Could universities be doing more to address climate change?

climate change
While many universities are fighting against climate change, they could be doing much more. Source: Shutterstock

Climate change awareness is spreading rapidly around the world. Chilling photos, such as the widely-circulated image by National Geographic of the whale found dead with 88 pounds of plastic in its belly are giving people stark visuals of the dire situation our planet is in.

Protests and strikes spurred by the Greta Thunberg movement are also creating more awareness among the youth.

Universities are often seen as the breeding ground of youth-led issues, as some of the most important movements have been borne on campus.

But are universities today doing enough to tackle climate change? While there are some who are leading the way, such as banning beef products, using more renewable energy sources and investing heavily in sustainability research, many are lagging behind.

Why is it important for universities to be leaders of climate change action? Put simply, because they can.

They have a wealth of intellectual resources in a collaborative environment with opportunities to work across interdisciplinary departments to tackle climate change.

Plus, they are seen as respected institutions among the public, meaning their objective research and published works on the issue, as well as measures taken, have the power to positively influence the public.

A recent report by Nick Mayo, writing for Times Higher Education (THE), found that universities could definitely be doing more, after interviewing a few experts in this field.

According to them, the current political climate in developed countries’ lack of government initiatives to address climate change is a factor that could be slowing down sustainability efforts across universities.

William Syddall, Head of environmental sustainability at UNSW Sydney, said that universities must “sound the alarm” and they have a duty to  “teach our future leaders, who are going to be advocates of sustainability and take action on sustainability” when it comes to the current climate change crisis.

Climate change

Universities have all the resources at hand – they must take responsibility for maximising action. Source: Shutterstock

Meanwhile, Jamie Agombar, Head of Sustainability at the National Union of Students (NUS), told THE that universities “should be doing more to reduce their own carbon emissions, ensuring that students, regardless of what they are studying, understand about sustainable development and the climate emergency, divesting from investments in fossil fuels, reinvesting in renewables and putting their acres of land to good use by planting trees.”

Conservative groups in countries like the US claim that climate change is an agenda pushed by the liberals, and many “climate change deniers” don’t believe it’s actually true. This affects funding for academic research in public universities, as well as the opportunity to bring climate change awareness out of the academic sphere.

Michael Mann, distinguished Professor of Atmospheric Science at Penn State University and an internationally recognised climate scientist, said it’s vital to communicate to the wider public on climate change issues, but these efforts face “a stiff headwind in the form of a concerted effort by vested interests, fossil fuel interests and conservative groups that have funded a massive disinformation effort to confuse the public and to confuse the policymakers and to sow distrust [of] the scientists.”

“Probably the main obstacle to furthering university-based research and outreach is the war against universities and science that is being waged by politicians in the pay of polluting interests,” he added.

Jeffrey Sachs, a world-renowned Professor of Economics and Director of the Center for Sustainable Development at Columbia University, agreed that the problem stems from “money made from fossil fuels, and the ways that the money corrupts politics. Add in Trump’s disordered mind and we have a dire crisis in US politics.”

Climate change inaction is a global problem

In Australia and the UK, there are also bureaucratic issues affecting progressive climate change in universities.

According to Syddall, the Australian government is “not convinced of the need for strong action on climate change”.

He said, “Universities can play a role in hopefully informing people, informing governments, informing policy, so that they do begin to take stronger action on climate change, because we just don’t have time for another political cycle of inaction.”

In the UK, the latest People & Planet’s University League found that many universities are lagging behind climate change action.

Out of 154 UK universities ranked on sustainable development, only a third are on track to meet carbon reduction targets by 2020, although many are showing improvements.

The results showed that many universities in the country showed improvements in teaching and learning in the ‘sustainable development education’ section, but government hinderance may be delaying their efforts.

According to the press release, “The majority of universities have slowed down or plateaued on what was an energetic period of commitment and without government incentive it leaves universities allowing strategy, actions and even jobs for sustainability staff to lapse and not be replaced.

“As part of the research, People & Planet analyse carbon emissions data collated by the Higher Education Statistics Agency for all publicly funded UK universities and publish their results toward the sector wide target of 43% cuts on 2005 emissions by 2020.

“But just 1 year before the target date, the Office for Students are planning to drop carbon emission records for English universities, making it impossible to see whether universities have met a crucial carbon reduction target and leaving students shocked and frustrated in a period where many of them are organising strikes to demand action on the climate crisis.”

This move is viewed by UK experts as a “backwards step”, leading us in the wrong direction when it comes to tackling the climate change crisis.

It looks like an uphill battle for universities trying to make headway in addressing the climate crisis. Therefore, those who are doing so should be lauded and will hopefully inspire others to break through the restrictions and fight against climate change.

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