Why universities need to declare an ecological and climate emergency

Universities have a responsibility to prepare students for an uncertain future, 11 scholars from around the world argue

September 27, 2019
Drought in Australia

Universities pride themselves on preparing students for a bright future. But with the climate in crisis, where disasters of “unprecedented” scale and impact become the new normal, what future will our students have? As we face environmental degradation and biodiversity losses of unimaginable proportions, universities and other educational institutions’ priorities should be adequately preparing their students and staff for increasingly challenging times. 

Climate change and ecological destruction affect all parts of life including what we need or value the most, such as water, food, ecosystems, wildlife, safety, shelter, energy, transportation, health, communities and the economy. The basic human needs of many, in particular those who are the most vulnerable, are already in jeopardy. 

Dealing with climate-induced conflicts, mass migration, health impacts, economic costs and environmental degradation represent challenges of extraordinary proportions. There is simply no greater challenge than addressing the ecological and climate emergency and universities owe it to their students to be at the forefront of these issues.

Through the voices of Greta Thunberg, the School Strikes for Climate and the Fridays For Future, youth everywhere are loud and clear in calling for societies to change. Placards at protests around the world read: “Why should anyone study for a future when no one is doing enough to save our future?”; “Climate change is worse than homework”; “If you don’t act like adults, we will”; and “The climate is changing, why aren’t we?”.

Universities have a particular role to play when it comes to acting for the planet. As large institutions, universities’ carbon and environmental footprints are significant, and this alone should be a strong enough incentive to act. But, universities also have the responsibility to be honest with their students and prepare them for a changing climate because whatever jobs they seek after graduation will be fundamentally reshaped by an increasingly variable climate and frequent and unprecedented climate extremes. 

More importantly, as educational institutions, universities have an unparalleled potential. Several million students across the planet graduate every year. All are, and will be, further affected by climate change. Humanity needs engaged citizens who better understand and can urgently address the myriad implications of climate disruption. 

The climate challenge requires creative and critical thinkers, communicators and problem-solvers, leaders and collaborators, entrepreneurs and researchers, scientists and philosophers to work together. 

This is a civilisational and existential crisis. Knowledge sharing and knowledge production should be massively geared towards it. All academic disciplines need to account for challenges of uncertainty in an unpredictable climate. 

Several institutions, such as Southern Connecticut State University in the US;  the universities of Bristol, Exeter, Glasgow and Lincoln as well as Keele and Newcastle universities in the UK; and the Polytechnic University of Catalonia in Spain have already declared a climate emergency. 

These universities are paving the way as millions of youth in different parts of the world, alongside local and national governments and industries, legitimately demand more of the tertiary sector.

What does it mean for universities to declare an ecological and climate emergency?

Beyond the symbolic but important demonstration that universities are hearing the voices of the youth, declaring an environment and climate crisis has real implications. 

Reducing greenhouse gas emissions and ecological footprint. Universities would set transparent greenhouse gas emission reduction goals, and would be held accountable for and report on these on a regular basis. 

By adopting sustainable practices in all aspects of their functioning, from catering to transport and travel, investment, building design and maintenance, waste and energy management and more, universities would aim to become more environmentally sustainable and set an example for other organisations. 

Adapting and bracing for impact. Universities would set in place measures to ensure that they, their students, staff and visitors are, as far as realistically possible, better prepared for climate-related risks and impacts such as floods, heatwaves, water scarcity, tropical cyclones, bushfires, as well as the social unrest, declines in productivity and health that will inevitably flow from our deteriorating climate. 

Equally important is preparing their students to be receptive to emerging opportunities that may arise at certain periods in some regions due to changes in the climate. 

Mainstreaming ecological and climate action across all disciplines. Universities would ensure that all students, regardless of the discipline and level of study, understand specific climate impacts and possible remedial action in their line of work. 

This would be reflected in curricula, university rankings, graduate attributes, as well as in staff performance measurements, including those of high executives. 

Interdisciplinary teaching and research activities on global environmental challenges, resilience and solutions would be prioritised and invested in. Collective action, community engagement, partnerships, sharing best practices, and open platforms for innovation would be promoted.

The scale of the challenges lying ahead for humanity requires courageous and committed leaders, dedicated investment, organisational and structural transformation and above all, fundamental changes in economic and human behaviour. Universities have a vital role in ensuring the global temperature increase remains under 1.5°C, and should decisively work towards it. 

Inspired by our youth, we call on university executives, board members, academic and non-academic staff as well as students to declare an ecological and climate emergency. There is no greater issue facing the future of humanity than the climate and ecological crises – and the time to declare an emergency is now.

Jean S. Renouf is lecturer in politics and international relations at Southern Cross University.

Michael E. Mann is distinguished professor of atmospheric science at Penn State and director of the Penn State Earth System Science Center. He was lead author in the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Third Scientific Assessment Report and, along with fellow authors, was co-winner of the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize.

John Cook is research assistant professor at the Center for Climate Change Communication at George Mason University and founder of the Skeptical Science website.

Christopher Wright is professor of organisational studies at the University of Sydney.

Will Steffen is emeritus professor at the Fenner School of Environment & Society at the Australian National University.

Patrick Nunn is professor of geography and associate director of the Sustainability Research Centre at the University of the Sunshine Coast. He was also lead author on the Sixth Assessment Report of the IPCC (due 2022) and a co-winner of the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize.

Pauline Dube is an environmental change scientist and associate professor in the Department of Environmental Science at the University of Botswana. She is also coordinating lead author in the IPCC special report on “The impacts of global warming of 1.5 °C”. She’s also co-winner of the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize.

Jean Jouzel is director of research (emeritus) at the Atomic Energy Commission in France. He’s the former vice-chair of the Scientific Working Group of the IPCC and co-winner of the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize.

Stephan Lewandowsky is a cognitive scientist at the University of Bristol.

Anne Poelina is a Nyikina Warrwa Traditional Custodian and adjunct senior research fellow at the Nulungu Research Institute at the University of Notre Dame Australia.

Katherine Richardson is full professor at the Center for Macroecology, Evolution and Climate and leader of the Sustainability Science Centre at the University of Copenhagen.

Register to continue

Why register?

  • Registration is free and only takes a moment
  • Once registered, you can read 3 articles a month
  • Sign up for our newsletter
Please Login or Register to read this article.

Related articles

International conferences are a huge boon to academics, allowing them to hear about new findings, make new connections and, above all, enjoy the physical manifestation of their virtual global community. But is all that footfall worth the huge carbon footprint it leaves? Joanna Kidman is increasingly unsure 


Reader's comments (1)

Here's one example for IT. Instead of constantly upgrading kit for MS Windows new versions, they could retain their existing kit and install OpenSource. Most users only require an operating system (Linux) and an office suite (LibreOffice, FreeOffice, OpenOffice etc). In that way too, they ethically break the oligopolies, the tax avoiders, and the poor working conditions.