How will higher education respond to climate change? Part 2

Bryan Alexander
Oct 15 · 6 min read

This post continues my series on higher education and climate change. Here’s the first post; more are coming over the course of this week.

On campus: the physical institution

One of the major areas these decision-makers will have to work through is how colleges and universities can make their facilities more sustainable. We have already seen early examples of this, with new buildings constructed along less energy devouring lines (i.e., LEED certified and NetZero), some local production of solar and wind power, and growing local produce. Some Nigerian universities now create their own power from solar and refuse-derived fuel (RDF) gasification plants.

Campuses could go further and discourage use of gas-burning cards through shrinking parking spaces, turning lots and garages to other purposes, like greenspaces, maker hubs, and offices. Schools can offer more charging stations for electric cars, and support more mass transit options. Some will have to make walking easier and safer: more paths, pedestrian bridges, better lighting. New buildings will look and function differently than the ones we are accustomed to as they use less carbon in their construction and operation.

The physical plant will change. Campus appearances as a whole will change, as will our lived experience of those spaces. Academic aesthetics will therefore change, as what we value shifts. How much heat does a Georgian building waste? Are numerous solar panels and tall wind turbines attractive for academic grounds? Are vines the best plant to grow across a facade? Is a Passivhaus appealing as a place for people to study and live? Will we expect gentle streams along which students might wander to come equipped with low head hydropower turbines? How many gardens, how many compost piles will we deem acceptable for university grounds? How many lawns should we allow, and how many turn to other uses: vegetables, trees, solar collectors?

I can imagine campuses reducing their digital work in order to draw down their carbon footprint. The most energy intensive services should be the first to be restricted. That could include videoconferencing and immersive VR/AR/MR, in which case distance collaboration could shift to less carbon-intensive forms (think discussion board). Or campuses could get seriously retro and ask people to connect primarily face-to-face, preferably after traveling in a low-carbon way: train, blimp, or slow boat to campus and stay there.

IT departments will be under enormous pressure as their institutions grapple with climate change. They will have to support increasing amounts of remote interaction while not using too much carbon. Cloud computing should come in handy, especially for disaster-prone areas. Policies to discourage paper printing may succeed as academic populations become more concerned about the problem. As 3d printing grows more attention will be aimed at making that more sustainable — i.e., reducing power drains, recycling feedstock, reducing the number of objects printed.

Further, some institutions may consider relocating inland and/or upwards and/or north as part of what some observers have dubbed The Great Climate Exodus. As temperatures and sea levels rise, certain area may become untenable, in the eyes of campus leaders: coastlines, zone prone to aridification. For example, one view of coastline changes in North America:

Think how many colleges and universities line those freshly indundated coasts.

Or consider the distribution of colleges and universities across these other, challenged areas:

So where will the Great Academic Migration take us? Inland is an obvious direction, away from threatened coasts. This could drive schools to formerly less desirable lands, like Appalachia or the midwest. Colleges and universities may also seek altitude, so look to mountains: the Cascades, the Rockies, or, once more, to Appalachia. North may be a good direction, heading away from rising heat and growing deserts: the upper midwest, upper New England, the Dakotas. Will United States institutions seek Canadian grounds? Conversely, climate-threatened lands owned or occupied by institutions may drop in value. This could be a boon for those who pay property taxes of various sorts, or gut a school’s ability to get financing. Think of the impact on campuses seeking strategic partnerships, with climate crisis situation playing a key role in negotiations.

Consider these projections of changes to Europe, and recall the distribution of universities across those nations:

Consider southeast Asia:

What I called the Great Academic Migration looks like a planetary event.

The financial demands of climate change response can become complex as well as enormous. Campuses confront significant new charges for operations and physical plant revamping. Classic means for fundraising will be available, if perhaps stressed due to the general crisis: fundraising; bonding; tuition and fee increases; lobbying for increased public support. What kind of new financial instruments will appear, aimed for just this kind of capital need? Further, how will insurance companies react? They will certainly provide policies against climate stresses. They could also alter fees and payouts to incentivize campus behaviors.

That’s a kind of normative approach to financial needs, but not all times will be that stable. Add to the mix chances of recessions or depressions, some driven or deepened by climate events. We should also assume the other fluctuations afflicting higher ed economics: enrollment changes, reputational hits, etc.

Will campuses be able to make the necessary business and political cases to support this? What kind of assistance can they expect from local governments and nonprofits? How many businesses will spring up to assist campuses in climate change adaptation? Which NGOs will work along these lines? At least one nonprofit is presently campaigning to get 30 colleges and universities receiving all of their energy from renewables. These organizations’ interactions with campus populations can become fractious or complex.

Other strategic dimensions appear, the further we look into the topic. We could imagine campuses competing with each other on their climate change engagement. There are already lists of “most sustainable colleges,” like this one. Universities could showcase new buildings and academic programs aimed at various aspects of the climate crisis to attract students, faculty, staff, and funding. Perhaps a climate change arms race will succeed the amenities competition.

Beyond competition is another driver for campus investment in the climate crisis: the possibility of getting caught unprepared. Shawna Brandle reflected on the experience of one CUNY campus in the (literal) wake of Hurricane Sandy:

The specter of climate-change-driven outages and damage can drive leadership to take strategic steps.

…and more blog posts to come, including connections between climate change and the academic mission, then intersections with the rest of the world.

PS: greetings to students in this class,

(thanks to John Kellden for a pointer; thanks to Tom Haymes for reading; many thanks to my Patreon supporters for thoughtful conversations)


Originally published at https://bryanalexander.org on October 15, 2019.

Bryan Alexander

Written by

Futurist, speaker, writer, consultant, educator. Author of The FTTE report, THE NEW DIGITAL STORYTELLING, and GEAR UP FOR LEARNING BEYOND K-12.

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