But what does it mean for a university, for universities as a sector, to take the changing climate seriously? Here are some modest proposals for the steps we might expect to see them take next.
Carbon budgets and educational missions
Universities that take seriously the climate emergency might be expected to adopt carbon budgets alongside financial budgets to assess and plan university activities. This means recognising the finite amount of carbon emissions that are available to us if we are to achieve the global temperature commitments in the Paris Agreement. This single change in university governance would impact all areas of activity: from how we do conferences (does everyone really need to fly everywhere?) to how we source food (where is it from and how is it grown?) to internationalisation plans (what does it mean to depend so heavily on students from Asia?) to campus development (could university land and buildings be used differently to make net positive contributions to remaining within the University’s overall carbon budget?).
Taking climate change and its implications for students seriously means the educational mission needs to be reviewed. Many universities have a smattering of courses on sustainability, none yet have an educational programme that is adequate to preparing students today for the cultural, social and technological challenges of living with a changing climate.
We continue to educate students for business as usual, within disciplines that fail to speak to each other, with the unsurprising consequence globally that the more highly educated students are, the more likely they are to contribute to climate change than to prevent it.
Students are offered few intellectual and practical tools to enable them to deal with the complexity of climate change as a multifaceted social, economic, political, cultural and material phenomenon or with the anxiety of living with a changing climate. Thinking through what it means to educate students for the era of climate change, however, has the potential to stimulate the creative re-organisation of university education as a whole: fostering interdisciplinarity, generating innovation and reinvigorating dialogue between students and lecturers who will necessarily need to learn together about what it means to live in an unfamiliar world.
What can universities offer
The sector needs to get serious about what universities can uniquely offer: research, scholarship, a commitment to truth. And here, I don’t mean more funds for climate scientists. To be honest, we know and have known enough about what causes a warming climate and what to do about it (reduce emissions, protect natural ecosystems) for a long time. More accurate natural science is useful, but it is very far from sufficient.
The fundamental research questions we face now are at the intersection between political, cultural, economic and material worlds. We need new forms of inquiry that combine natural science, arts, humanities and social sciences; that open up new ways of living that don’t entrench old inequalities, nor create new problems; and that begin to experiment with new ways of living. For universities that wish to take climate change seriously – this means releasing academics from other responsibilities as a matter of urgency in order to focus on these issues, incentivising and actively supporting interdisciplinary collaborations, and reallocating core funding to these questions. It also, which may be harder for some to accept, means stopping research activities that are likely to impede the autonomous search for truth in these areas – as in cases where forestry, mining and fossil fuel investments shape research agendas.
Taking climate change seriously means building partnerships. Universities need to recognise that they have (despite the work done by climate scientists) come late to this party as social actors. They will not and do not have all the answers. Meaningful, long term partnerships with cities, regions and communities, with civil society and with social entrepreneurs will be required. Experimentation with new ways of living – whether this is at the level of new forms of transport, new forms of economic and democratic practice, with changing cultural and personal consciousness – will require partnership and collaboration.
Universities have a distinctive and powerful role to play in the civilizational and cultural shifts that we are now beginning to make as a society; they have a potentially unique role to play in bringing together different sets of interests and negotiating our way through these; but they are not and will not be the only actors that matter.
Declaring climate emergency is an important first step. The next steps they take will show what UK universities could really do as a sector if they put their mind to it.