Why don’t universities practise what they preach on climate?

Overheated buildings, meat-heavy menus and solar-panel-free roofs are not a good example, say Karin Bodewits and Philipp Gramlich

February 4, 2023
A hurricane seen from a satellite
Source: iStock

In 1967, two students at the University of Hamburg unfurled a banner during a professorial inauguration ceremony. “Unter den Talaren – Muff von tausend Jahren” (“Under the robes – the stench of a thousand years”), it said. This act of protest became a symbol of the student movement, which forced the country to change fundamentally. The Holocaust was no longer to be ignored. Germany and its universities comprehensively admitted their sins.

This is just one of many examples of impactful protest in higher education. Students have a grand history of civil disobedience when speaking up against deficiencies and injustices. In recent years, as equality and diversity have moved to the top of their agenda, students have successfully pressured many universities to remove the statues of scientists who behaved indefensibly and to rename buildings that honour them.

The activism shouldn't stop there. With a climate collapse impending, a new student uprising would be all too justified. But the targets should not just be big, obvious polluters, such as oil companies, airlines and shipping companies. Students should also look much closer to home.

Universities are blissfully ignorant of their own research findings regarding how they run themselves. Meat is the default option in most cafeterias, waste is often not separated, buildings are overheated, roofs barely sport any solar panels and travel is frequent and often unnecessary.

These examples are just the most obvious ones. Why don’t we in universities practise what we preach? Are we tricked into complacency by our subconscious? Do we tell ourselves that the high aims we work towards with our research justify sloppiness in our own behaviour, a psychological pitfall called moral licensing? Or are we just burying our heads in the sand, as the Germans did after the Second World War – until the students shook everything up?

Whatever the way, action is required to make universities align their own institutional practices with the demands of their climate research. Students should make themselves heard in direct interactions with their teachers and administrative staff, by organising demonstrations and information events and by promoting change through their own behaviour: switching off heaters, travelling by bike or train, no longer eating meat. Sustainability could become a criterion for students in choosing their universities – and for the rankings organisations that rate them. Students and taxpayers are – directly or indirectly – the sources of income for universities. This gives them considerable leverage over how things are run.

Some problems are engraved in our rulebooks. For example, scientists are often mandated by to use the cheapest mode of transport to travel to conferences, forcing them to take senseless short-distance flights. But politicians, funding bodies and public administrators who have set the rules could and should be pressured to correct those errors.

Universities themselves should also be doing more than passively reacting to nudges, doing the bare minimum to limit disruptions by student protests. They should themselves act as agents of change.

Universities carry special responsibilities in our societies. They are multipliers: their impact is magnified. They train the next generation of leaders. What young people experience as acceptable during their formative years will influence the norms they will, in turn, establish around themselves throughout their careers. It is in the hands of universities if their graduates see it as normal that buildings are overheated and that cafeterias treat plant-based food as an oddity and recycling as an inconvenience.

If all members of our higher education institutions get into the habit of picking at least the low-hanging fruit for our climate, then we can establish a new set of habits, as we have done for gender equality and racism. Wasting resources should become as socially unacceptable as making discriminatory comments.

The impact of universities reaches beyond their innovations and the mark they leave on the next generation. Wider society keenly observes what happens in them. If academics act in blatant contradiction of their own research, how can they expect the rest of society to respect their advice? Aren’t we making it all too easy for those who like the convenience of replacing scientific facts with their own unfounded opinions?

We in higher education should at least practise what we preach. Otherwise, both our credibility and the climate will collapse – and we will only have ourselves to blame.

Karin Bodewits and Philipp Gramlich are co-founders of NaturalScience.Careers and the NGO Turfvrij (peat free).

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