled a good amount in 2023 after Universities on Fire appeared, visiting campuses and all kinds of academic meetings: for president, campus planners, societies, technologists, etc. I follow discussions amount faculty and staff through various social media platforms, scholarly publications, in-person conferences, and virtual academic meetings. Generally, climate change was not a priority for us this year.

Oh yes, there are climate activists dotted across the higher education landscape.  I follow, learn from, and work with these rare individuals who try energetically to educate and mobilize their peers.  At Society for College and University Planning (the delightfully acronymed “SCUP“) meetings I found campus architects, sustainability officers, planners, and maintenance staff soberly aware of global warming and building it into their plans.  A handful of colleges and universities have taken some steps, setting up new programs and initiatives – independent of financial resources. Cornell University has a campus-community climate group names after my climate book, Cornell on Fire.  Elsewhere in New York a climate campus was announcedTwo campuses changed their electrical power sources and altered buildings. They were all outliers in 2023.

We can think of them according to Rogers’ classic scheme for innovation adoption.  A new idea, like actively responding to the climate crisis, at first only engages a small section of a population, the early adopters:

Rogers diffusion graph

It takes time and quite a few processes for the new thing to cross over into the majorities.

Right now climate is still in that first slice of the academic pie.

Why?  I’ve been asking myself this for years, once I started working on the future of climate change and higher education. I was shocked by how mentioning global warming would kill conversations stone dead most of the time, how rarely the topic appeared in academic discourse.  I’ve barely encountered academics openly resisting the idea – just a few deniers – but instead keep finding the silence Bill McKibben talks about.  Being an extrovert and also someone who learns by asking people stuff, I’ve made a pest of myself and asked academics why climate hasn’t set their hair on fire.

The answers are instructive.  At the top of the academic food chain most presidents assure me that while they are concerned about global warming, they see it as bad campus politics.  They see few upsides and plenty of risk, both to their administrations and also their institutions.  A good number have told me they’ve heard little to no climate interest from their faculty, as well, and don’t think they can push the topic forward without that support.

Faculty and staff usually tell me they don’t see what they could or should do. They feel burned out, for one, by the past decade, and various mixes of stresses: COVID-19, fears for their institution’s or department’s survival, dread about anti-academic attitudes in the population, anxiety about politics of all kinds. Some tell me they have very limited bandwidth for anything other than their immediate teaching, research, and service, and see other priorities for that limited resource.  Many have said they just don’t see what they can do, professionally, about the climate crisis.  Personally they might be a hybrid car, cut down on eating meat, etc., but they feel no traction in their teaching, research, and service.

There is also a sense of resignation.  Climate change is happening, the world will warm, the crisis will escalate, and I can’t do a thing about it as a grants officer/psychologist/assessment dean. (Related note: several professors told me to stop bothering higher ed, because it’s insignificant in the broader picture. Instead I should lobby governments and big corporations.) (Which is interesting, as the Indian government just told higher ed to teach more about climate while American and Chinese leaders assigned their respective academies one global warming task) I’ve heard this attitude from non-academics as well.  Global warming is just baked in now and we’ll deal with it as it comes.  It probably won’t impact us so much as some other people.  Maybe we should buy some insurance to be safe.

Again I say: this isn’t everyone, just most of the ones I’ve heard from and spoken to.

There are some unsurprising differences by age.  Traditional-age students are much more interested in climate.  I’ve had fascinating conversations with 18-24-year-olds about how they see their careers in terms of climate change.  They agonized over having children, dreading to send them into an overheated world. Some have come to me to think about the professions they seek, weighing climate impact and action.  The youngest staff members – again, in their 20s – tend to be climate interested.  Several times A/V workers have sought me out after I’ve given speeches in order to talk about global warming.  It’s young students, after all, who asked their states attorneys general to take action against fossil fuel companies.

On the flip side I’ve heard some odd or depressing comments from people in their 60s on up. One professional researcher told me she was retiring to the Florida coast anyway, even knowing what climate change was going to do to it.  Several have confessed – in private – that they thought climate was a problem for their successors, not for themselves.  The age differences among these academics map well onto polls and surveys of broader populations, which reliably show global warming interest spiking among people under 30.

Where does this leave us?  Possibly academics will gradually come to terms with the climate crisis along the lines I laid out in this blog and in my book on the topic.  The keyword there is “gradually,” as the Millennials and Zers age up through staff and faculty ranks into higher positions of authority.  This might be the work of a decade or two.

Or maybe the change will occur faster than that. For one, humanity as a whole appears to be taking the crisis more seriously every year.  While some climate activists tend to be younger (think of the students hurling paint at artwork, or of Greta Thunberg) their elders have turned the wheels of global power in their direction, albeit slowly.  Decarbonization is picking up speed. National climate goals are now in place for many countries. Climate fiction is starting to appear in print (for example), computer games, movies, and television (for example).

