Academia and Climate Change

Business as usual is no longer an option when it comes to carbon emissions. At a press conference following the release of the IPCC’s “Doomsday” report, panel chair Hoesung Lee commented that “limiting warming to 1.5 is not impossible, but it will require unprecedented transitions in all aspects of society.” The information contained in the IPCC report is not news to climate activists, but it does send a clear message to policy-makers and global civil society more broadly: climate action to avoid planetary ecocide must be deep and sweeping, and it must involve the rapid elimination of fossil fuels from all walks of life.

The idea that such systemic transformation will result from behavioral changes on the part of individual consumers—the kind of “change your light bulbs” solution offered at the conclusion of Al Gore’s alarming film An Inconvenient Truth (2006)—clearly makes no sense now. Since Gore’s film, a militant global climate justice movement has developed, one that embraces nonviolent direct action against the Dakota Access, Bayou Bridge, and many other pipelines in order to put political pressure on leaders to stop building extractive infrastructure. Movement activists have urged prominent institutions and organizations to adopt aggressive climate action plans involving swift but credible pathways towards zero carbon emissions.

In the face of the deepening climate crisis, what has academia done to decarbonize? Over six hundred colleges and universities, many of them members of the Climate Leadership Network, have issued plans to significantly lower their carbon emissions and even to achieve carbon neutrality in the next decade or two. Many schools are expanding interdisciplinary teaching and research in environmental studies, sustainability science, and climate resilience. A small group of progressive private institutions like Middlebury College have already achieved carbon neutrality, and larger public institutions—including the University of California system and Pennsylvania State University—rank high in the Sierra Club’s annual list of “cool schools.”

But universities could be doing much more. According to an analysis by the University of New Hampshire and Sightlines, a facilities management company, universities reduced their total emissions by 5 percent between 2010 and 2013, a rate only marginally higher than the decline of national carbon emissions during the same period. Much of this reduction was achieved by switching from coal and oil to cleaner-burning natural gas as a source of power. But recent reports have shown that natural gas (a.k.a. methane) contributes just as much to global warming as dirtier fuels do as a result of leaks, giving the lie to the idea that it is a “bridge fuel.” The latest New Hampshire/Sightlines report argues that “campuses pursuing comprehensive renewable energy strategies are in the minority.” Even institutions that have achieved carbon neutrality have done so through carbon offsets rather than through a wholesale transition to renewable energy, a tactic that groups like the Indigenous Environmental Network argue generates conflict and perpetuates colonialism by supporting carbon-absorption projects that displace Indigenous people in the Global South.

Meanwhile, although there is widespread support among students for campus divestment from fossil fuels, only about one hundred and fifty universities worldwide have committed to divestment. Less than a third of those are in the US. While other organizations like the Rockefeller Brothers Fund and the World Council of Churches have divested, administrators at elite schools like Harvard, Yale, and Princeton have dug in their heels, issuing flimsy arguments that it is their fiduciary responsibility to maximize returns on endowment investments and that university investments should not be politicized. But a recent study showed that fossil fuel divestment does not reduce investment portfolio performance. Furthermore, endowments that remain invested in fossil fuels already are politicized–just not on the side of climate justice, but rather on the side of the Big Oil companies that have lied and funded disinformation campaigns about climate change for decades.

It is not simply that wealthy universities refuse to divest from fossil fuels. In a recent study, the non-profit organization GRAIN reported that Harvard’s endowment fund has invested around $1 billion since 2008 to acquire control of roughly 850,000 hectares of farmland around the world, much of it in environmentally sensitive areas such as the Brazilian Cerrado, the world’s most biodiverse savannah. Such land grabbing displaces peasant farmers and indigenous people, leading to deforestation and the growth of fossil fuel-based plantation agriculture linked to growing carbon emissions. Harvard is not alone: the GRAIN study reveals that a slew of other wealthy US universities—including Stanford, Yale, Pennsylvania, Emory, Texas, and Michigan—have used their endowments for large-scale land grabs.

