Preface: The following post by Dr. John Lemons argues that there is an extremely urgent need to systematically transform US higher education to create an informed citizenry about the scientific, social, political, policy, legal, cultural, and moral dimensions of climate change. ClimateEthics believes that US higher education is at least partly responsible for the failure of the United States to respond to its ethical obligations, duties, and responsibilities for climate change. The following post makes the case that “piecemeal” reform of higher education about climate change will not be sufficient and that comprehensive educational reform of higher-education is necessary.
Some have argued that the lack of political resolve to tackle sustainability issues stems from resistance to assumptions that modern economic and technological thinking will solve society’s problems (Basso 1996, Bowers 2003).
I have been living in Alaska the past few years, and in contrast to assumptions about faith in technology, some Inuit people tell me their foundations for government and education are based on traditional sets of relationships by which they have lived. Their fundamental belief is that the connections that individuals feel for each other and to their environment determine personal character and value to the community. Without using the word “sustainability,” for Inuits this belief is the definition of “sustainability.” Sustainability is a core value of Inuit life. Instead of having to be incorporated or infused into policies and programs, culturally embedded concepts of sustainability form a natural foundation from which all policies and practices are derived. This is an inversion of the usual approach to trying to incorporate sustainability in policies, laws, and practices of the Western world (IALEI 2009).
The problem of global climate change can be considered a subset of “sustainability.” Universities need to urgently, if not radically, respond to the challenges of anthropogenic global climate change by focusing on the complicated intertwined aspects of the scientific, social, political, policy, legal, cultural, and moral dimensions necessary for an informed citizenry.
Following, I discuss three topics. The first reminds us of the quantifiable scientific urgency to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. The second concerns the evolution of environmental and sustainability programs because their evolution can inform us about prospects of emergent global climate change programs. The third topic focuses on prospects for change in universities, especially those of research universities, which, as I also note, have influenced the teaching missions of small colleges and universities. Part of my critique is based on the view that comprehensive responses by higher education include a return to liberal education and education about climate change for all students.
The year 2012 is the 40th anniversary of the Stockholm Declaration on the Human Environment (UNCHE 1972), when the concept of “sustainability” arguably first began to influence higher education and public policies. We have not yet achieved sustainability.
Dernbach (2002) described the checkered history of sustainability as “…stumbling toward sustainability.” Stumbling toward solutions of global climate change is not an option, or at least a wise one. Time is not on our side. How can we dislodge our universities from their lethargic responses to the kinds of problems we are discussing?
II.Global Climate Change Science: The Problem of Urgency
Scientific conclusions published after the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s most recent report (IPCC 2007) indicate that not only are greenhouse gas emissions rising faster than IPCC’s worst-case scenario but that observed impacts exceed those projected (Allison et al. 2009, Levin and Tirpak 2009, New et al. 2011).
Recent scientific studies conclude that in order to avoid serious and irreversible impacts there is an urgency to reduce greenhouse gas emissions up to 40 percent by 2020 or so compared to 1990 or 2000 levels (Hansen et al. 2008, Baer et al. 2009; Bates 2009; Kaufmann et al. 2009; Rockström 2009). Several major scientific studies conclude that avoiding serious and irreversible consequences of global climate change is plausible, but only if urgent actions are undertaken by developed nations, which means that greenhouse gas emissions would have to peak prior to or not later than around 2020 and then decline at an annual rate of six percent or more, eventually reaching a level close to zero if equity between developed and developing nations is to be honored (Anderson and Bows 2008, Ramanathan and Feng 2008, Baer et al. 2009, WGBU 2009, den Elzen et al. 2010, New et al. 2011).
These kinds of studies add a quantified dimension that has been missing from prior discourse about sustainability-the importance of which should not be underestimated. For decades, scientists have quantified human appropriation of natural resources but have not put any numbers on when our use of resources will have to peak and then decline in order to avoid so-called “unsustainable” tipping points. By way of contrast, global climate change science is now quantifying that within a matter of a decade or so, we must drastically reduce greenhouse gas emissions by certain levels. Urgency beckons.
