My university just announced that it has “begun the collaborative and consultative work to create [its] first institutional Sustainability and Climate Action Plan!” (Exclamatory emphasis theirs). If all goes according to plan, in 20 years we’ll have reduced our scope 1 greenhouse gas emissions by 166 kilotons. That’s about 0.2 percent of our state’s emissions, and 0.003 percent of the country’s.
It is 2023. You probably know the stats. CO2 in our air is at 420 ppm, up 50 percent since we started treating the atmosphere like a sewer. The planet has warmed at least 1.1 °C (1.9 °F).
But do you know the trends? In the last 30 years we have emitted more CO2 into the atmosphere than in the rest of human history. In 2022 alone, CO2 emissions from burning oil and coal increased 3 percent and 2 percent, respectively, while annual government subsidies to fossil fuel corporations doubled, to $1.1 trillion. The trajectory of our greenhouse gas emissions (GHG) and their warming effects are indistinguishable from the no-policy, business-as-usual, avoid-at-all-costs, of-course-this-is-ridiculous-we-would-never worst-case scenario trends imagined for decades. The long-predicted effects of anthropogenic climate change are emerging with the dread of knowing we could have avoided them and the fear that we may fail to avoid much worse to come.
I’m sorry if this increases your climate anxiety, but this is not about serving up hope. It is about responsibility, outrage and what universities could and should be doing.
The hard work of individuals reducing operational carbon footprints of institutions is commendable. But universities could do better in responding to students’ demands for action than helping them install campus recycling and compost bins, build a community garden and lead sustainability tours. That said, I’m sure those efforts would be lauded by the companies that sold us the view that climate change is both much bigger than we are and yet also our own fault, so the best we can do is attend to our own virtue and carbon footprint. These are the companies that include Saudi Aramco, the $1.7-trillion company responsible for more than 4 percent of GHG emissions since 1965, whose greenwashing campaign includes ongoing discussions with my own department for an endowed professorship to help maintain their ability to treat the planet as if it were a business liquidating its inventory and cash out as fast as possible.
As institutions connecting public and private interests and supposedly serving societal good through education, research and community engagement, universities have a unique obligation and pivotal role to play in addressing the grand challenge of climate change and environmental sustainability. Our ability to solve problems and educate citizens may be the best hope society has to actually change systems — including business, policy, economics, law, engineering and technology — that are keys to the collective action we need. But unfortunately, at least on its own, a campus operational sustainability plan is a kind of greenwashing distraction from the responsibility that my — and indeed most — universities have to address the existential crisis facing not only humanity but all the other life and systems with whom we share the planet.
The long-predicted effects of anthropogenic climate change are emerging with the dread of knowing we could have avoided them
A real sustainability plan would engage the gears of a university’s power. We would reconfigure academic structures and strategic plans to provide our students courses, degrees and experiences to change systems and change the power structures that are destroying their future. We would pivot at least some of our energy and experience to use-inspired research and engagement to explore solutions, not just resigned adaptation and “resilience” band-aids to business-as-usual. We would build and incentivize partnerships with governments, private capital, industry and foundations who are shifting their own priorities and resources to find climate and sustainability solutions.
University leaders should be asking what deans and department heads are doing to build initiatives to address the grand challenge and promote our institutions’ and students’ ability to contribute. We should be putting our students front-and-center in all of this, integrating systems thinking and design approaches into what and how we teach, and providing them the skills to propagate positive change in their fields, institutions, corporations, and communities.
In my own area of geosciences, we should stop prioritizing outdated formulaic skills serving oil companies and provide students with experience needed to understand human forcing of Earth systems and creation of a sustainable and responsible resource economy involving critical element production, negative carbon emissions, and subsurface and ocean management.
In history, we should be analyzing the rhetoric and tactics of climate denialists, deflectors, and delayers.
In law, we should be building cases to define and defend communities’ and individuals’ common interests and litigate against private profit off destruction of the environment that sustains us.
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In engineering, the opportunities to solve crucial technical problems of low and negative carbon energy, infrastructure, cleantech and the circular economy are almost limitless and well supported by venture capital and federal investment.
In space we should be designing satellites to monitor and report emissions and collect data that point toward solutions, not just fundamental observations, as valuable and disturbingly accurate as those have been for prediction.
In business we should be researching and equipping our students with knowledge of threats and opportunities of climate change in corporate behavior, financial markets, insurance and banking, in the context of the terrifyingly probability the “tragedy of the horizon” is much closer than business (as usual) realizes.
A real sustainability plan would engage the gears of a university’s power.
We should be engaging with Indigenous communities to help promote sovereignty and responsible conservation of land and water, as well as general understanding of perspectives of the natural systems of which we are a part. We should be teaching students how to effect social change through rallying communities and disrupting business as usual. And we should be divesting from the fossil fuel industry that is laughing at our inability to stop their record profiteering from destruction of what remains of our common resources and environmental security.
You might say that solving climate change and environmental destruction is not the purpose of universities. After all, there certainly are other pressing grand challenges out there: poverty, health, justice, inequality. And clearly direct work on those crucial issues is a key part of the public good that universities must provide. But it is also well documented and increasingly understood that, through its exacerbating effects, anthropogenic climate change is potentially the greatest threat to those qualities of societal wellbeing. Destabilization of fisheries, agriculture, fresh water supplies and other natural systems and ecosystem services are, as we are already seeing, fast paths to conflict, mass migration of unmanageably larger numbers of desperate people, hunger, injustice and creeping eco-fascism.
There are many possible reasons why universities have been slow to respond to the climate change and environmental crisis. Stewart et al.’s (2022) treatise Re-Purposing Universities for Sustainable Human Progress is an excellent source of insight and pathway for change. As with climate change itself, responsibility for the inertia preventing us from rising to the challenge is broad. It includes leaders and faculty hewing to traditional and familiar paths of teaching and scholarship and a sense of entitlement to the sacred singular pursuit of “pure” curiosity-driven research, wherever that may lead. But the rate at which climate change and environmental destruction are pulling the rug out from under everything we rely on is too fast and the stakes are too high, for business as usual.
We are doing our students and society a tremendous disservice by greenwashing our obligations with operational sustainability plans and then sticking to the traditional academic script. Nowhere is this clearer than how climate change is affecting those least responsible for it. Recently, a First Nations Chief whose traditional territory is crossed by several LNG pipelines and was devastated by a huge mega-fire five years ago told a group of us that “universities teach students to destroy the world.” If we cannot figure out how to use our expertise, skills, experience, perspective, and sense of responsibility to help lead society to a sustainable future, what good are we?
about climate and sustainability