by Georges Dyer, MSLS '06
Over the past year at Second Nature I’ve been coordinating the “Higher Education Adaptation Committee” – a group of college and university administrators, climate scientists, sustainability professionals and educators exploring higher education’s role and responsibility in ensuring that society is prepared to weather the storms of climate change.
On Monday at the Smart and Sustainable Campuses Conference at the University of Maryland, I co-facilitated a session on this topic with David Caruso, President of Antioch University New England (who serves on the Adaptation Committee).
It proved to be a timely event. On the day of the session, temperatures in New Hampshire were expected to reach the 90s (in April!). It’s been a warm spring all over the northeastern US. And it was a warm winter. Not really a winter at all in many places. Here, the mild weather doesn’t feel all that bad. But if you understand the implications of climate disruption, it’s pretty horrifying.
I won’t run through the usual list of climate impacts – but here are just a few of recent headlines:
The following video does a great job of explaining how increases in the global average temperatures (global warming) drives all kinds of complex climactic changes - what's become known as "global weirding":
On May 5, 2012, the global network of concerned citizens under the 350.org banner will be “connecting the dots” between these impacts of climate change and what they represent in terms of economic damage, ecological destruction and human suffering.
To minimize this damage, we need to continue to create better ways of doing things. We need to eliminate our greenhouse gas emissions and land-use changes that are driving climate change.
We also have a moral obligation to prepare our society the best we can for the impacts of climate change that are already happening and will continue to happen based on changes already “locked in” from past emissions.
Higher education has a particularly critical role - and responsibility - with regard to climate preparedness, which brings me back to our conference session:
I provided a quick overview of the Adaptation Committee’s work and the report we published in November – Higher Education’s Role in Adapting to a Changing Climate – which provides a high-level look at what colleges and university are and should be doing through education, research, community engagement, and campus operations to prepare society for the impacts of climate disruption.
Dr. Caruso spoke about the role of presidents and senior administrators in this process – emphasizing the need to engage governing boards in the process. He also provided compelling examples about how Antioch is weaving climate mitigation and adaptation through cross cutting activities that encompass curriculum, research, campus operations, and community engagement.
With the average tenure of a college president around five years, it’s important to ensure continuity and long-term commitment via the trustees. In most cases, it will likely require a few years of persistent and skillful leadership from the president to really integrate this understanding and perspective throughout the Board. But Trustees need to understand the risks climate change poses to their campus – they have the fiduciary responsibility for the institution. If they don’t understand these risks, they aren’t fulfilling that responsibility.
The economic damages to campuses from stemming from climate impacts can be enormous (for example, see "Learning from Disaster" (pdf) - a report by UNCF on the impacts of Hurricane Katrina). More important than the costs, they pose serious health and safety risks to the students, faculty and staff. These could be direct impacts from extreme weather events on campus, or indirect from disruptions to agricultural production, supply chains, or critical infrastructure.
Beyond the responsibility to their own campuses and constituents, colleges and universities have a responsibility to all of society to provide the education and research needed to prepare for climate impacts.
During our session, we engaged the group in a dialogue about what was happening on their campuses, and around ways to teach students in all disciplines not just about climate adaptation, but for adaptation – so that it’s not just climate scientists and ecologists who understand the importance of adapting to these changes, but also economists, policy-makers, city planners, journalists, teachers, and so on.
We spoke about how low-income communities and communities of color are often more vulnerable in the face of climate impacts, and are often hit “first and worst” by them. This dynamics brings up important social justice issues that must be front-of-mind in this work.
While many universities are conducting important research to help communities in their regions understand the expected impacts and how to respond to them, more comprehensive approaches are needed to ensure the level of response that this challenge demands.
On the bright side, a recent poll shows that most Americans link these extreme weather events to global warming, and intuitively understand - at least to some degree - the risks. It's on all of us to ensure that we translate that understanding into action so we are as prepared as possible to minimize the damage and hardship.