It is Now or Never for Universities: Research, Progress and Climate Disruption

Simon Kerr
Jan 6 · 10 min read

(An earlier version of this paper was delivered to the Australian Research Management Society Conference in Adelaide, Australia, in September 2019)

Photo by Aron Visuals (Unsplash)

The summers are usually pretty hot in my city of Melbourne, at times a scorching 45°C (113°F). But the summer of 2018/19 was the first time I ever felt, ‘I really don’t like this’. It wasn’t just the debilitating heat, it was the number of days the heat hung around. Even at night!

But what really scared me was a simple graph.

It shows a significant rise in summer temperatures over the previous 108 years, with no sign of slowing down. Australia, already a hot continent, is getting hotter. As I write this, in January 2020, Australia has been confronted with catastrophic bush fires unlike anything we have experienced in the past. If global temperatures keep rising, such fires will likely keep getting worse, if that is imaginable.

(From Australian Bureau of Meteorology)

The Promise of Progress?

This was not how the Australian ‘good life’ was supposed to be! Instead, we find ourselves at the historical intersection of two cultural stories. One is that our future will always get better. That is what we have been promised and what we collectively expect. So long as science and technology can keep figuring out how to cure our health problems, solve our food challenges and grow our economy, then most of us are satisfied.

This ‘narrative of progress’, the endless improvement and inevitability of human well-being, is embedded in the DNA of Universities. Trust in science and research to deal with humanity’s ‘grand challenges’ means the future is ultimately bright.

While attractive, I can no longer buy this story; humanity’s future is now deeply and permanently disrupted, and not in a good way.

Economic and technological innovation has always been disruptive. Artificial intelligence, genetic enhancement, machine learning and algorithmic decision making are now disrupting the way have done things and are an inevitable part of the future. Many also see (vast) economic opportunities here, even if there are concerns about how to defend human values.

These technologies are exciting for many people with economic agency and it is easy to stand in awe of these quite extraordinary developments with their promises of longer lives, better health, more wealth and a brighter future. This is a research world I am very familiar with in my university research management career.

But all this relies on one thing: global functioning ecosystems. At just the moment some people are headed to the stars (well, Mars at least), the planet itself is now demanding we pay the ecological debt we owe. Lured by a bright shiny digital future, we too easily overlook that most inconvenient and menacing disruption: the climate crisis.

This is a problem. Many technological or social disruptions promise us a future ‘good life’; digital freedom, genetically enhanced health and well being and an economic bounty from those frontier technologies.

The climate crisis cannot offer us that. Perhaps this is one reason disruptive climate change is not honestly faced: it is too disruptive, denying us our admittedly rather recent self-conferred title of Rulers of the Earth. Even though the earth is fighting back, many of us still underestimate or are unaware of the dangers we now face.

Many of us still want to believe we will ‘solve’ climate change and can continue to enjoy the lifestyles that progress has promised.


The Erosion of Optimism

I first heard about global warming in the mid 1990s, introducing it to the University classes I was teaching. At that time it was but a distant future concern.

Emissions kept rising.

I wrote my first song about global warming in 2004 (I am also a songwriter), after reading about the destabilisation of the Antarctic ice shelves and what this will do to sea levels. I was getting mildly concerned.

Emissions kept rising.

I moved from New Zealand to Australia in 2008 in time to hear Prime Minister Kevin Rudd declare climate change ‘the greatest moral challenge our time’. Progress at last I thought. Yet …

Emissions kept rising.

I wrote a multimedia music project in 2015 called Music for a Warming World to use the Arts to raise climate consciousness and urgency (ok, I didn’t seriously think our show would change the world, but it did express my optimism that we could turn this around).

But emissions kept rising.

Instead of global emissions declining as per the Paris Agreement in 2015, global emissions have accelerated.

Currently, greenhouse gas emissions are still rising (at 1.5% per year).

