Do Universities Believe In Climate Change?

Evan Warfel
Feb 8 · 9 min read

The latest IPCC report says that we have about 12 years to curb emissions and do something about climate change to keep the world from warming by more than 1.5 degrees Celsius. Anyone involved in climate science will tell you that the IPCC is intentionally conservative in an attempt to prevent backlash and charges of fearmongering. Thus the question before us is not so much who will save us (because if we pull it off, it will be due to the actions of a large number of people) but which groups will visibly lead the charge?

Systemically speaking, neither a majority of politicians nor corporations are likely step up and lead, even though it is easy to think they should. Both tend to follow incentives laid before them, and by the time any incentives are strong enough for either group to lead, it will be too late. (While the recent popularity of the “Green New Deal” hints at how a coherent climate-change movement can incentivize politicians to fall in line, and how such a movement could also inspire both consumer and legal pressure directed at corporations, it’s also a sign that we are too late. The sooner we accept this, the sooner we can do something about it.)

Instead, our universities are uniquely well-positioned to lead the way. Many have fantastic financial resources, all have fantastic brain power, and none are beholden to the short-term pressures facing corporations and venture capitalists, not to mention the incentives facing politicians.

Yes, universities are incentivized towards many goals, some of which include not going bankrupt and getting their faculty to win prizes and grants. However, the incentives which surround universities operate on a longer time scale than that of public corporations (between the next one to three quarters) and of politicians (legally speaking, four to six years is the longest a US federally elected official can go without facing the opinion of their constituents). In addition, universities aren’t legally bound by fiduciary duty to increase shareholder value (as in the case of both private and public corporations.) The lack of short-term pressures has made it possible for universities to invest in long-term projects, a brief sampling of which include high-powered fMRI machines, particle detectors, decades-long longitudinal studies, and the building of things like hospitals.

Not only do universities incentives set them up to be able to lead on climate change, it is in our universities’ best interest to do so, not to mention everyone else’s. (By “lead” I mean doing more than researching the problem; such leadership likely entails coming up with decision trees for how to solve it.)

Consider that in the fiscal year ending in 2017, Harvard’s University endowment grew 8.1 percent to a total size of $37.1 Billion. According to N.P. Narvekar, the then newly appointed CEO of the Harvard Management Corp, this was “disappointing and not where it needs to be.” (1) While Harvard’s 2017 endowment was one of the largest in America (just ahead of the University of Texas’(2)), Yale’s clocked in at 27.2 billion (3), which itself was slightly ahead of Stanford’s 27 billion (4). Collectively, these four largest American university endowments totaled 128 billion dollars (in 2017 dollars). Assuming that these private universities continue to operate as they currently do, (i.e. “business as usual”) there is no reason to doubt that their endowments will grow over the coming decades.

Yet whether one looks at the aforementioned report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (5) or the precipitous twilight of the bugs (see, for instance, the recent PLOSOne paper entitled “More than 75 percent decline over 27 years in total flying insect biomass in protected areas” (6)), available evidence indicates that university endowments and, by extension, universities rest on the faulty assumption that the state of the world “in perpetuity” will be roughly comparable to the state it is in now.

These facts suggest that seemingly sensible, linear extrapolations about what the future will be like are anything but sensible. Think about it like this: philosophically, morally, and practically speaking, what is the point of being a university and having an extra 10 billion dollars in 50–200 years if, due to climate change, our society has changed so drastically that it cannot produce students (both undergraduate and graduate), post-docs, professors, and peer reviewers at anywhere near current rates? Universities have the freedom to think in terms of long time-horizons, and yet the long-term future of humanity doesn’t seem particularly bright. And from a branding perspective, why would the current teenage climate-change activists (and near future generations) respect and then subsequently apply to the Harvards of the world if said universities became known for sitting on the sidelines, hoarding their resources while the world burns?

It is not unreasonable to think that certain university boards of directors, endowment managers, deans, professors, graduate students, and so on can predict that they will take more action or redirect their efforts once the effects of climate change get “bad enough.” From a decision-making perspective, this also means that they do not have enough evidence to act now. By the same logic, if the strong evidence currently available is not enough for them to change their current trajectory, then the people who work for universities must commit to never doing anything in order to act consistently, regardless of how many people die.

(Regardless of the explicit conclusion, it’d be useful to know where universities explicitly stand in relation to this line of reasoning, because then everyone thinking about this problem could know whether or not they should go back to the drawing board.)

Furthermore, it is not too difficult to imagine the Ivy Leagues or a similar consortium announcing a cross-institution initiative to identify detailed routes of effective action for solving climate change, turning these into concretely fleshed-out decision-trees, and then executing them. E.g. “Today, Harvard, Yale, Stanford, and the University of Texas announced the creation of a 4-Billion-dollar initiative to study, execute, and invest in concrete courses of climate-change action. A working group will spend three months planning a series of conferences which will be held to plan how to best use this money. Anyone enrolled or working for these institutions can apply to help out, there is room for everyone.”

Generally speaking, once a problem has been identified, a combination of three things must be overcome to solve it. First, the problem must be understood well enough to develop feasible plans of action. Second, the problem-solvers must be flexible enough to effectively execute their plans, and rerouting as they discover more about the nature of the problem they are tackling. Third, said problem-solves must have enough resources to execute their plans.

