Should universities be speaking out on climate change? Academics might be at the forefront of climate change research, but how much are their own actions, and those of four million international students, impacting the planet? Robin Shields of the University of Bath School of Management considers the facts.
In 2019, more than 1 million children in 128 countries have taken an unprecedented action: they have voluntarily missed school and taken part in public demonstrations in order to highlight the perils that anthropogenic climate change causes for their future. The school climate strikes highlight a larger issue around education and sustainable development. While education is often seen as a force for social progress, a means to reduce poverty and create more equitable societies, it has arguably done little to halt patterns of unsustainable consumption that are endemic to global capitalism.
In higher education institutions, this picture is somewhat complex. Universities are at the forefront of climate change research, and they have enabled a sophisticated understanding of the changes that are occurring. Furthermore, universities conduct applied research that holds the potential to fight climate change, developing new forms of renewable energy and increasing the efficiency of current energy use.
However, universities themselves often operate in ways that are fundamentally unsustainable; nowhere is this more evident than in our patterns of international air travel. While accounting for only 2% of global carbon emissions, aviation is growing quickly and could increase seven-fold by 2050. Academic research has long been a fundamentally international activity, as international travel broadens horizons and allows students and researchers to access new ideas and learn new ways of thinking.
In a recent article published in the Journal of Cleaner Production, I use big data to show that the carbon emissions from international student mobility are immense. The four million students who pursue a degree outside their home country every year gain valuable skills and knowledge and contribute to a more connected and understanding world, but the resulting carbon emissions are approximately 14 megatons per year, comparable to a medium-sized country (e.g. Croatia or Jamaica). This figure measures international students alone, and it does not account for the hundreds of thousands of academics who attend international conferences each year, nor the international travel universities undertake to form and sustain international partnerships and recruit students.
The contradiction between how universities address climate change through research and their own actions in this respect places them in a difficult situation. Can they be an agent of change while still embedded in and dependent upon an unsustainable economy? The situation is akin to what Nils Brunsson calls "organizational hypocrisy," which refers to how organizations “reflect conflicting norms by systematically creating inconsistencies between talk, decisions and actions.”
The best resolution to this contradiction is not to abandon international study and science, but rather to take the political role of universities more seriously. In particular, university leadership has a responsibility to more directly demand action from governments and more vocally critique unsustainable policies. So far, they have been reluctant to do so, mainly because neo-liberal funding models make universities heavily reliant on government and therefore less autonomous.
Ironically, the primary school students who continue to demonstrate against climate change have been more vocal than most leaders of universities. Until university leadership can find a significant voice in advocating climate change, they will continue to reflect one of the oldest forms of organizational hypocrisy and the maxim of bad teachers everywhere: 'Do as I say, not as I do.'
Header image by Takver under licence CC BY-SA 2.0