How Climate Change Impacts Higher Education

In anticipation of how climate change will reshape our world, colleges are reshaping curricula around climate literacy.
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  • Colleges occupy a unique place in the unfolding saga of climate change.
  • Through research, outreach, and role modeling, higher education is called on to lead.
  • A growing list of institutions are on missions to go green and train students.

Climate change awareness began with academics. Theories of greenhouse gasses and the burgeoning geological age ushered in by human activity — the Anthropocene — were discussed in scholarly journals and college classrooms before they entered the mainstream vocabulary.

Now, the mainstreaming of climate change literacy is transforming higher education's relationship with the topic. It's no longer uniquely relevant to just those in the natural sciences or STEM fields. Climate topics increasingly touch all parts of college operations and life — from campus buildings to core curriculum to community goals.

According to a report from the Higher Education Climate Adaptation Committee, part of the nonprofit advocacy group Second Nature, higher education has many roles to play in addressing climate change:

  • Produce research and identify adaptation strategies
  • Role model climate resilience and test pilot solutions through campus operations
  • Serve as community hubs for outreach and resources
  • Provide education to students in preparation for climate-influenced careers and lives

Perhaps the most central of colleges' climate mandates is to create future-proof graduates. Their existing responsibility to develop the leaders and decision-makers of tomorrow serves a new goal in light of climate change: College graduates should understand and be equipped to respond to climate change no matter their chosen field.

Since campuses resemble small, self-contained cities, residential colleges may also model climate adaptation and activism through their infrastructure and investment choices.

Close to a thousand U.S. colleges have committed to becoming carbon neutral and building their climate resilience by signing the American College and University Presidents’ Climate Commitment, organized by Second Nature.

"Higher education often serves as an early adopter for practices that have broader social impact," said Timothy Carter, president of Second Nature.

"For environmental sustainability, campuses have created some of the most ambitious climate action plans in the country," Carter added.

Anticipating Climate Disruption on Campus

Scientists say that every region in the U.S. can expect increased extreme weather linked to climate disruption.

From rising temperatures, drought, and wildfires to severe storms, rising sea levels, and floods, the weather events anticipated to shake various states would also shake the colleges within them.

Depending on the colleges' location, attaining climate resiliency means something different to each institution. Other mitigation strategies are standard nationwide. These include adopting carbon neutral goals and taking environmentally friendly approaches to building projects, transportation, energy, and campus operations, including food and water systems.

Researchers warn that the first and worst hit by climate disruption will be low-income communities and communities of color. Already, more than half of all people who live near hazardous waste are people of color, leading Vann R. Newkirk II of The Atlantic to say "environmental racism is the new Jim Crow."

Within higher education, the socioeconomic side of climate change puts emphasis on colleges that serve Black and brown students. Of the 104 historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs) in the U.S., 75 are located in the South, where climate change scientists expect some of the most severe impacts.

The HBCU Climate Change Consortium, launched in 2011, aims to turn students into climate leaders while girding their institutions — which are often in poor physical condition through underfunding and neglect — against climate disruption.

The consortium recently formed a partnership with the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to recruit students and provide institutional support, including grants.

Climate Change as Core Curriculum

Since their inception, colleges have set out to produce well-rounded citizens — critical thinkers and imaginative innovators, not just skilled laborers.

These well-rounded citizens were thought to be developed through broad education in language, history, and the social sciences. Now, climate change literacy joins the list.

Higher education increasingly includes climate change education into not only degree programs with obvious overlap, such as engineering or biology, but across all specializations and into the core curriculum taken by all students.

Proponents say that climate change touches all fields — business, economics, law, literature, healthcare — and all lives. Graduates versed in the principles and the practices around climate change will be needed to help communities weather the future.

Outside of the U.S., centering climate literacy in education is happening at an even faster pace. In Spain, a new climate law could require all subjects to incorporate climate topics starting in high school. The Royal Institute of British Architects plans to make climate literacy mandatory across its over 100 institutions in 23 countries.

The U.S. has been somewhat slower to crosscut general education with climate topics. As recently as 2018, researchers decried the "pervasive misinformation about climate change" that "might be reduced if colleges were to include the topic within general education curriculum."

Higher education is in a position to both intellectually and emotionally train citizens to be sensitive to climate change. Beyond educating students, colleges are being called on to reach the broader community. Community colleges are considered particularly equipped to perform this work.

Greenwashing in Higher Education

While higher education takes its place at the front of climate change activism, not all college practices have received equal scrutiny.

Aspects of college operations that schools have been slower to address include lucrative investments in fossil fuel and the tuition-income-boosting presence of international students.

The U.S. welcomes the largest number of international students of all countries. America's status as an education destination is a feather in the cap of national institutions, many of which are considered among the most prestigious in the world. International students also bring diversity to campuses and boost the U.S. talent pool. But promoting international travel can come at a cost.

The greenhouse gas emissions associated with international student mobility are substantial and rising faster than overall global emissions, estimates suggest. The environmental impacts of international education means that colleges directly benefit from a carbon-based economy, even as they have signed pledges to reach carbon neutrality.

While cultural exchanges promote a more global perspective and richer understanding of our world, the environmental toll of flying across it has gone largely unaddressed by higher ed. Indeed, higher education's climate advocacy has grown simultaneously with international student enrollment.

The voice of higher education is getting louder within the climate change conversation. While colleges look to build up societal awareness of climate change with an aim of permeating and influencing all sectors, higher education is itself an industry with practices that run afoul of its preaching.