The future of higher education and climate change: part 4

Bryan Alexander
Oct 17 · 6 min read

Here I’d like to continue this week’s series of posts on higher ed, the future, and climate change. (Previous posts concern campus populations, campus facilities, and the academic mission.)

4. Campus and the off campus world

Colleges and universities are not alone in climate change mitigation and adaptation, of course. As noted earlier, many other entities are likely to be involved, stakeholders and academically-adjacent sectors: businesses (publishers, ed tech companies, consultant), associations, nonprofits, governments, and local communities. Public climate change efforts can be available to, or collaborate with, academic institutions, like this Maryland educational project. Connections to local religious organizations can work in certain situations, like this Vermont instance.

Campuses can act as local anchors for discussion and action. As a Second Nature report put it,

Can serve as ‘hubs’ in their local communities for creating, testing, and disseminating knowledge about regional climate projections and adaptation strategies, and should work directly with their local communities to explain the science and implement solutions.

Schools can also contribute to local area mitigation projects, such as building, expanding, or simply maintaining solar, wind, and hydro power generation. Depending on the area, academics might contribute to larger projects: sea barrier walls, offshore wind or solar platforms, geothermal plants, the redesign or creation of new housing.

Academia-community relations in the age of climate emergency can take many other forms. We could consider campuses as refuges during extreme weather, or campus community members seeking shelter in the community. Local politics might turn against a school perceived as doing too much for climate mitigation, or too little. Town and gown can each offer economic support for the other’s work in addressing climate mitigation or adaptation. Which will support climate refugees who seek to enter the area, and which will ward them off?

Campus activism should continue to have a mixed connection to the rest of society. Student mobilizations can bridge to the community and also elicit its opposition. Faculty and staff movements present similar possibilities, which suggests further pressure on academic freedom. Conflict will occur between groups both on and off campus. For a small example, consider this response to the September 23rd climate action in Washington, DC:

At a larger, geopolitical level, it’s possible that a transnational effort to resist or mitigate climate change could arise. It could take the form of previous global mobilizations, like the 20th century’s grand alliances in the Cold War and two World Wars, or a more active United Nations, or shape into something new. If this occurs, what role could academia play? Will researchers commit to assisting UN 2.0 (or whatever it is called) as a WWII-style case of patriotic duty, or will the new authority contract with individual scientists, along the lines of American universities in the Cold War? What role might academics play in driving the creation and development of such a transnational organization? Conversely, what impact will academics have who oppose large scale efforts? The border between campus and world is, of course, porous.

Social changes can exert other pressures on academia. For example, an intergenerational aspect is surfacing now in some political arguments around climate change, which could also roil higher education. Some younger protestors are using this slogan:

Along similar lines Elizabeth Merritt charges our time with temporal colonialism, referring to our practice of dumping present-day bad energy policies onto future generations. In other words, intergenerational conflict could escalate. How can campuses respond? Will traditional-age undergraduates become more active, even insurgent? Should we reform our institutions to more seriously account for their downstream impacts?

Another form of social change could strike academia powerfully. Climate change should drive population movements as people relocate away from regions afflicted by flooding, drought, desertification, food supply collapse, bad governmental responses, and so on. Some academics will research and/or teach this topic, from history to sociology, ethnic studies to political science. Campuses may confront the option of welcoming refugees academically: hiring exiled faculty and staff, teaching the climate-driven homeless (and should the former teach the latter online? if so, how?). They will also face the humane option of hosting people without an academic framework. Naturally, opposition to supporting climate migrants can take the form of hard-headed economic decision-making, practical politics, or bigotries by race, class, region, and religion, to various degrees of openness. History teaches us that such struggles certainly occur within academia; again, recall that our boundaries are porous.

Another macro dimension could also loom very large. One explanation for the climate crisis sees a certain economics as responsible, a capitalism that views environmental costs as externalities undemanding of serious treatment. In response some on the resurgent left call for expanding state efforts into escalating forms of socialism. Given the dependence of many universities on some form of governmental support, said support could change or come with additional strings. Increased taxation might target the wealthiest institutions, or depress giving to colleges and universities from the wealthiest families.

Some arguments go still further in their desire to redesign the human economy. There is a call for a circular economy, one focused on suspending GDP growth, extensive recycling, and diminishing consumerism. More strongly, others call for a degrowth agenda, either as a powerful solution to excessive carbon generation or as a way to reduce the excessive wealth of certain nations or regions. Such deep changes to the global economy would bring about a range of novel pressures on higher education, from its funding and sustainability models to its research and curricula.

Now, the economy could well change drastically without climate change. In this timeframe — remember, out to around 2080 — we could see the various forces lumped under the Fourth Industrial Revolution complete their work. AI, robotics, commodity genetic engineering could drive several different futures. Peter Frase has offered some groundbreaking scenarios along these lines:

  • a post-scarcity world, possibly as far as “fully automated luxury communism”
  • ever-widening income and wealth inequality
  • a world with stalled growth, but less inequality (think the 20th century’s second world)
  • higher inequality and brutal hierarchy

We could add to this other possibilities:

  • a world where more of our goods and services are less materially based (cf Andrew McAfee’s new book)
  • the Singularity, but all bets are off there

Naturally, each of these can be unevenly present or coexist in different forms. The point being that such deep macroeconomic changes intersect with the climate crisis. Those intersections are beyond the scope of today’s post, but I can return to them.

We should also anticipate political and cultural reactions against climate change mitigation, beyond what we see now. It’s hard to say how long today’s climate change deniers will continue to play a significant role in decision-making. The belief may age out over time, if its adherents tend to be of retirement age, or persist via intergenerational transmission, aided by wealthy funders. A very different problem occurs when we imagine the difficulty in maintaining such strategic effort over a generation or two. Humanity has been able to conduct such operations only rarely. We can lose interest or change our minds as multiple factors come into play over decades, including competing interests: wars, religious movements, economic crises, diseases, not to mention black swans. We should also expect a “boy who cried wolf” effect to occur regularly in years without major disasters or dramatic milestones. This could happen at all scales, from the small (a city, a community) to the largest (the globe). In short, academia may find itself out of step with the times, and taking flack for persisting with that climate stuff when the world has moved decisively on. (Perhaps some will turn to Isaac Asimov’s Foundation sequence for some solace.)

In short: many challenges of medium to enormous scale. Campuses may navigate increasingly difficult social and political waters.

(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 17, 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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