III. The History of Environmental and Sustainability Programs in Informing Emergent Programs in Global Climate Change
During the mid-1960s and early 1970s, development of environmental programs began to increase during the so-called “modern environmental movement” (see, e.g., Lemons 1995, Silveira 2001, Merchant 2007). In part, the modern movement stemmed from publication of popular books such as Aldo Leopold’s A Sand County Almanac (1949), Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring (1962), and Paul Ehrlich’s The Population Bomb (1968), to name a few, as well as from international conferences (UNESCO 1993, UNCHE 1972, Johnson 1993). Also contributing to the modern environmental movement were social changes in American culture: e.g., rising income levels that increased peoples’ demands for recreational and other amenities from “nature;” increasing education levels that enhanced values associated with nature; various environmental “catastrophes;” environmental and social activists who pushed for the restructure of society and the formation of alternative lifestyles; and the passage of bipartisan environmental legislation. Lastly, interest also grew from coverage in the popular media about threats to environmental and human health well-being.
Higher education responded to the broad modern environmental movement with the development of environmental and, later sustainability programs (Jacobson and Robinson 1990, Orr 1992, Weis et al. 1992, Lemons 1995, Silveira 2001, Feinstein 2009, Vincent 2010).
In part, the focus on sustainability stemmed from a successive evolution of the “modern” environmental movement toward administrative and legislative remedies, increased strength of “grassroots” and citizen-based activism, and concerns about environmental justice, respectively (Lemons 1995, Silveira 2001, Dernbach 2002, Merchant 2007). Scientific studies documenting the human appropriation of natural resource capital called attention to whether and to what extent humans are depleting the natural resources on which we are dependent (Meadows et al. 1972, Vitousek et al. 1986, Daily and Ehrlich 1992, Goodland and Daly 1995, Meadows et al. 2004). The increased focus on sustainability also stemmed from international meetings and reports (UNCHE 1972, WCED 1987), Johnson 1993, Lemons and Brown 1995), and university consortia with expressed commitments to foster sustainability and mitigation of global climate (ULSF 1990, ACUPCC 2006, Rowe 2007, Feinstein 2009, IALEI 2009).
A recent study estimates the number of environmental and sustainability degree granting programs has more than doubled over the last two decades from around 500 in 1990 to over 1200 today, and further, that jobs in these fields between 2008-2018 are projected to increase at a rate of around 28 percent, which is faster than the average for all occupations (Vincent 2010).
So far, the above history of programs might be viewed positively as judged by the growth in numbers and projected increases in job opportunities (Feinstein 2009, Vincent 2010). Yet, a positive assessment about the efficacy of sustainability programs in general, and more specifically about global climate change programs, is problematic.
With respect to sustainability programs, which to repeat any program in global climate change should be a subset, it is difficult to judge the success of universities’ initiatives in terms of enrollment, learning outcomes, altering attitudes and beliefs, or influencing environmental legislation (Bowers 2008, Feinstein 2009, May 2009).
Elder (2008) examined the status of universities in developing and implementing environmental and sustainability programs. He noted that while some individual schools progress towards environmental and sustainability literacy without external funding support, most programs are piecemeal, meaning at best they consist of a series of extra-curricula events, seminars, an elective course, or in a lesser number of cases a required course. Infrequently programs consist of full stand-alone majors and only rarely of entire campus-wide curricula programs. While the early evolution of sustainability programs benefited from a strong national environmental movement, there is no such movement in support of mitigation of global climate change.
According to Seersucker (2002), Bowers (2008) and Elder (2008), the enrollment of students in environmental and sustainability programs is relatively low, and most courses focus more on scientific issues which these commentators suggest constrains wide-spread support for the programs. The social sciences and humanities, which one might think would have a keen interest in sustainability and global climate change, have been slow to focus on them. Vucetich and Nelson (2010) note that a constraining factor on the success of sustainability programs, both in terms of content and inclusion within universities, might be the lack of university hires focused on the ethical dimensions of sustainability.
