Universities must act swiftly and independently on climate change

An open letter from academics and campaigners to sector leaders

October 29, 2019
A climate demonstration
Source: iStock

Dear vice-chancellors, Universities UK and UK Research and Innovation,

Humanity stands at the brink of a precipice. If we do not urgently address climate breakdown and the ecological crisis, the very future of life on earth is in question. David Attenborough has said “We cannot be radical enough” in tackling the climate crisis, and the people are listening. Universities are the bastions of wisdom and knowledge that are urgently needed to combat the climate crisis. Now is the time to increase our efforts.

The crisis is at our doorstep
The impacts of climate change are being felt more rapidly than predicted, with Himalayan glaciers melting twice as fast as expected and the Arctic warming to a full 4°C above average. Thawing permafrost soil is releasing unprecedented amounts of methane and carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. 2018 was the world’s fourth hottest year on record. As the United Nations warns that climate crisis-related disasters are happening at a rate of one a week, the risk we face is that impacts may soon run away from us with changes too swift and unpredictable to mitigate.

We need to achieve the impossible: The Great Transition
When in 1961, President John F. Kennedy committed the US to “go to the Moon” before the decade was out, it was the collective efforts of scientists and engineers that saw this seemingly impossible feat accomplished 50 years ago this year. Today, we face an even greater challenge, and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s 2018 report makes clear that the 10-year window available to us is non-negotiable. The work starts now to transform our world into a sustainable, safe and fair place for our children to thrive – the Great Transition. We owe our students, and the world, nothing less than full engagement.

We must act independently and swiftly
The Committee on Climate Change recently said that ministers were failing to cut emissions fast enough, and failing to adapt to rising temperatures. The Grantham Research Institute just published a report which found that half of all major companies do not factor the climate crisis into decision-making. The Environmental Association for Universities and Colleges recently announced that 7,000-plus universities and colleges globally have declared a climate emergency. More will join and a global network, working together, could make an enormous difference.

Support fellowships, placements and volunteering for mitigation, adaptation and ecological restoration
We ask you to support scientists, academics and students to help address the climate emergency through a series of new programmes, fellowships, sabbaticals and voluntary placements to help the critical efforts needed to save all life on our planet. These will be hosted by a large partnership between universities, companies and NGOs working on solutions.

We need to be leaders. We need to transform our universities into action-oriented institutions.

Please help us make this possible.


Mark Maslin, professor of Climatology, UCL; fellow of the Royal Geographical Society
Alice Larkin, head of the School of Engineering, Tyndall Centre, University of Manchester
Shaun Fitzgerald, director, The Royal Institution
Michelle Shipworth, associate professor in energy and social Sciences, UCL Energy Institute; director of ethics, UCL Bartlett School of Environment, Energy and Resources
James McKay, manager, EPSRC Centre for Doctoral Training in Bioenergy, University of Leeds
Robert Falkner, research director, Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change and the Environment, London School of Economics
Claire Barlow, deputy head, department of engineering, University of Cambridge
Steve Evans, director of research in industrial sustainability, University of Cambridge
Alice Roberts, professor of public engagement in science, University of Birmingham
Jim Al-Khalili, president of the British Science Association, University of Surrey
Zamzam Ibrahim, president, National Union of Students
Mark Miodownik, director, UCL Institute of Making
Paul Ekins, director, UCL Institute for Sustainable Resources
Peter Smith, professor of soils and global change, University of Aberdeen
Hagan Bayley, professor of chemical biology, University of Oxford
Philippa Browning, professor of astrophysics, University of Manchester
Jim Lynch, emeritus professor of life sciences, University of Surrey
George Adamson, convenor of King’s Climate Research Hub, department of geography, King’s College London
And more than 1,000 others. For the full list of signatories, click here.

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