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October 30, 2009

Sustainability, Climate Change, and the Role of the University

Posted in: Climate Change Solutions,Opinion

This post is something in the spirit of an essay. These are a few introductory paragraphs on a big picture view of sustainability, climate, global warming, and, ultimately perhaps, on the expanded role that I think educational institutions will have to take going forward.

Sustainability, Climate Change, and the Role of the University

Cultures, civilizations, and nations have evolved in the past 5000 years within a temperate climate with stable sea level. The accelerated growth of economies and population since the European Renaissance has relied on ready sources of energy and the ability to discover and utilize new sources of minerals and ecosystems. Since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution in the mid-nineteenth century, we have been able to change, on a global scale, the basic physical and biological characteristics of the land surface and the composition of atmosphere and the ocean. These anthropogenic changes are significant enough that we now influence the mean state of the environment on local, continental, and global scales. Air quality is a defined and managed resource. Decisions made in land use and land management influence local and regional temperature, precipitation, ground water replenishment and water runoff. The increasing concentrations of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere have and will warm the surface of the Earth; melt the abundance of fresh water held in snow, glaciers, and ice sheets; lead to rises in sea level that are unprecedented in human experience; and cause more violent storms, more flooding rains, and more severe droughts. Humans and the enterprise of humans are an integral part of the energy balance that is the Earth’s climate. Moving forward a sustainable planet will require us to take responsibility for managing the climate. No longer can we count on the discovery of new lands for resources – and no longer can we dispose of our waste into the atmosphere and ocean without regards to the consequences of our behavior.

Climate change, global warming, and changes in water resources sit in relation to energy use, societal success, energy security, food security, and population. Use of resources is an imperative of humans seeking to improve their lot. Therefore, we will not avoid global warming, and we will be required to adapt to the consequences of global warming. At the same time we must also work to mitigate the magnitude of global warming as, for example, sea level rise of several meters would be ruinous to individuals, cities, and nations. With unmitigated warming, ecosystems and agricultural productivity will change at a rate that will stretch and rip the fabric of the resource base that sustains us.

Energy security offers far more urgent challenges than those generally associated with global warming. Economic stability, de facto growth, always trumps efforts to control greenhouse gas emissions. Therefore, efforts to develop policies and strategies are conflated not only with many questions of the scientific investigation of climate change, but with complex political and business interests.

More efficient use of energy always is our best near-term strategy for increasing energy security, reducing costs, and lowering greenhouse gas emissions. New materials emerge as important in increasing efficiency, providing new sources of energy, managing urban temperature, and reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Urban design and policy rises as an essential method for scaling up the actions of individuals to have substantive consequences on global scales. This mix of long- and short- term mandates, local- and global- scale of actions and consequences, offers many complex problems that challenges our ability to organize, structure, rationalize and optimize solutions. Meeting these complex problems head on – at the same time defining what we can do and keeping in mind what we must do – meeting these problems head on is at the heart of sustainability.

When viewed as a whole, universities address this suite of problems. However, the university culture focuses on and rewards disciplinary research in reduced problems. This is necessary, but no longer sufficient. Looking forward, the consilience of knowledge and its application is necessary for sustainability and habitability of our planet. Universities need to address, formally, the trans-disciplinary nature of the problems, and develop the organizational units and incentive structures that promote careers of unified problem solving. The role of the university should be recognized as extending beyond one, primarily, of research, but as a place where complex problems are addressed for the benefits of all of society. (Here is a white paper by several of my colleagues and myself that look at this problem more deeply. Federal Climate Services and Academic Institutions )

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