Saturday, June 4, 2022

How campuses engage with the climate crisis: a taxonomy (Bryan Alexander*)

[This article is part of the Transparency-Accountability-Value series.]

How might colleges and universities grapple with the climate crisis?

This question is the subject of much of my work now, as you can see from these posts. Researching answers can lead in a wide range of directions, not to mention down some twisty rabbit holes. Today I’d like to avoid those depths and instead look at a very macro, very ten-thousand-foot level. Let’s explore a schematic analysis looking at campuses as institutions and communities, facing perhaps the greatest crisis of the century.

(I draw the following from my forthcoming book on the topic, Universities on Fire.)

To start, let’s break down the different ways by which the climate emergency can hit academic institutions. There’s the direct, environmental way, as storms strike, desertification and aridification expand, fire rage, heat rises, and waters surge through a campus. We can call this the primary impact vector.

Other campus impacts result from the ones crashing through the primary vector. Think of how temperature rises, the intrusion of salt into fresh water, and the arrival of new diseases can sabotage agriculture, which then leads to human misery and economic dislocation. This can reshape the area around some campuses, not to mention challenging a university’s ag programs. It can also injure campuses which enjoy appealing physical grounds in terms of mental health and outreach. Additionally, these ecological shocks can also strike academics directly, through newly arrived diseases. Increased storms can injure a local economy by damaging infrastructure, products, and workers, which can in turn blow back on a local college or university. Let’s place all of these knock-on effects under the header of a secondary impact vector.

Humanity responds to pressures exerted through the primary and secondary vectors, and these responses engage the academy. For example, natural disasters can prompt migration; the tendency of some regions to become uninhabitable will drive even more people to seek new abodes. Economic dislocation (a secondary impact vector) can breed social problems as well as feed extremist politics. Further, as humanity revises its energy production basis to get away from carbon dioxide, all kinds of ripples can work through society, from changes to economics, human spaces, and gender roles. If we extend our response to the crisis to include rethinking society and politics (viz anticapitalism, donut economics, decolonization, etc.), campuses feel the results as they are embedded within society and politics. I think of all of these organized together as the third climate crisis impact vector.

Given this triple threat, how can campuses react? As institutions, as individual people affiliated with schools, as groups within a college or university, academics have a broad range of strategies and responses available. Following the tripartite model above, we can similarly break down the scope or domain of academic action. Seen through our macro lens, academia can act on three levels, starting with the smallest events and actions taking place on campus: The physical campus. From renovating buildings to hosting renewable power generation, turning lawns to forests or gardens, banning carbon-burning vehicles, changing food service, and embracing green computing, academics have institutional grounds and materials as a major ground of action.

The campus in its community. Colleges and universities partner with local businesses, nonprofits, government agencies, and civil society for a range of purposes. The local community can also pressure a campus in many ways, from subjecting it to policies to protests. “Local” can scale up to municipal or other subnational governance, too. In short, there’s potential for productive work as well as friction. In America we call this “town-gown relations.”

Academia on the world stage. Already higher education contributes powerfully to humanity’s climate crisis actions by producing vital research. Individual academics can act as public intellectuals, translating their research for general consumption and influence. The reverse is also true as nation-states and transnational entities implement policies or generate other influences on the academic world. Further, some within the academy – faculty, staff, students – will seek to organize for climate mitigation and adaptation efforts. Indeed, some call on us now to imagine a new, post-carbon civilization; colleges and universities are fertile grounds for such creative work.

(I’ve also been thinking about the various arguments I’ve heard about why campus populations should not seek to change their institution during the climate crisis. Let me set those aside for now, perhaps for a future post just on the topic. That’s a different response category.)

To be fair, we can easily think of responses which cross between these boundaries, such as working with a religious group with a powerful local presence as well as a significant global one. Further, there’s not a hard and fast line between town-gown and academic in the world. I tend these artificial categories to be heuristics, a very rough sketch of possibilities.

How do these two sets of three interact? Let’s play them against each other to produce that beloved tool of futurists, a grid (click on grid for a clearer image):

To explicate this scheme further, I can offer some real world and hypothetical examples for each cell on this grid.

Primary or direct impact: on campus, elevating buildings to allow flood water to pass underneath. In community: students and faculty partnering to construct and maintain a large seawall. In the world: professors publishing research modeling the impact of an Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation (AMOC) slowdown.

Secondary impact: on campus, revising sociology curricula to focus on climate-driven social changes. In community: increasing partnerships with local medical care providers and public health authorities to address climate-caused health problems. In the world: students, faculty, and staff lobby national governments to adopt a no-growth economy.

Tertiary or socio-political impact: on campus, setting up an institute for Post-Carbon Society. In community: offering housing and teaching for climate refugees. In the world: scholars advocating in public to block geoengineering.

Let’s stick these into the grid:

Click on grid for a clearer image.

I think that shows the breadth of ways colleges and universities could engage with the climate emergency, both proactively and reactively. It might be useful to give academics a sense of the options they have, and a pointer towards the multi-pronged nature of the threat.

I hope it’s useful to some of you. What do you think of this template as a heuristic?

*Bryan Alexander is an awardwinning, internationally known futurist, researcher, writer, speaker, consultant, and teacher, working in the field of higher education’s future. He is currently a senior scholar at Georgetown University. Bryan's next book is Universities on Fire, to be published by Johns Hopkins University Press. This article was originally published at

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