Thursday, November 29, 2012

Education for the New Normal

NASA Satellite Image (NASA/Getty Images)
If there’s a silver lining to be found on the massive cloud that covered the better part of the eastern US last month, it’s this: people are talking seriously about real risks of climate change. 

From provocative headlines (“It’s Global Warming, Stupid”, Bloomberg Businessweek) to carefully selecting language and asking the right questions (“On Hurricanes…”, Dot Earth) — people are talking about climate change in ways we haven’t seen before.

For whatever reasons, Katrina, Ike, Snowpocalypse, Irene, the wildfires, the droughts, the warmest month on record — and the many other extreme weather events of recent years — failed to get people to really connect the dots between extreme weather and climate change.   

Thoughtful experts are having important conversations about whether climate change caused Sandy, or strengthened Sandy, or made Sandy more likely, or had anything to do with Sandy. But everyone seems to finally agree that we need to be prepared for more extreme events like Sandy. 

I believe the “super storm” — with its implications for presidential politics — will serve to condense the disparate events of recent years into a popular awareness that we are in a “New Normal” regarding the climate. The images of submerged New Jersey neighborhoods, exploding power plants, vehicles floating down Manhattan avenues will change our country’s collective consciousness for good.  Rising oceans will no longer be punch lines.

As we assess the damage to people in our communities, our infrastructure, and our economy, we will have the opportunity to reassess how we prepare for the impacts of climate change.  Whose responsibility is it to make sure we’re ready? Most probably think government, community groups, and maybe business should take this on.

But leadership from another sector — higher education — is also critical.

We know the importance of emergency preparedness: anticipating the risks, alerting people, and evacuating vulnerable areas. We know we need comprehensive and effective response plans. We will need to put up seawalls, restore natural barriers, and simply abandon certain parts of the coast.  This recent TED talk by Vicki Arroyo, Executive Director of the Georgetown Climate Center, provides a good overview of these and other climate adaptation strategies.

We also need to make some more fundamental shifts in how we design our communities, generate energy, produce and transport goods, and generally go about meeting our needs.

Colleges and universities have a unique responsibility in preparing society for this New Normal.  In many ways, they are already fulfilling that role, particularly when it comes to reducing climate change pollution. More than 660 colleges are actively participating in the American College & University Presidents’ Climate Commitment (ACUPCC). They are publicly reporting progress on climate action plans; providing education, research, and community engagement on climate; and pursuing net-zero greenhouse gas emissions from campus operations. Together they represent over 6 million students, offer 10,000 sustainability-related courses, and have avoided 1.6 million tons of carbon dioxide equivalent (reducing emissions 25% on average) in the past five years. 

With regard to climate adaptation, much of the research that helps us understand climate change impacts, and strategies for dealing with them, comes from our country’s universities.  There are early signs that climate preparedness is making its way into the classroom, and some instances of campus-community collaboration around implementing adaptation strategies.

Last year, I facilitated a group of higher education leaders, scientists, and sustainability experts, in developing Higher Education’s Role in Adapting to a Changing Climate.  The report provides an overview of trends in the sector and some exciting examples of what’s happening individual campuses.  But the group concluded that higher education institutions “as a whole, have not focused on adaptation sufficiently to date.”

In addition to more research, colleges and universities have opportunities to experiment and role-model solutions on their campuses, and partner with local communities to implement successful strategies more broadly.  Perhaps most importantly, they have the opportunity — and responsibility ­— to ensure that all graduates, from all disciplines, understand the climate challenge and are prepared to lead society through it.

Weather they become politicians or office administrators, architects or CEOs, artists or engineers; all citizens need to understand our new climate. And they must be prepared to minimize the drivers of further climate change, while creating safer communities and more resilient economies.

Stay going. 

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