Climate crisis and the response-ability of universities

It’s time the higher education community puts old grievances of league tables and excellence frameworks aside to tackle climate change, say Stephen Sterling and Stephen Martin 

November 16, 2019
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Most universities do not yet fully recognise that the game has changed. Whereas for the last 100 years or so, higher education has been preparing people for a future that – despite wars and economic and social upheaval – was nevertheless assured, the current context is significantly altered. 

Now, in the Anthropocene, a safe and liveable future has to be won rather than assumed. It has to be secured, and in a worryingly short space of time if we accept current warnings. A paper recently published in Bioscience and signed by 11,000 scientists confirms the urgency of the climate emergency unequivocally and states that “To secure a sustainable future, we must change how we live.”

It calls for “major transformations in the ways our global society functions and interacts with natural ecosystems”. This presents higher education institutions with a profound challenge that is unprecedented in modern times.

In wider society, there is a dawning realisation that the global climate and ecological emergency – recently consensually accepted – requires radical change. Large swathes of human activity and behaviour that currently exacerbate the crisis need to be transformed with speed.  

This must be done if ecological systems and humanity are to survive with any chance of security let alone well-being throughout this century.

These are pivotal times, but the slow response in higher education policy and practice is understandable as it parallels society’s own time lag in responding to the climate emergency. 

Yet of course, higher education has the unrivalled capacity to pursue and shape the values, knowledge, skills and research that are crucial to a society shifting to a low carbon and safe future.

How the knowledge, ingenuity, innovation and resources that universities uniquely possess are deployed in the next few years will make a decisive difference to the success or failure of this transition.

Recently, THE published an open letter signed by more than 1,000 academics and leading commentators calling for universities to “act swiftly and independently on climate change”, and over 7,000 universities internationally have signed a climate emergency letter.

As important and welcome as these initiatives undoubtedly are, they indicate that to date, most universities have not been doing nearly enough to orient their teaching and research towards the interlocking global crises that have been known about and researched for decades, and certainly ever since the Club of Rome’s Limits to Growth reports of the 1970s and beyond. 

Meanwhile, research from the National Union of Students shows that 91 per cent of students are concerned about climate change.

Last week, the Environmental Association for Universities and Colleges with Universities UK, Guild HE and the Association of Colleges launched the new Climate Commission for UK Higher and Further Education Leaders. 

This commission will take evidence over 12 months and aim to report for COP 26, the United Nations’ climate change conference taking place in Glasgow in December 2020.

It will be focused on developing targets and collaborative initiatives as deliverables for the two sectors. According to the press release, senior management teams are “being urged to use their unique position to harness the latest academic thinking, commit to action and drive change”.

Given that time is short, one hopes that the substantial international literature and practice on sustainability that already exists in higher education (although often marginalised hitherto) will be drawn on before the commission reports.

However, the number of universities attending the climate commission launch at senior level was disappointingly small. This raises the issue of the “response-ability” of universities. 

That is, how far, given current policies, structures and priorities, are universities sufficiently able to embrace the agenda of urgent transition that the climate and ecological emergency starkly presents?

Is self-perpetuating system inertia the real problem here? The usual concerns of research and teaching excellence, competitive league tables, student and staff retention and so on now need to be put into the broader vision and goal of economic and social well-being nested in the imperative of planetary survival; and while there is still time to make a critical difference.

But are universities properly reading the signs of the times? Are they capable of themselves being learning organisations in the light of a rapidly changing world context? And of fundamental realignment? In February this year, the IPPR launched a report, This is a crisis: Facing up to the age of environmental breakdown. It states that young people are beginning “to realise the enormity of inheriting a rapidly destabilising world”.

Apart from a few exceptional institutions and pockets of undoubted excellence, how far is the higher education sector similarly and effectively “facing up” to this new and pressing reality?

In our view, it requires nothing less than a system-wide culture shift and a new invigorated sense of purpose for higher education.

Stephen Sterling is emeritus professor of sustainability education at the Centre for Sustainable Futures at the University of Plymouth. Stephen Martin is visiting professor in learning for sustainability at the University of the West of England.

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Reader's comments (1)

My 30+ years in the university sector suggests that many academics fully understand the issues that are raised here and what is at stake, with pioneering work having been done across and between disciplines in terms of both teaching and research. Such colleagues have always been well ahead of their university management and governing bodies in doing something positive, and students and society at large have benefitted. I like to think that, on my better days, I was one of these. I never spent much of my energy on trying to persuade 'the university' to change its ways, however, because it was a dispiriting and thankless task and I saw colleagues labelled as 'awkward' for their troubles. Perhaps they still are in some places. If so, it has to stop. Universities need to listen not just to their students, but to their staff as well. William Scott