Another problem is that despite the vast scientific knowledge about the existence of a serious and urgent global climate change problem, a recent search of ERIC’s educational databases produced only about 70 peer-reviewed publications using “climate change” or “global warming” as search phrases. Most of the publications were not in research-oriented journals but rather in teacher practitioner journals focusing almost exclusively on aspects of teaching about global climate change in a scientific context, thereby not addressing the multitude of complicated but relevant non-science aspects. Further, it is too early to know the efficacy of university consortia such as the American College & University President’s Climate Commitment to foster sustainability and GCC initiatives because most member universities have not yet had to submit detailed plans for what they intend to implement, and have not, in fact, implemented very much (ACUPCC 2006).
IV. Change in Universities
Should universities change to urgently respond to GCC, and if so, how can they do so?
Thirty years ago, Derek Bob (1982), a former president of Harvard College, reviewed various roles of universities and examined why some adopt particular goals and programs and others do not. Discussion addressed whether universities should: (a)be relatively cloistered from societal demands and problems and dedicate themselves to learning and research for their own sake, benefiting society only indirectly through advances in basic knowledge and the education of able students; (b)respond energetically to society’s increased demands on career, graduate school, and professional preparation and training; or (c)set their own agendas for reform by deciding for themselves which programs to mount and projects to encourage in order to bring about needed social change. One of Bok’s conclusions was that the domination of modern research universities in higher education is detrimental to addressing pressing societal matters and fostering greater emphases on liberal education.
Clark Kerr (2001), a former Chancellor of the University of California, identified the increasingly strong funding and other relationships between the United States government and universities that results in pressure on universities to focus on research and development central to maintaining strong technological and economic capacity. Kerr noted that one consequence of this quest is that in the modern research university the discovery and application of science, often for economic ends, diminishes intellectual or moral inquiry per se. According to George O’Brien (1998), a former president of the University of Rochester, many people in modern research universities implicitly or explicitly adopt the view that they have little or no moral task because their purpose is to teach science and not virtue, which is to say teach only “truth” derived from scientific verification so that it can be manipulated with technology for economic ends. James Freedman (Freedman 1996), a former president of the University of Iowa and Dartmouth College, is critical of what he believes is a dominant view that the purpose of the undergraduate curriculum is to focus on career and graduate school preparation, which, of course, limits exposure to areas outside of one’s major.
These university presidents believe that universities have uncritically acquiesced to adopting curricula that represent the desires of powerful sectors within society; e.g., science, economics, business, and professional schools and neglected topics that could or ought be taught that deal with civic and moral issues. Although these presidents have focused on the role of modern research universities, they also recognize how such universities have influenced and thereby detracted from the purported emphasis on teaching at small colleges and universities¬–a point not to be undervalued. In short, these presidents lament the decline of liberal education and implicitly or directly associate the decline with problems of sustainability and global climate change.
If anything, global climate change fundamentally is a moral issue and, given this, Bowen (2008), Michaels (2008), and Oreskes and Conway (2010) are strongly critical of the decades-long ways in which large corporations, as well as some government agencies, have knowingly seeded scientific doubt about the threats of global climate change and, in fact, have at times changed scientific conclusions to fit administrative policy decisions.
Seth (2008) makes explicit the failure of higher education to address the strong ties between capitalism and ever-increasing consumerism which, of course, increases the problems of global climate change. Vucetich and Nelson (2010) demonstrate how the lack of inclusion of ethics into sustainability programs, and by extension those with a focus on global climate change, is stifling progress. Nussbaum (2010) also lends her voice to how universities have neglected liberal and civic education and by doing so contribute to the root causes of problems such as global climate change. Interestingly, more than 20 years ago the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS 1990) concluded that scientific goals to solve society’s problems are fostered by a greater emphasis on liberal education.
