It’s time to wake up and smell the greenhouse gases

Vice-chancellors must do much more to prepare students to tackle climate change, argues Joy Carter

December 14, 2015
Pollution, smoke, fossil fuels, burning

The global climate agreement reached in Paris includes a sentence every vice-chancellor should read. It is Article 12: “Parties shall cooperate in taking measures, as appropriate, to enhance climate change education, training, public awareness, public participation and public access to information, recognising the importance of these steps with respect to enhancing actions under this Agreement.”

The importance of education in tackling climate change is mentioned three more times in this 31-page document.

Vice-chancellors enjoy the powerful and privileged position of being able to shape the thinking and behaviour of younger generations, and, on the highly dangerous issue of global climate change, it is undeniable that we should be doing more.

As the climate change summit began I took to the streets of Winchester armed with a banner to join a march calling for action against global warming. I joked with colleagues that participating in this gentle “protest” was an attempt to relive my youth, or stoke up a nostalgic view of student activism.

But behind the light-heartedness there was a serious point. According to Kevin Anderson of the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research, who spoke in Paris this week, the global situation is much worse than most are prepared to admit, and I am in a position to do much more than just join a march.

It is often assumed that younger generations are more aware, concerned and active about the threat of climate change than mine. But I am wary of this stereotype and fear that it might be a mistake to assume that our children (and theirs) will behave more responsibly than my generation has, however unwitting our mistakes may have been.

Just before the Paris convention began I spoke at a gathering at Winchester.

Among the more than 100 talented undergraduates, there was little awareness that the UN climate change conference was taking place – let alone any knowledge of the areas of negotiation or how agreements might be reached, stall or fail.

How many students know that the UN Sustainable Development Goals, which include the urgency of action on climate change, exist, let alone what they are?

At dinner that evening, a vegan menu designed to be thought-provoking was served, and I was encouraged by how readily each table of 10 scholars engaged in discussions about climate change, including the role of meat production in greenhouse gas emissions. Good debate and challenging questions accompanied each course, demonstrating how easy it is for universities to find innovative ways to stimulate reflection and learning.

In an era when students are often characterised as consumers, and universities as engines of employment, it is too easily forgotten that higher education has the power to shape thoughts and deeds and to change attitudes of future generations, whatever they go on to focus on in life: as business executives, artists, engineers, teachers, scientists, graphic designers, law or health professionals (or something else).

But this isnt just a power – it’s a duty.

All universities should be teaching students about the causes, the impact, the history, the solutions, the economics and the politics of climate change.

These might not be lectures or seminars for particular students on particular courses. Sector leaders – myself included – need to be more creative and innovative in how we embed and stimulate teaching, learning, research and inquiry into the subject of climate change across all our disciplines and areas of study.

Whether you are a student of marine biology or archaeology, business management or fine art, we have a duty to improve your capacity to contribute to solutions to the devastating effects of climate change.

I have a strongly held belief, which is shared across universities, in the power of higher education to do good for individuals, societies, nations and the world.

Deciding as a sector to help all our students to confront climate change is a strong expression not only of our autonomy but also of our scholarly and ethical values and our noble purpose.

 Joy Carter is vice-chancellor of the University of Winchester

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