Photo from SOCIAL_CUT (Unsplash)

The Stories We Tell

The types of stories societies tell themselves matter. We all want stories where evil is conquered and the good folk win. So the only culturally acceptable story is this one:

The planet is warming, and human behaviour is the cause;
We still have time to deal with it;
Because we are clever we will figure it out; therefore
We can expect the future to keep getting better

But what if this story is wrong?

What if we can no longer stop the disruption and chaos of climate change?

In 2017, David Wallace-Wells published an article called The Uninhabitable Earth which almost instantly became the most read New York Magazine article of all time. It began:

‘It is, I promise, worse than you think …. If your anxiety about global warming is dominated by fears of sea-level rise, you are barely scratching the surface of what terrors are possible, even within the lifetime of a teenager today’.

The article attracted a large amount of scientific scrutiny, but minor squabbles aside, no-one was prepared to say its vision of catastrophic impact on society was not possible. Many believe it is, now, highly probable. Wallace-Wells is no environmentalist; he was happy to accept widespread environmental loss so long as he could continue to live his New York City lifestyle. But the reason he wrote the article is that he realised that he can’t. None of us can. The future is closing in on us whether we like it or not.

Wallace-Wells did a novel thing. He told the truth. And he is not alone. Bill McKibben wrote the first popular book on global warming in 1988 (The End of Nature). Since then he has written over 18 books and many articles on environment and climate. Always a paragon of optimism, his latest book presents a marked change. It is called ‘Falter: Has the human game played itself out?

Science

Wallace-Wells and McKibben are writers, not scientists. Scientists have less latitude in the stories they tell, are more constrained by scientific and disciplinary norms. But now scientists are speaking with urgency.

It was not only Australia that had a hot summer last year, the entire planet did. July was the hottest month ever recorded on Earth since record keeping began in 1880. Nine out of the 10 hottest Julys ever recorded have occurred since 2005. This trend will keep going, even if the world stopped all greenhouse gas emission today (which it won’t). As former Chief Science Adviser to the Obama White House, John Holdren, put it:

The difficulty in a problem like climate change is the time lag. By the time there are dead bodies in the street, you’re already way down the road. At any given time, we’re not experiencing everything that we’re already committed to. That causes policymakers and publics to underestimate how bad it is.

In 2018 the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released their bluntest report to date. The planet has warmed by just over 1°C since the industrial revolution and this heating is speeding up. To avoid hitting some tipping points in the climate system, the 2015 Paris Agreement set an aspirational goal to keep warming below 1.5°C. To reach that goal requires the worlds’ economies to reach net zero emissions by 2050.

This is a colossal task, by any measure, and requires:

“rapid and far-reaching” transitions in land, energy, industry, buildings, transport, and cities. Global net human-caused emissions of carbon dioxide (CO2) would need to fall by about 45 percent from 2010 levels by 2030”. (IPCC 2018)

That is only ten years away!

There is no magic about 2030. The world will not end if we don’t hit the goal by midnight on the 31 December 2029. But here’s the kicker: if the global economy is not getting close to a 50% reduction by then (and remember, emissions are still rising!), then we can expect a much hotter world because the task will be too hard to achieve in the decade or two we will have left.

Hotter and Faster

Some researchers have since argued that climate change is happening faster than the IPCC has anticipated, potentially breaching the 1.5ºC temperature threshold by 2030.

They offer three reasons why they think this will happen. First, emissions are estimated to keep rising, with an projected increase of 2.7% for 2018.

The second reason, oddly, is that air pollution is getting cleaned up faster than the IPCC and most climate modellers had assumed. Lower pollution is good for people and other species. But pollution, with its aerosols, including sulphates, nitrates and organic compounds, reflect heat from the sun. This shield of aerosols has kept the planet cooler, possibly by as much as 0.7°C globally. Less pollution means more warming.

Third, there are signs that the planet might be entering a natural warm phase that could last for a couple of decades. The Pacific Ocean seems to be warming up due to a slow climate cycle known as the Interdecadal Pacific Oscillation. This means more heat will stay in the atmosphere rather than going into the deep oceans.

These three things reinforce each other to bring forward the estimated date of broaching 1.5°C of warming to around 2030, with the 2°C boundary reached by 2045.