In their prescient book The Subversive Science: Essays Toward an Ecology of Man, Shepard and McKinley (1969) argued that a change in western perspective was necessary to address problems of environmental and human health caused by our failure to pay attention to ecological limits and the moral implications of our use of technology. They also wrote: “Where now there is man-centeredness, ecology…faces the task of renewing a balanced view.” The essays in the book went on to say that much of ecology, if properly understood, is radical insofar as it is subversive to the powers that benefit from the status quo in society and that impose unjust harms on others.
Bowers (1997, 2008) and Orr (1992) are perhaps the most well-known critics of failures to include sustainability and global climate change into universities’ programs. They understand ecology’s subversive implications, as did Shepard and McKinley. Bowers and Orr also understand that it is fallacious to believe that required or elective courses here or there or even a degree program is sufficient for most students to understand the urgency and moral necessity of dealing with global climate change. Such minimal approaches cannot be effective when the overwhelming majority of the curriculum–which reflects the cultural mores of the larger society that is concerned about increasing the GDP through increasing consumerism–is so much more influential. This problem is, of course, related to an uncritical assumption of linear progress from scientific, technical, and economic power and innovations, which is to say there is insufficient concern about the harms to sustaining ecological and human communities resulting from faith in linear progress.
Parenthetically, I have used the term “liberal education” several times despite it being fraught with ambiguity. My operative definition is: “An education that helps persons be open-minded and free from dogma and preconceived ideology; conscious of and skeptical of their own beliefs and traditions; trained to think for themselves in a studied and mindful manner rather than defer to authority; understand the nested relationships between diverse individuals and human and ecological communities and the bridges that link their pasts, presents, and futures; recognize the value of multicultural diversity; have a focus on active and participatory citizenship; and are mindful about what needs to be conserved or changed, and why.” Accordingly, liberal education should include all academic disciplines for all students.
The failure of universities to develop comprehensive global climate change programs might also stem from a lack of attention to responsibilities that come with the protection of academic freedom, which not only allows faculty to conduct their own teaching and research, but also entails the responsibility to enable all students through university-wide programs of study to acquire learning to make significant contributions to society (AACU 2006). Academic freedom therefore requires faculty to advocate for the inclusion of comprehensive global climate change programs. Surely, global climate is a huge societal problem. Further, if faculty members avoid taking action this implicitly or unwittingly represents a form of advocacy because it is tantamount to supporting continuation of the status quo that is responsible for global climate change.
V. Concluding Remarks
Why should universities deal with global climate change in a more wide-spread and comprehensive manner? The reason lies within university responsibilities to educate about important societal issues across all disciplines, including the benefits of liberal education for all students. Recent quantifiable scientific evidence concludes that mitigation of serious and irreversible consequences of global climate change are plausible but only if urgent action is taken within about a decade or so. Drawing on assessments about the efficacy of environmental and sustainability programs, it seems clear that “piecemeal” approaches to addressing the complicated root causes and possible solutions to global climate change will not work. Because of the pervasive influences that have caused global climate change, its solution needs to include all disciplines and programs.
In order to foster comprehensive education about global climate change, it will be necessary for educators and environmental scientists and managers, and high-level university administrators to advocate for university reform. One might not relish being involved in advocacy, but the stark choice is this: Either engage in advocacy or not. But if not, understand that this is a decision, intentional or unwitting, to support the status quo that is responsible for global climate change. Scientists or other educators who might be reticent to engage in advocacy because of fear that it might compromise real or perceived objectivity would be well advised to read Lemons (1987), Nelson and Vucetich (2009), and Moore and Nelson (2010) which dispel myths about the legitimacy of such reticence.
William Butler Yeats wrote: “Education is not about filling buckets, but lighting fires.” If he was correct, there is precious little time left for universities to “light fires” and do what they can to mitigate global climate change.
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Department of Environmental Studies
University of New England
Biddeford, ME 04005