As the U.N. climate conference nears, more universities must join this ‘best last chance’ to curb global warming

As the U.N. climate conference nears, more universities must join this ‘best last chance’ to curb global warming

Expect expansive coverage of the U.N. climate conference (COP26) in the coming days, even though the real news is decades old. The reality of global climate change is all around us, yet many national governments and big polluters lack the courage, the will—sometimes even the desire—to curb greenhouse emissions. Colleges and universities have an essential role to play in helping us reverse course.

The United Kingdom’s COP26 Universities Network is an example of higher education leading to reduce the threat of climate catastrophe. But a scan of the crowd gathered in Glasgow will reveal only a subset of the world’s colleges and universities pressing for “net zero” carbon emissions. Internationally, the collective effort of universities might rate as an asterisk compared with the magnitude of the scope and urgency of averting disaster.

A complex psychology of denial, a diffusion of blame, a desire for higher living standards, and inherent weaknesses of political systems help explain our global procrastination.

But it doesn’t excuse those responsible for educating the next generation from their responsibility to act. As researchers and experts in a wide array of fields, they have a keen grasp of what altering our societies on an unprecedented scale will demand.

Today, the awful predictions of decades ago are coming true: record heat, more frequent and damaging natural disasters, changes in ocean currents, and melting permafrost. A recent study found that climate change affects 85 percent of the world’s population, disrupting commerce, education, health, and travel.

Our ruinous appetite for fossil fuels spews more and more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. The planet’s harsh rebukes come in the form of more severe tropical storms, hurricanes, floods, urban heat waves, the spread of arid land, and catastrophic sea level increases.

Within this context, observers say the COP26 conference in Scotland’s largest city is the world’s “last best chance” to curb emissions.

A global consensus is building to strengthen the voluntary agreement from 2015 that nearly 200 governments signed in Paris. Those nations, including the United States, agreed to take steps toward limiting global temperature increases in this century to 2 degrees Celsius—and, ultimately, to less than 1.5 degrees. Realizing this goal would mean net-zero carbon emissions within 30 years. In Glasgow, firmer commitments will be sought.

Like other large-scale enterprises, universities have a responsibility to abandon business as usual to assure their campus operations do not further damage the environment. Yet a relatively small number of universities are truly leading.

Smart efforts are underway but lack widespread commitment. Consider the Climate Leadership Network. Hundreds of colleges and universities have joined, signing commitments to take actions such as achieving carbon neutrality. However, nearly 4,000 colleges and universities dot the U.S. landscape. Higher ed will no doubt prepare engineers, scientists, and technicians to help industries find greener business strategies, but that alone will not be enough.

Second Nature, a nonprofit that envisions higher ed fostering a healthier relationship between the planet and us, coordinates the leadership network. It also manages the University Climate Change Coalition of research universities in Canada, Mexico, and the United States. The California Institute of Technology, La Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México, and the University of Toronto are among institutions in the UC3 coalition that work together on climate modeling, energy storage systems, next-generation solar cells, energy-efficiency technologies, smart grids, regulatory policies, and more.

Second Nature recognizes the importance of engaging communities of color in any climate action, with the aims of achieving racial justice and equity. The Climate Solutions Acceleration Fund, another Second Nature program, has supported institutional efforts to preserve indigenous knowledge in climate change research, anchor inclusive regional climate adaptation and resilience efforts, make renewable energy more affordable for low-income communities, and memorialize Black experiences in natural spaces.

However, just as we ignored early climate warnings, many of us have averted our gazes from the threats to free societies, including at home in the United States. But it’s clear that the relationship between climate change and increasing toxicity in democratic systems are connected.

Global warming has roiled economies, political systems, and social structures by creating food shortages, stoking disease, provoking wars, and driving human migration. The ensuing turmoil and tribal thinking have made it much more challenging to agree on solutions.

Higher ed can help us combat the zero-sum thinking that reduces climate change to winners and losers. For starters, faculty members must help people develop the skills and tools for resolving political challenges as this emergency unfolds.

The Institute for Democracy & Higher Education, located at Tufts University, is one such place that practices the pursuit of public good through consensus. The director, Nancy Thomas, puts it this way: “A deliberative democracy takes seriously core American principles of equity, justice, and responsible freedom. It is an antidote to citizen dissatisfaction with and disengagement from public life and society in general.”

It is not enough for higher education to educate and train people for $50,000-a-year jobs—even so-called “green jobs.” The original research that universities produce can help us understand where we went wrong and how to fix it. Through changes in curriculum and teaching, these same institutions can prepare people for freedom of expression and to secure a habitable planet.

Watch, with optimism, for progress from Scotland. But know that much of the actual work must begin on campuses.


Jamie Merisotis is president and CEO of Lumina Foundation, an independent, private foundation in Indianapolis committed to making learning opportunities beyond high school available to all.

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