But this is not the only recent scientific concern. ‘Climate sensitivity’ refers to how the global climate responds if the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere doubles from the pre-industrial average. Over the last 30 years estimates have ranged from about 2°C to 4.3°C of extra warming. Research recently published in Geophysical Research Letters using the latest modelling and more powerful super computers has produced an estimated warming of 5.3°C. This paper was published under some urgency to seek verification by others in the international climate modelling community. The authors then concluded with language rarely seen in scientific journals:

‘What scares us is not that [our model] is wrong …, but that it might be right.’

If it proves to be so, then current projections of warming will prove to be deeply conservative.

Scientists are now arguing we are too close to irreversible tipping points. While ‘large scale’ changes were considered likely at 5°C, recent research suggest these could happen between only 1–2°C of global warming.


Economic Disruption

Many of us are used to thinking about climate and environment as out there … ‘somewhere’. Yet, climate disruption will affect every part of our lives, including the economy. The Governors of the Bank of England and the Central Bank of France are so concerned that they recently warned the global business community that climate change poses an existential threat to the global economy.

One recent analysis calculated that because of climate disruption, there is a 51% chance that world GDP will drop by 20% before the end of the century. The Global Financial Crisis in 2008 resulted in an estimated 2% decline in the global economy. It doesn’t take much imagination to envisage the impact of a 20% decline on all our lives.

‘In Australia the chance of a 20% drop in GDP is 93%’

But this is the global average. In Australia the chance of a 20% drop in GDP is 93%. This profoundly destabilises every aspect of organised (and civilised) society. It is difficult to know how we could manage through this. Add the economic and social impact of sea level rise on most of the world’s major coastal cities, and ‘it is not difficult to imagine that the world would be nearly ungovernable’.

Whether or not these particular forecasts prove accurate (they are created by economists, after all), it is very clear that the economic impacts of a rapidly changing and disruptive climate will be extremely costly and test the capacity of even the most robust communities to manage them.


Everything Changes

It is time to urgently reimagine our human future. Even if the rich countries could keep consuming as we have been doing, climate disruption would inevitably overwhelm us. The old fossil fuelled corporate/capitalist story where technological progress will save the day and allow us to continue to consume the planet’s resources without regard is now over.

Only a new story will make a safer future.

This new story must be honest about climate disruption. It must be inclusive of all people who are citizens of this planet. It means rapidly reconciling ourselves with the earth’s ecosystems and species with whom we have co-evolved, restoring, repairing and living within planetary boundaries. It means a vision of economics that serves human well-being rather than just GDP.

It means radically rethinking how we need to live on our shared planetary home.

And critical to this rethinking are our Universities.


Universities, this is your Moment

Although many Universities have great climate-related research and highly committed researchers, most have been slow to take seriously the extraordinary challenges of climate change. They have not yet demonstrated the high level of climate consciousness and serious institutional commitment to the cultural transformation demanded by the climate challenge.

This then is a call for all those who study, work or support such institutions to call for and create a revolution.

It is not now enough to simply become net-zero emissions organisations.

It is not now enough to gradually and ‘sensibly’ reform research and teaching priorities. The time for slow and progressive reform was back in 1990.

It is now not enough to play it safe with corporate funders and financial investment. Universities must make it clear their considerable resources are here to address the climate crisis with urgency.

This requires cultural transformation in Universities on an ‘unprecedented scale’ (IPCC 2018) where the climate crisis sits at the centre of teaching, research, engagement, governance and management. And because climate change changes everything, all disciplines, HASS and STEM, have roles to play in analysing and re-imagining our futures.


If there is to be a viable future, it has to be fought for and created. At this point, given the time we have squandered, I honestly don’t know if we, collectively, are up to the task.

Fortunately, there is a way to find out! All it requires is courage and vision to take that next step forward in the great human experiment.

Simon Kerr

Written by

Climate change activist, research fellow, musician, creator of ‘Music for a Warming World’, http://www.musicforawarmingworld.org

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