Climate change events are moving fast. In the East Antarctic five weeks ago, the collapse of a floating ice shelf the size of New York City, during an unexpected episode there of unprecedented warming, has given us a glimpse of what is afoot. And two weeks ago, the latest UN IPCC report Climate Change 2022, concludes that we have just three years left to reverse the ongoing rise of greenhouse gas emissions—if we want the earth’s warming to have any hope of being held at the reference level of 1.5o C.

In the face of such dire news, it is time for university leaders to review their own plans for addressing this momentous crisis.

Despite many universities signing to the UN Sustainable Development Goals 2030 six years ago, and submitting progress reports on Goal 13–Climate Action annually since, global warming has continued unabated. Clearly, much more needs to be done, and urgently.

Plainly the university planning cycle, which typically generates strategic plans of five-seven years, is wholly inadequate to crafting an effective response to this grandest of grand challenges. A meaningful time horizon for climate action planning must pivot around the key dates of 2025, 2030 and 2050, each of which represents a flashpoint in the necessary carbon emissions reduction timetable, from reversal of emission increases, to carbon neutrality, and then to carbon zero.

And 2100 should also be addressed, given the devastating developments scientists project for the next century, should global warming of 1.5o C be significantly exceeded after 2050. That would require even more severe, carbon negative emissions targets for the second half of the century.

What is needed therefore, in addition to universities customary planning cycles, is a long-term, whole-of-university 30-Year Climate Action Plan.

It would be mandated by the governing council and vice chancellor, and monitored by an inclusive action plan task force involving representatives of all levels of the university, from academic leaders to students. It would include targets agreed jointly with external partners in government and business; it would also involve interaction with the university’s international partner institutions, as a global problem demands research and teaching by a global network. It would prescribe major reviews of progress every ten years.

But such a plan would not merely set out emission reduction objectives for the campus buildings, plant and procurement arrangements: most universities have such programs in place already. An outstanding example is the Harvard Climate Action Plan with its aim of a “fossil fuel free future by 2050.”

Some other university campus emission reduction plans extend to objectives for individual actions by staff and students too. The “Ten in Ten” Plan of the University at Buffalo is an example, number one for climate action in the THE Impact Rankings.  But even these models do not go far enough: the heart of a truly effective 30-Year Climate Action Plan would be objectives for the university’s core activities of research, teaching, and external engagement. For it is in their core programs that universities can make the most significant contribution to ending this alarming crisis.

In research, the action plan task Force would conduct an audit of the university’s research capacities to see where it has best capacity to contribute. The audit would sort the university’s research possibilities into four themes:

* measurement and documentation of the origin and trajectory of climate change

* development of solutions for mitigation and adaptation

* specific innovations in emission reduction (such as the search for a zero-carbon aircraft fuel)

* exploration of the various geoengineering possibilities. The action plan task force would award climate research grants to interdisciplinary teams with the capacity to explore one of these, especially to teams that can work with an external partner.

Of course, in teaching, students are often well ahead of their lecturers in their passion and ownership of the climate change issue, given how it will affect their future lives. It also meshes with student concern for such other issues as global inequality, for responsibility for the climate change crisis is in many respects directly proportional to a nation’s wealth and advanced development. Almost every discipline on campus can contribute to climate change teaching, and the plan task force would have little difficulty awarding incentives for the development of appealing interdisciplinary climate change majors, or climate study content for a wide range of subjects. And once our governments accelerate the switch to fossil fuel alternatives, jobs for graduates with interdisciplinary climate change expertise will be plentiful.

In engagement with the community, many universities are already setting an example by reducing their carbon footprints. But there are also opportunities to expand regular public debate of climate issues on the neutral ground the campus provides, away from short-term political or economic concerns, and in an environment which privileges scientific fact over misinformation. PR departments could also do more to promote communication with the media by academics knowledgeable in climate issues, and advice from university experts for industry and governments at all levels will remain vital throughout the years of the crisis.

In Australia, aside from increasingly frequent extreme weather events like the devastating Black Summer fires and the recent floods, we have already sustained exquisitely painful climate damage. Our iconic koalas—their numbers likely halved—have been declared an endangered species in two states and our Great Barrier Reef—largest coral reef system in the world—has lost possibly half its hard corals. And in developed nations worldwide, the actions of the generations of our parents and grandparents, coupled with the inaction of our own generation, have added more carbon to the world’s atmosphere in the last 100 years than was added in the previous 4,000 years.

It is no longer possible to ignore the massive environmental impact humanity is having on climate change and biodiversity loss; it is time those at all levels of university leadership became more active agents in decisively directing their teaching and research resources to this all-defining challenge. 

Professor Warren Bebbington is a Professorial Fellow at the University of Melbourne Centre for Studies in Higher Education. He was Vice Chancellor of the University of Adelaide 2012-17


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