One example of climate change directly impacting higher education

Climate change has fallen away from public attention this season, given the demands of other issues. I’m still tracking it, though, with an eye towards its impact on higher education, the subject of my next book. In that vein, today I’d like to draw your attention to one story.

The United States Army Corps of Engineers just published a plan to help protect Florida’s Miami-Dade county against water damage cause by climate change: increasing storms and rising sea levels of up to three feet by 2080.

It’s an ambitious plan, covering more than 100 square miles:

There are several interesting details about the plan in terms of climate mitigation. For example, it’s a second version plan, reduced from the first. It

walks back some of the costs and solutions the Corps had previously proposed — most notably, the notion of buying out hundreds of homes and turning them into parks or open spaces.

That helped drop the total proposed cost down to a projected $4.6 billion, instead of the $8 billion price tag on the September version of the plan.

This means the structure, if built successfully, will only protect against some water damage, not all:

[T]his plan is only designed to block storm surge from a 1 in 100 year storm surge event by 2079, with the extra storm surge that comes with the three feet of sea rise by then. Thomas Ruppert, a coastal planning specialist with Florida Sea Grant, pointed out that won’t do anything to protect homes and streets from the tidal floods that are already becoming more common and worse.

There is also the political ruckus involved in some of the construction, which requires “easements and land purchases for the walls and flood barriers, which the Corps expects to be a $405 million expense.”

My focus here is not on Florida politics, as fascinating as they can be, but on higher education. What does this plan tell us about climate change and campuses?

I haven’t started my mapping work yet (mapping campuses which are most in danger of rising seas, desertification, or expanding prairies), but I can use Google Maps to find colleges and universities in the Miami area:

I count Barry University, Carlos Albizu University, Florida Memorial University, Florida National University, Johnson and Wales University, Miami Ad School, Miami Dade College, Miami International University of Art & Design, Nova Southeastern University, St. Thomas University, Talmudic University, and the University of Miami. Some of these have more than one campus in the Miami area.

I think the one farthest from the sea is FIU’s College of Law, which looks about 10 miles from the waters. Nearest are — well, a bunch. Let me zoom in:

So right away, at first glance, we can see a group of colleges and universities in physical danger from the oceanic effects of climate change for the rest of this century. Some would be swamped by sea level rise. All will face risks and damage as hurricanes and other storms, worsened by climate change, slam into the county.

Notice that I wrote “oceanic effects of climate change.” Think about temperatures as well. Miami usually hits in the upper 80s and low 90s during summer, although humidity makes it much worse. Those temps have been rising of late. As the 2000s wear on and heat increases, Miami’s colleges and universities will have to work harder to cool their building interiors, which is both expensive and an additional call on electrical resources. Will they reconfigure campus buildings to reduce these costs, an investment against the Anthropocene?

Which brings us to campus responses. In my Universities on Fire plan I offered an outline of possible strategies and reactions. Let’s work through them.

Uprooting the campus. How will Miami campuses rethink their physical plants? If they plan to remain in the area, what kinds of protection will they need against rising waters and temperatures? How will designs for new buildings and renovations of old ones change to meet these needs? Should schools reconfigure transportation to block vehicles powered by fossil fuels? Should food services source more locally and/or increase vegetarian/vegan offerings?

Or is this all too much? One option would be to relocate out of Miami-Dade and set up shop in a safer location.

Doing research in the Anthropocene. Some faculty at each of these ocean-facing campuses already conduct research in relevant areas — hydrology, civil engineering, environmental sociology, earth science, etc. Perhaps these colleges and universities will increase that research through hiring, promotion, and support.

Teaching to the end of the world. Some of these campuses offer classes in relevant fields. Will enrollment in those area rise in parallel with the ocean? Maybe one or more schools will decide to take advantage of their position and expand offerings. We could see an undergraduate certificate or grad program in climate change mitigate appear, with part of the attraction being able to work right at the coal face or ground zero of the Anthropocene.

Town, gown, deserts, and rising sea levels. I mentioned city and county politics up above, and really don’t know anything about the particulars. Would campuses have to pay for part of the Corps’ work? What kinds of political tension could open up as city, county, college, and university policies diverge? What are the options for student service learning on this topic: working on seawalls?

Academia versus the world. As the crisis builds, what role will Miami area faculty, staff, and students play? Would students — for example — lobby for the city’s airport to cut back flights (after COVID, of course) to reduce emissions? Or would campuses open up as climate sanctuaries as refugees appear, driven from points south as temperature rises lash those nations?

Worst case scenario. The plan I linked to assumes a sea rise of up to three feet by 2080. What happens if that’s too optimistic? Are Miami colleges and universities considering how their plans have to change if climate change speeds up, due to any number of factors?

To repeat: I’m not an expert in Miami’s higher education ecosystem. I’ve read about some of the institutions and know some folks at a couple of campuses, but that’s about it. I don’t think I’ve set foot on any of them. Heck, I’ve only visited Miami a few times.

That said, the Corps’ report gives us an example of a group of colleges and universities in the very teeth of climate change. Think about other areas worldwide where academia is physically situated within miles of rising seas — or expanding deserts, or widening prairies, or where temperatures can rise to dangerous levels.

How will academia respond? This may be our greatest strategic challenge for the rest of the 21st century.

(cross-posted to my blog)



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Bryan Alexander

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