Sunday, April 7, 2024

Climate crisis - why are universities so silent?

Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash

We are in the midst of the greatest environmental collapse since long before human beings emerged onto this planet but the vast majority of governments and obedient citizens have decided that the best strategy is to pretend that there is no threat and continue with business as usual, focusing on short-term profit above future survival. Science denial is now becoming mainstream and the United Nations' reports coming from the world's experts on climate and environmental science are flippantly dismissed as alarmist and governments pay at best lip service with greenwashed statments of fantasy and wishful thinking. Climate activists are ridiculed and often branded as extremists and a "threat to democracy" whilst the governments and corporations that are profiting from actively destroying the world we live in are portrayed as rational and responsible. 

Since the science behind these reports come from the world's universities and research institutes these organisations are worryingly silent in national debates. Instead of fully and vocally standing up for their own researchers and offering a united front against the deluge of disinformation and greenwashing, they seldom if ever make their voices heard. There are some positive signs, such as the EUA's (European Universities Association) A Green deal roadmap for European universities published in October last year..

EUA’s Green Deal roadmap outlines processes and interventions which can boost universities’ impact and visibility in pursuing a climate-neutral, environmentally sustainable, and socially equitable Europe. The roadmap should serve as an inspiration and template for how universities can face the climate and environmental challenge over an extensive timeframe, enabling them to make both an effective contribution and serve as exemplars of sustainable communities.

Certainly almost every university has some kind of environmental/sustainability policy but on the ground there are often only cosmetic changes. Despite the lessons learned during the pandemic about the affordances of digital meetings and conferences we have largely flocked back to on-site conferences and academics, like other professions, are flying far and wide again. This despite all relevant research pointing to the fact that business as usual will have catastrophic societal consequences in the next 20-30 years. If that wasn't bad enough we have the terrifying trend that just when we need global cooperation to solve global crises the world is filled with toxic xenophobic nationalism leading to more conflict and destruction.

These thoughts were given greater perspective last week in an article in Frontiers in Education, “No research on a dead planet”: preserving the socio-ecological conditions for academia, by Aaron Thierry, Laura Horn, Pauline von Hellermann and Charlie J. Gardner. Universities' passivity in this issue will threaten their future existence.

Despite thousands of higher education institutions (HEIs) having issued Climate Emergency declarations, most academics continue to operate according to ‘business-as-usual’. However, such passivity increases the risk of climate impacts so severe as to threaten the persistence of organized society, and thus HEIs themselves.

Universities are of course simply following the societal indifference to our impending crisis, often with a warped pride in being as climate unfriendly as possible, refusing to even contemplate flying and driving less often, eating less meat, consuming less and living more sustainably. Our governments confirm these prejudices as here in Sweden where we are being encouraged to fly and drive more with increasing subsidies to fossil industries. Climate change and environmental protection are guaranteed conversation killers - I have tried! But universities should at least support their own scientists and offer a research-based response to the disinformation.

This dissonance extends to the individual behavior of many academics. For example, the normalization of aviation-based hyper-mobility in academic work (Bjørkdahl and Franco Duharte, 2022). It is even the case that professors in climate science fly more than other researchers, despite the tremendous carbon emissions associated with such activities (Whitmarsh et al., 2020). On a day-to-day basis, most academic staff seem to be maintaining the semblance of normalcy and unconcern. So great is our apparent collective indifference that an onlooker could be forgiven for thinking that we do not believe our own institutions’ official warnings that an emergency is unfolding around us.

It's time to speak out, but not as individuals (vulnerable to the hate and threats that speaking out provokes) but rather as institutions or even alliances of institutions. Universities still carry a lot of weight in society even if it is being eroded by authoritarian politicians. If they do not speak loudly and clearly in support of their own science then they risk becoming irrelevant. It is that serious. I will give the last word here to the authors of the article.

For too long we have allowed a culture of climate silence to dominate in our universities, leading to a misalignment of our priorities from our core purpose and values, thereby perpetuating a maladaptive response to the unfolding planetary emergency and undermining the very future of the higher education sector. Universities have in effect become ‘fraud bubbles’ (Weintrobe, 2021) in which staff and students must construct a ‘double reality’, in order to pursue a narrow social role, trapped in maladaptive incentive structures of increasingly neoliberal institutions. This ultimately serves to reproduce the hegemonic practices, norms and conventions driving socio-ecological collapse. As an academic community we must urgently learn to grapple with the role that universities can play as leaders in the necessary social transformation to come. Our dearest notions of progress, rooted in our desire for the beneficial accumulation and application of knowledge (Collini, 2012), are now both directly and indirectly threatened by the climate crisis.

Maybe I have missed good examples of university action. Please send examples in that case. Happy for all signs of resistance!