How will higher education respond to climate change? Part 1

How will higher education change in the age of climate crisis?

This is a very large topic. Academia is a large, sprawling, disorganized ecosystem. Climate change presents enormous complexity, as do the many ways humanity can respond. Their intersection is multi-leveled, multi-sided, diverse, and likely unstable in many ways.

With this post I’d like to begin exploring the topic and open up a conversation. I’m going to blog about different aspects of the issue this week, starting with the nature of the involved academic population. (So if you find a point missing from one post, check the others to see if I touched on it there) Then I’ll move on to introduce the role of the physical campus; next, the academic mission; finally, intersections with the rest of the world. Depending on how this goes, I hope to follow up with more posts, Future Trends Forum sessions, and possibly other projects.

This week’s post series has some strict scoping. It covers global higher education, with some emphasis on American colleges and universities.* Its timeline covers the next two generations, or roughly from now to 2080 or so. It assumes a worldwide environmental change baseline of two degrees of global temperature increase, a significantly greater incidence of extreme weather, some stresses to food and water supplies, and economic fluctuations.

I would also like to bear in mind the potential scope and impact of human responses to climate change. Their combined scale within this scope could reach as high as, for comparison’s sake: post-1949 Chinese leaderships’ successive drives to reform that nation; the developing world’s 20th century decolonization; 19th century European colonization of much of the world; the combined US and Soviet space races. The American Marshall Plan seems medium-sized in this context.** These human movements may have as much impact on academia than changes in the nonhuman world.

For reasons of time, I’m not going to start with an introduction to climate change or an overview of its likely impacts over this period, although I will work elements of these in at different points as needed. There are plenty of easily available resources that will address introductory purposes. I’m also not going to engage climate change deniers or critics. These posts are about how higher education responds, rather than being about the science per se.

There are other big topics I have to exclude or minimize for reasons of time and focus. The Fourth Industrial Revolution, black swans, demographic transition, some geopolitical currents — I’d like to return to those in other posts, tracing out their intersections with an academia transforming during climate crisis.

Let’s start.

1. Who is involved when academia confronts the climate crisis?

To begin with, there is the question of who will decide how academia responds to climate change and how it participates in mitigation. This is a strategic question, and one which traditionally involves presidents and deans, along with trustees (for private institutions) or governments (for public ones).

Faculty can also contribute through their governance function, but that varies depending on a given school’s culture, faculty organization, and to what extent there exists a critical mass of professors with tenure protections. Additionally, professors can also shape policy based on their research expertise (Earth science, sociology, finance, etc.). This may take the form of campus study groups or formal institutes. On the other hand, if the adjunctification of the professoriate continues, at least in the United States, the faculty role in campus climate change strategy will recede.

To what extent will students shape campus strategy? If Generation Z’s current political profile bears out, we should expect some degree of student activism in colleges and universities that primarily serve traditional-age learners.

Those teaching a larger adult population will experience a different politics, depending on how that population balances its priorities. If today’s sociology of work (precarious positions, increasing part time labor) persists or deepens, then all students will have to juggle employment and activism. Students may also use climate approaches to help them determine which schools to apply to.

All other campus populations — i.e., staff — may be involved as well. IT, for instance, works exceedingly closely with questions of electrical power, not to mention aspects of campus facilities. Librarians maintain a significant physical presence on physical and digital grounds, and therefore are subject to risk and mitigation. They also help render access to climate change information. Development officers may face new directions for fund-raising. Grants and compliance officers may face new governmental regulations. Lobbyists and communications staff must work with a changing environment. Everyone working on a school’s physical plant confronts potential challenges.

Each of these populations have interests in common with the others, starting with the most political and basic: how to survive and grow. More narrowly we might anticipate:

  • the rise of professional development around climate change;

That’s for on-campus populations. Many others are likely to be involved beyond an institution’s students and employees, once we consider stakeholders and academically-adjacent sectors: businesses (publishers, ed tech companies, consultants), professional associations, nonprofits, foundations, governments, and local communities. For the latter, we should consider how climate change impacts town-gown relations.

Some of these populations are charged with long-term strategy. This is precisely the mission of private institutions’ trustees, for example. Some presidents view their mission in this light. Governments both local and national accept this charge, even if they carry it out poorly in practice. Foundations often see themselves in this light, along with some donors. I suspect many of these groups currently seek to learn more about the unfolding crisis, either publicly or quietly, and are eager to start taking necessary strategic steps. This is a terrific time for collaboration and education.

…and more posts are on the way. I’m aiming for one per day this week.

*The US focus (as a measure of partial attention) is due to my having spent the past year+ working on Academia Next, which is about American higher ed. Now that that’s in print, I can return to my prior level of global analysis.

**My selection of these examples is meant to illustrate scale, not to indicate political endorsement.

(cross-posted to my blog; thanks to John Kellden for a pointer; thanks to Tom Haymes for reading; many thanks to my Patreon supporters for thoughtful conversations; Earth photo by NASA Goddard; protest photo by Stanley Zimny)

Originally published at on October 14, 2019.

Futurist, speaker, writer, consultant, educator. Author of the FTTE report and ACADEMIA NEXT. Creator of The Future Trends Forum.