In Rogers’ framework the crucial step for widespread adoption is when those majorities change their minds and adopt the innovation.  They don’t do so for fun or intellectual excitement, like the early adopters.  Instead they come to see a new thing as giving them some enhancement to their lives, often an incremental one, or that the novelty will help them deal with some problems, also incrementally.  Most importantly, they don’t listen to early adopters, but to each other.  Mainstream adoption requires mainstream examples.

Perhaps that’s the route for higher education to grapple with the climate crisis.  It won’t be the Earth scientist or journalist ablaze with climate stories, but the biologist who realizes that the biomes they study are increasingly under threat, or the political scientist who thinks they can better connect with ever-younger students by including climate in their comparative politics classes.  The librarians who start planning how to protect their collections as wet bulb temperatures look to be dangerous in ten years link up with the technologists who fear deploying some new applications because of their carbon footprint. These majoritarians will hear stories like this and this and realize they strike people like themselves.

Or maybe colleges and universities will respond to their (traditional-age) students. Administrators and department chairs may bet that expanding climate-related classes and offering climate programs will find responsive and numerous audiences.  Some academics will want to meet the Greta Thunberg generation where they are and to start researching global warming in their disciplines, bringing that work to class. And maybe some want to get ahead of the political curve, to offer climate opportunities before student protests break out.

Sign on a window: "Eat the rich, not beef"

Sign on a university residence hall window.

…You’ll note that I started this post writing about 2023 and I’ve already become unmoored in time, drifting into the future.  It’s a professional habit, I fear, but one that I hope is useful.  As we peer together around the corner into 2024, I’m going to look for those signs of change, those rising generations, the mainstream mind changes.

Some developments I’ll monitor, based on 2023:

  • Governments at any scale taking actions aimed at higher education
  • Student protests
  • Campuses declaring climate emergencies (although the late 2023 story of campus reactions to the Gaza war suggest senior administrators might prefer silence)
  • Environmental disasters striking physical campuses
  • Vendors of all kinds, from food service to ed tech and publishing, changing or offering new goods and services along climate lines

I’m also looking for campus diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) activists to extend their reach to climate justice.

And meanwhile the early adopters will keep doing their outrageously underappreciated work of researching, teaching, planning, doing service, taking community action, performing public scholarship, organizing, and more.  Some leading campuses will launch or expand climate programs.  Bravo to you all.  May you inspire more.

Let me know what you see as your part of academic confronts the climate crisis.  Together we can make a difference in the face of this epochal challenge.


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12 Responses to From 2023 to 2024: academia and climate change

  1. Thank you for writing about the herd of elephants in the room. I am amazed at how the academic world is so silent about the climate crisis, given the fact that it is our researchers who are giving us the frightening facts. Climate is a guaranteed conversation killer and if it is discussed at all people cling to comforting narratives that there will be a miracle solution – “let’s focus on the positive side”. If the academic community doesn’t acknowledge the work of our own scientists what hope is there that anyone else will. I don’t think we can expect so much from the students either. Most don’t want to discuss climate either. I really don’t know what is needed to wake people up.

    • Dahn Shaulis says:

      Alastair, lots of people know, including those with the power to change things. They have known for decades.

    • Bryan Alexander says:

      I used to think fear would do it, partly because of my research and teaching into horror literature, but that seems to have reached its limit.
      Recently I’ve been trying hope through solarpunk. Small results so far, but I’ll keep on.

  2. Randal Hendee says:

    “We’re experiencing a storytelling and mental mapping failure.”

    Is this your insight, or does McKibben explicitly make this point? To me there’s a crucial deficit of knowledge about the importance of stories, how to tell stories, and how to detect false stories—in classrooms and society at large.

    Thanks in advance for clarifying. Can you direct me to some sources that expand on what you’re saying here? I’ve been researching storytelling in education for several years. Currently working on a book about it.

  3. JAN FREED says:

    Because it was made a political issue people shy away from raising it. Someone is bound to be offended during a flood Democrats, as well as Republicans may lose their homes, but that doesn’t occur to people.

    People will die for an idea. That’s the problem.

    • Bryan Alexander says:

      This is what I’ve heard from senior admin.
      One president told me that their institution’s board was split between pro-fracking and pro-Green folks. So the president stays silent as a way to survive.

  4. Jane says:

    It’s truly alarming to reflect on the gravity of the past year’s climate events, as highlighted in this insightful post. The surge in global temperatures, reaching levels unprecedented in at least 125,000 years, underscores the urgency of addressing climate change. The vivid description of heatwaves, fires, and storms brings home the reality of these environmental challenges for people around the world.

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