Shift from research to action on climate change, campuses told

We don’t need any more science to tell us what the problem is, says top BEIS adviser

October 27, 2021
Climate protest
Source: Alamy/Getty/iStock

Academic institutions will need to step up beyond simply doing research showing the existence of climate change to urgently address the environmental crisis, the Times Higher Education Leadership and Management Summit heard.

“We don’t need any more science or research to tell us what the problem is – we know what that problem is,” said Paul Monks, chief scientific adviser at the UK’s Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy.

Instead, universities must now “change to become the solution providers” and the “demonstrators” of values on climate change, he said.

“Speed is what matters. The next eight years will determine whether we’re in a planet that’s safe or unsafe,” stressed Sam Barratt, chief of the youth, education and advocacy unit in the United Nations Environment Programme’s ecosystems division, who chastised universities for failing to address their emissions, which he called a “basic compliance” issue.

Panellists listed a number of ideas for what universities could change as a top priority. Beyond institutions putting their own houses in order, they should be proactive on institutional policy and think about the effects of any institutional decision on climate before it is made, said Professor Monks.

“Before we make every decision, the question for that decision should be, how is that contributing to net zero – I think that is a real challenge for universities.”

Universities will also need to step up their engagement efforts and go beyond preaching to a choir of degree-holders and students, he said, adding that institutions “tend to talk to people who went to universities” at the risk of ignoring the general public, including the communities in their immediate vicinity.

“We need absolutely everybody,” agreed Alyssa Gilbert, director of policy and translation at Imperial College London, noting that “we are vital to the solution, but so is everybody else”.

Still, she said that universities would need to be clear on their own agenda. One solution Ms Gilbert proposed was that each institution create a cross-university group to set its climate strategy.

Universities must also ensure that climate aims do not get lost in the “often very singular” and “divided” way in which many university departments work, said Terry Bailey, executive director of the Institute for Marine and Antarctic Studies at the University of Tasmania.

Like other panellists, he called for a greater emphasis on interdisciplinary collaboration – an aspect of work he said would be crucial in coming up with solutions. But Dr Bailey also said that climate issues must be baked into institutions’ teaching. He said that his own university was already in the process of reviewing its course offerings with the aim of including climate in as many of them as possible.

“There’s clear evidence,” he said. “Our students want sustainability in the curriculum.”

Ultimately, the most important impact universities have may be the lifelong lessons they impart to their students, said Mr Barratt, who is co-chair of the UN Higher Education Sustainability Initiative.

“The students that pass through their halls, how they chose to live their lives for next 70 years, that will have a far bigger impact on the world than anything the campus can do,” he said.

“It’s not just thinking about what they can do as organisations within their own sphere of influence, but it’s about inspiring and changing the mindsets of students and how they go to choose and make decisions later in life.”

pola.lem@timeshighereducation.com

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