Climate change requires universities to respond

7 October 2019

We are at a critical stage in which universities have a vital role to play, said Keri Facer, visiting Professor of Climate Change Leadership at Uppsala University, in the acclaimed lecture.

European universities need transforming if they are to meet the need to learn and think along new lines because of climate change. This was one conclusion in the acclaimed lecture given by Dr Keri Facer, the current visiting Professor of Climate Change Leadership at Uppsala University, in the University Main Building on 1 October.

The Zennström Professorship of Climate Change Leadership is a 10-year series of annual or biennial visiting professors, Facer being number three. Many students, researchers and teachers had gathered to hear her lecture in room X of the University Main Building.

The theme of the lecture was what we need to learn in order to live with a changed climate on Earth, and how European universities can change to meet this need.

Facer began by stating that we are at a critical stage in which universities have a vital role to play. As an example, she mentioned the part of north-west England where she grew up, which has been hit by both flooding and a wildfire in recent years. She sees this as one of many examples of the “lively planet” we now inhabit.

“We’re beginning to realise that we’re part of a rich, complex and interconnected world whose system we’ve been playing with and which, in turn, will create new conditions for us to live within. We’re no longer the gods at the centre of things, and the ground beneath our feet is not inert but alive.”

Long-term challenges

What does this mean for universities? We need to work on different time scales, Facer thinks. First, there are immediate challenges, such as reducing carbon emissions over the next few years in our food choices, transport and waste management, for example. But this is not enough.

The risk is, she said, that the phrase “fixing climate change” tricks us into thinking we can continue as before.

“We need to explore the longer-term challenge that is the shift in our relationship to the planet and the implications for education and scholarship.”

This is not just about science, Facer emphasised. It is also a matter of vitalising democracy and thinking about economics in new ways – not easy issues.

“We have to learn, and we need to learn quickly. Almost all change starts with making room for education”, she said.

Alternatives to traditional universities

Today, alternative education institutions are emerging alongside universities. Often, in Facer’s view, they are hotbeds for change in universities as well. She sees parallels with major shifts in human history, such as the Middle Ages or the Enlightenment. During these eras, universities underwent fundamental change; and for us, a similar shift now lies ahead.

It calls for rethinking of finances and funding systems, novel campus design and greening of transport. Universities need to mobilise appropriate technologies to enable internationalisation without carbon costs and develop new practices to initiate young people into adulthood. It also involves creating interfaces for people with diverse areas of academic expertise, and bringing together students of different subject specialisations.

“Whether universities can achieve this will determine whether they continue to have a vital civilisational role in the future or whether they will simply fade away and become research institutions alongside many others.”

Watch the film

Learning to Live with a Lively Planet: The renewal of the university's mission in the era of climate change