Co-create knowledge with those on climate front line, says Halliday

Transdisciplinary solutions vital for humanity to overcome challenges it faces, according to founding dean of US’ first climate school

June 1, 2023
Source: Alexander Halliday speaking at the Global Sustainable Development Congress

Universities are the “ideal” type of organisation to fight the climate crisis, but they must overcome divisions between schools and departments and work directly with those most affected, according to the founding dean of the first climate school in the US.

Sir Alexander Halliday told Times Higher Education’s Global Sustainable Development Congress (GSDC) in Saudi Arabia that the world was facing nothing less than the “collapse of civilisation” because of rising global temperatures.

In addressing that, “transdisciplinary” solutions were needed to approach complex subjects such as the managed retreat away from coastal areas, said Sir Alexander, founding dean of the Climate School and director of the Earth Institute at Columbia University.

“These are the subjects of the future, and they need to be transdisciplinary in their approach in how they bring people together.”

Sir Alexander told the congress at the King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST) that universities have a number of advantages to help them do this.

They are independent in their thinking and trusted by the public because of their scholarly work and rigorous peer review, and they recruit people who follow their noses and are highly creative, he said.

“You have this amazing concentration of people who are not really interested in making money necessarily, not really interested in having political power or trying to improve the opportunities for their company.

“They are basically academics who are thinking purely about the problem and how to solve it.”

Another advantage of universities is their huge breadth of disciplines, which is needed to tackle the climate crisis, Sir Alexander told delegates at KAUST.

And higher education can also bring some of the brightest young people together – and harness their passion and their anger at the climate crisis by giving them something to do about the issue, he said.

“Universities are without question the most ideal organisational units to be tackling the climate crisis,” Sir Alexander said.

However, the former dean of science and engineering at the University of Oxford, said universities did have an organisational weak spot.

“Very often, they are designed in a rather somewhat Balkanised way – with different schools, different divisions, different departments, and each have their own financial independence so tend to be not so good at collaborating.”

The Climate School at Columbia was built with a strategic “hub and spoke structure” at its core that allows it to pull in expertise from various parts of the institution, he said.

Sir Alexander, who is also a fellow of the UK’s Royal Society, said academics like him were not always the best informed about how to make progress on climate issues – noting that experts in Bangladesh were well ahead of the game in combating rising sea levels.

“Universities, instead of being the source of information, actually need to work with other countries, other people, other communities. There needs to be co-production of knowledge – not just academics saying what should happen. We need to work with people who are actually facing the challenges of climate change.”

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


Featured jobs