May 02, 2016
THEME: Learning, Sustainability

Academic Investments with the Climate Change Generation

Risk and resilience – these are common buzzwords being discussed hand-in-hand within higher education planning. Many academic universities across the globe are coming to terms with the fact that climate change is as real as 97 percent of the world’s climate scientists see it. There are signs that the increase in regional flooding, drought, rising temperatures, and devastating storms are becoming the new norm. Colleges and universities are starting to realize there is a need for them to also to be on their game to adapt for change on their campuses in an effort to be more resilient to the threats of climate change. It is no longer just a political, regional, or governmental problem, it is a ‘we’ problem. It will hit educational hubs, but it all starts at the individual level.

If we think about it, there are millions of dollars of research and data that could be lost with just one major storm hitting an institutional facility in the wrong way, not to mention the risks of student and faculty lives, and those within the surrounding communities. Let’s take Boston University, a personal hometown example: it lies in the vicinity of downtown Boston, which itself is predicted to be underwater in the future. BU has some of the world’s largest Antarctic ice cores that are utilized for ice sheet evolution and dynamics on climate science research. If this facility alone were to lose complete power, or even experience some flooding to its research areas, decades of research and resources could be lost. Outside of the potential loss of life or expense this would cause, it also means that future generations are going to have to potentially reinvent and reinvest into research and development. We can all agree that this work is critical and no one is prepared to lose that.

Understanding the risks and vulnerabilities that can affect academic institutions due to climactic disasters will equip college campuses with the proper means and methods to enhance and create better-informed decision making. New tools that explore data analytical mapping, risk reduction, and return analysis are available for universities to understand the financial outcomes predicted from these significant disaster events. Developing scenarios can be broken down into something as simple as a game for resilience campus planning for institutions. For example, over the past year the Rockefeller Foundation developed the Resilience Academies Program, which organized a series of workshops with multi-disciplinary experts to work collaboratively with city and state representatives to further understand the climate projections, risks, and vulnerabilities of their cities and regions. These conversations were documented using a game-like themed risk scenario structure that guided these cities and regions to develop projects that implement resilience. These somber but vital discussions on climate change must be part of the future of campus life, extending beyond the realms of a single sustainable building. They should be about creating a healthy environment for campus life to continue to thrive resiliently.

This past year, Second Nature, a nonprofit organization working to help colleges and universities expand their efforts and proactively build sustainable and positive healthy research and learning environments, launched the Climate Commitment, which combines carbon neutrality and resilience goals and has received 91 signatures from colleges and universities across the country. These 91 signatories are part of a network of over 650 colleges and universities committed to climate action and carbon neutrality. There is already some commitment toward moving in the right direction.

There is another aspect to consider that focuses on the students themselves: millennials are the climate change generation. Students currently enrolling in colleges and universities are like no other age group and are fully cognizant of the effects of climate change, looking to tackle the issue and willing to talk about it. These are also the young professionals now filling the workforce after graduation. This cohort is the future of our nation and our planet. Thankfully, this generation is more interested in multidisciplinary collaboration and working together to be a part of that change. Academic institutions have an opportunity to facilitate these broader discussions and lead by example.

To truly test the social, economic, and environmental components of building resilient communities, academic institutions must practice what they preach. Given the chance, many students would jump at the opportunity to take part in making their campus resilient. Buckminster Fuller once said something that profoundly resonates with me: We are all passengers on this ship called planet earth. This commitment is deeper than self-seeking and individualistic goals, and can produce a much deeper sense of satisfaction.

If they so choose to go down the route of resilience planning on their own campuses, colleges and universities stand to gain a lot. From protecting important research for future generations to saving lives and livelihoods, higher education institutions have an obligation to be at the forefront of what students care about the most. In responding to this demand, and facing head-on the issues affecting our planet, institutions must embrace planning for resilience. It’s the smart thing to do.

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