Finally, although most faculty support fossil fuel divestment, the professional organizations that represent faculty members have barely begun to take on the question of climate change. Each year professional conventions—from organizations representing the humanities like the Modern Language Association to social science organizations like the American Association of Geographers—draw thousands of scholars from across the US and even the world to mammoth meetings, in the process generating huge amounts of carbon emissions. According to a study by researchers at the University of California-Santa Barbara, air travel to conferences, talks, and meetings can account for a third or more of the carbon footprints for faculty at elite US universities. This produces millions of pounds of carbon for a typical research university each year, and up to two thirds of the average scholar’s annual GHG emissions.

Some professional associations do offer a nod to “greening the convention” on their conference websites, but the suggestions they offer, like carbon offsets, either do more harm than good or fall in the “change your lightbulbs” category: e.g., cancel hotel linen service and share copies of conference programs. None of the major professional conventions that I surveyed offered options for online, carbon-neutral conferences of the kind pioneered at the University of California-Santa Barbara. As Environmental Humanities scholar Ken Hiltner has argued, these kinds of conferences not only generate drastically less carbon emissions, they also are far more inclusive of international scholars and scholars from less elite institutions within the US who lack the funds to travel to annual conventions.

Carbon neutral conferences may not provide the same type of networking opportunities or face-to-face interactions as big annual conventions. I recognize how important these connections are as one fights for tenure and promotion. But we need to ask ourselves honestly whether these benefits are worth the staggering carbon emissions that conference-going generates. Surely it is up to those of us who are fortunate enough to have tenure to challenge the norms of our profession rather than to continue acting like members of the business class.

Some academics, particularly those who work on the climate crisis, might challenge these arguments by suggesting that their travel is essential to spreading urgent messages about decarbonizing the global economy. Surely, we should not refuse to attend the next essential conference on saving the world from climate change. Yet, as climate scientist Kevin Anderson has pointed out, these are the same alibis trotted out by many business people, politicians, and even some leaders of NGOs. Indeed, for Anderson, flying is emblematic of the high-emissions lifestyles of elite academics in general, which includes the globalizing agenda of many well-endowed universities. Anderson argues that adopting a fly-as-little-as-possible policy helps engender a very different attitude towards travel, time, emissions, and moral responsibility. While individual decisions to avoid frequent flying may simply empty seats for other travelers, resistance to flying could become part of an institutional transformation in which academia in general generates genuine alternatives to the business-as-usual attitude that is leading us pell-mell to planetary ecocide.

The stakes could not be higher. A recent report revealed that carbon emissions surged 3.4 percent in 2018, with the transportation sector leading the way as the largest source of emissions for the third year in a row. In 2018, airlines carried 4.3 billion passengers, an increase of 38 million compared to the year before. The International Civil Aviation Organization estimates that by 2020, global aviation emissions will be 70 percent greater than they were in 2005. By the middle of the century, they are projected to increase by 700 percent. But the world needs to cut its emissions by more than half to limit global warming this century to 1.5 degrees. Increasing air traffic is simply incommensurable with these goals.

It is estimated that fewer than 5 percent of the people of the world have ever boarded an airplane, but it is the 95 percent—overwhelmingly vulnerable people of the Global South—who are paying the increasingly steep toll for the jet-setting behavior of affluent consumers, conference-going academics included. As educators of young people on the cusp of adulthood, academics are custodians of the future. The recent IPCC reports have shown that we have very little time left to forge a livable tomorrow. At the moment, academia is, on balance, part of the carbon problem rather than the solution. But it doesn’t have to be this way. We know how to address the challenge of climate change, including in our own professional affiliations as academics; it is now merely a matter of finding the will to do so. We must demand that the institutions at which we work divest from fossil fuels. These institutions themselves must adopt policies for sweeping and rapid decarbonization. And we must insist that our professional organizations take positions of leadership by creating modes of collective interaction that minimize the need for air travel.

Ashley Dawson

Ashley Dawson is professor of postcolonial studies in the English department at the Graduate Center, City University of New York and the College of Staten Island. His latest books include People’s Power: Reclaiming the Energy Commons (O/R, 2020), Extreme Cities: The Peril and Promise of Urban Life in the Age of Climate Change (Verso, 2017), and Extinction: A Radical History (O/R, 2016). A member of the Social Text Collective and the founder of the CUNY Climate Action Lab, he is a long-time climate justice activist.