University professors and departments either know or can figure out what should be done. In particular, they are well-equipped to not just generate plans, but come up with and navigate decision-trees, as doing so is part of testing hypotheses. As for resources, at the end of the 2015 fiscal year, the total Amount Under Management of the 20 largest university endowments was 245 billion, representing just under half of the total of all educational endowments in the US (7). And while not every university has a large endowment, every university can contribute something, be it money or brains or manpower.

The point is that some of the very people best suited to figuring out a scheme to figure how to use vast resources to most effectively fight climate change over the next twelve years are likely already employed by the institutions in question.

One obstacle is that many of the donations comprising university endowments come with restrictions. While it is impossible to say how well an angry mob will buy the “our hands were tied” line of reasoning, it is worth considering if these restrictions can and should be altered, undone, or implicitly ignored, whether now or at some point in the future. And if anyone can predict that they will figure out a way around these restrictions in the future, they might as well do it now. For example, the amount of funding drawn from an endowment could be altered, if the university’s board of trustees, leadership, and endowment managers recognize the need for one decade of emergency, IPCC-report inspired funding. The restricted funds could be granted with an implicit wink and a nudge. The explicit goals of the endowments can be adjusted to create both intra- and inter-university initiatives. Donors can be called up and asked if they will de-restrict their donations for the cause of fighting global warming. Universities would likely see even more donations if the cause, so to speak, is explicitly related to saving the planet.


The same if-you-can-predict-it-do-it-now argument (or is it more of a heuristic?) also applies to the issue of figuring out if and when to temporarily alter the focus (or lack there-of) of higher education. To be explicit, the moment people involved in higher education can predict that, in the future, they will put a self-imposed pause on undirected basic research (UBR)and orient their attention towards the problem climate change, is also the very point at which they should take action in the present.

Traditionally, UBR means that each researcher is free to navigate their chosen field(s) in a (relatively) decentralized and (relatively) untrammeled manner, powered by their curiosity, skill, and willpower. Thus like gas particles in a balloon, the boundary of human knowledge has expanded through millions of directions of pursuit at once, both in the sciences and in other academic fields.

However, the aforecited evidence suggests that academically inclined individuals seemingly face the following choice: either self-restrict undirected basic research in a given field for twelve years, or possibly never do (science, academia, philosophy, music, sociology, etc.) in a way that reasonably approximates how it is done today after the next 200.

At some point, might researchers have to evaluate whether their effort to, say, fill in the gaps of the fossil record is worth their not focusing on researching, redesigning and implementing new, more harmonious systems to support human societies? If they can reasonably predict having to do this, then they should do the reevaluation now. Doing so is a more efficient way of reasoning, and one thing the problem of climate change does not grant is long periods of time.

Acknowledging climate change intellectually, and believing in it such that it inspires one to lead (through some combination of research and action) are two different things. Only time can tell how philosophers, for example, will respond to whatever their version is of the argument outlined here. In the meantime, it is becoming increasingly clear that relying on unpredictable connections made between disparate intellectual discoveries is a gamble, and that the payoff has not happened soon enough, as thousands of climate scientists are all but screaming that now is the time to sharpen the focus of academic endeavors.

Just like the rest of us, each and every university employee has a moral imperative to take a step back and reflect on what they are doing. They are, after all, the experts in what they know. I think I speak for many of us when I say I hope the conclusion they reach is to orient their work beyond the goal of increasing humanity’s knowledge and next year’s publications.

Unlike the rest of us, universities and the people who comprise them have all of the building blocks necessary to do something about the impending state of the world. They lead the way in researching the climate, the environment, economies, societies, efficiently making better-designed things, public policy, long-term trends, interpersonal interaction, decision-making, materials sciences, and so on. They contain individuals who dedicate years training their minds to think more clearly and develop unique skills via cultivating highly specific domain expertise. Our universities have billions of extra dollars and are not legally bound to increase shareholder value. Each institution contains a subset of people who work for something other than pure financial gain, want to contribute to humanity, and who cannot be fired for choosing what to work on. Each also has a sizable population of energetic young people looking for unique learning opportunities. All of these institutions have departments and schools that claim to be able to train leaders. While research and knowledge are not the sole components of leading, deep expertise and an open mind have the potential to form a great foundation from which true leadership can emerge.

So if not them, who?

And if not now, when?

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Citations:

1. N.P. Narvekar, “Message from the CEO”, (Harvard Management Corporation, 2017, https://www.harvard.edu/sites/default/files/content/HMCRelease_2017.pdf).

2. The University of Texas/Texas A&M Investment Management Company, “Annual Report” (2017, http://www.utimco.org/funds/allfunds/2017annual/pdf/2017_UTIMCO_Annual_Report%20-%20Printable%20-%20High%20Res.pdf).

3. http://investments.yale.edu/, accessed October 1st, 2018.

4. Stanford Management Company, “Stanford University Investment Report: 2017” https://smc.stanford.edu/assets/Report_from_SMC_2017.pdf.

5. International Panel on Climate Change, “Special Report: Global Warming of 1.5°C” (2018, https://www.ipcc.ch/sr15/)

6. Hallmann, C.A., Sorg, M., Jongejans, E., Siepel, H., Hofland, N., Schwan, H., Stenmans, W., Müller, A., Sumser, H., Hörren, T. and Goulson, D. “More than 75 percent decline over 27 years in total flying insect biomass in protected areas.” PloS one, https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0185809, (2017).

7. U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics. (2018). Digest of Education Statistics, 2016 (NCES 2017–094), Chapter 3. Accessed viahttps://nces.ed.gov/fastfacts/display.asp?id=73.

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