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Declaring a climate emergency is an important first step. What do we do next?

Keri Facer sees the move to declare a climate emergency as the starting point for a series of radical changes in the way the sector works.
This article is more than 4 years old

Keri Facer is the Zennström Professor of Climate Change Leadership at Uppsala University, and Professor of Educational and Social Futures at the University of Bristol. She writes in a personal capacity.

The University of Bristol was the first in the UK to declare a climate emergency, the first university to join a host of cultural organisations in doing so. And there will be more.

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.

7 responses to “Declaring a climate emergency is an important first step. What do we do next?

  1. Universities should be places of serious rigorous academic study, not meaningless slogans and jumping on political bandwagons.

    What is a “climate emergency”? following the links in this article we get to a BBC page on “What is a climate emergency?” that, despite its title, fails to answer the question, and falsely claims that the UN says we have 11 years to avoid catastrophe.

  2. Whose interests would it serve to declare a false climate emergency? There is no financial interest in it, there is only financial interest in doing nothing and perpetuating our consume and destroy global culture. Claims that climate change does not exist are wasting our time and time time of our children and our grandchildren who are going to have to live in this world we have created and are rapidly destroying

  3. More than a week has gone by, and neither Keri Facer nor anyone else has answered my question of what the so-called “climate emergency” actually is. So clearly, there is no substance to it. As I said, it is just a vacuous political declaration.

    But it’s worse than this. Declaring a “climate emergency” is not just political posturing based on misrepresenting the facts. It is irresponsible and damaging. As mentioned in the Bristol statement, there’s a widespread effort in universities at the moment to provide help and support for students who suffer from mental health issues such as anxiety and depression. If someone is worried or stressed about something, the responsible and compassionate thing to do is to try to reassure them and calm them down. Tell them that their fears are exaggerated, for example by showing them some actual data on storms, tornadoes and floods, or citing what the IPCC really says. The worst possible thing to do is to shout fire in a crowded theatre, which is exactly what the University of Bristol has done and what Keri Facer is advocating.

  4. Sociologists used to recognize that what drives many people is not financial interests but status. This is particularly true of academia, where for most the academic rewards are low. The evidence of whether a climate emergency exists is through the empirical evidence that climate is changing for the worse due to human causes. Logically human caused climate change is a subset of all climate change, and a climate emergency that will justify policy is a subset of human-caused climate change. Climate has always been randomly variable, somewhat chaotic and varies across the globe.
    Even then, it does not justify policy. The cause of the alleged climate emergency is human emissions of greenhouse gases. To eliminate the potential problem requires eliminating global emissions;. As developing countries (80%+ of world population, >60% of global emissions) are specially exempt from any obligation to reduce their emissions under the Paris Agreement, how will Universities in a country with around 1% of global emissions make any difference?
    The main thrust of genuine action should be the convince the major developing countries (China, India, Indonesia, Pakistan etc) of the case to start decreasing their emissions.

  5. There is an excellent article on this question by Mike Hulme, here

    “But the rhetoric of extinction and emergency does not adequately describe the situation we find ourselves in. Declaring a climate emergency implies the possibility of time-limited radical and decisive action that can end the emergency. But climate change is not like this. The historical trajectory of human expansion, western imperialism and technological development has created climate change as a new condition of human existence rather than as a path to extinction.”

    Those who continue to insist that there is a “climate emergency”, but who refuse to provide any evidence for it, and refuse to debate the issue when questioned, should consider their own motivations.

  6. HI Paul

    Apologies for not replying – I can completely understand your frustration at people who post and then don’t reply – I tend to only work face to face, in real conversations with people at local levels or with students, where we have the time and information to work out where everyone is coming from – which means I haven’t been monitoring responses to this blog.

    The piece by Mike Hulme is a good one, and his work on the different positions that people take in relation to climate change is something that I use a lot in my own discussions with students and in hosting public conversations. I also find Tim Morton’s work very helpful in challenging the language of ‘urgency’ as well. None of this means, however, that I don’t accept – as does Mike Hulme – that there is human induced global warming and that it is significant. The debate now, as I see it, is how we respond to this – which I think is the question that manicbeancounter and Liza are also raising in the comments above.

    If it is of interest – my position on whether it is useful to claim ’emergency’ or not, and my concerns about a debate that claims urgency but doesn’t recognise the importance of there being different opinions and values is here :

    If you would like to debate whether climate change is human caused, or whether there is a need for significant reductions in carbon and methane emissions – I am not the person to have that debate with – we all have our specialisms and are best to work within them rather than outside them. I’d suggest Kevin Anderson of the Tyndall Centre might be a good person to talk with. I work on the basis of his advice and that of others who are climate scientists.

    If you’d like to talk about how we can ensure an appropriate educational response and a democratic debate about the choices we face in whether and how we mitigate and adapt to human caused global warming, which is what I’m interested in – then I’d be very happy to carry on the conversation – please email me directly though as I won’t be monitoring this website.

    Best wishes


  7. University of Bristol have just hosted a People’s Assembly where a wide range of people from the University came together to generate hundreds of ideas on what the institution as a whole needs to do next.
    250 people attended, over 750 ideas were generated and now the ideas are in a review process to sort out which can be done with the most impact and by whom. It’s a great start because it engaged people’s voices, generated next steps and now opens up a lot of doors for how it can become carbon neutral by 2030 latest.

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