The impact of universities on climate change: an interview with Tristan McCowan

Anna Kliampa

Climate change politics have indubitably raised plentiful public concern recently. In this regard, such concerns provide evidence of the socio-political construction and importance of the environmental discourse, since scientific facts on climate change existed since the 1970s, long ago before climate politics surface the universal discourse.  This political discourse derives from the side of those raising the alarm of climate emergency or those denying it. One can say that eco-, climate, green, and sustainability discourses have come to dominate global political debates over resource management, pollution, health, and well-being. These caveats set a historical interval of multivariate crises that bring about a sense of instability and obscurity concerning the meaning of our civilization. Climate change crisis is perhaps one of the biggest and most complex problems humanity is called upon to face. Considering, however, both its socio-political and scientific exegesis, one big question stands out: could this be an opportunity for a socio-economic, cultural, and environmental renewal?  

Certainly this question has long history, and especially since 2015 with UN’s Sustainable Development Goals has been put forward globally. But when dealing with such a phenomenal problem as climate change, perhaps it is wiser for someone to start an inquiry from one’s own community, workplace, or locality to avoid getting overwhelmed by it. This approach to the problem can also empower us to find possible solutions to concerns with our own institutions. In this regard, Tristan McCowan on his recent paper “The impact of universities on climate change: A theoretical framework”, challenges us to think of the ways in which universities are implicated with climate change and then also put on track possible solutions in order to re-institute a more socially and environmentally sustainable institution. 

I am very very pleased that I had the chance to interview Tristan on our Ideas Lab session, convened by Pr. Susan Robertson, which is an outstanding online community of academics presenting their work and novel ideas in a convivial manner. Below, I present a short commentary of the interview with Tristan, based on our dialogue and my annotations, since the interview was not recorded. 

To begin, Tristan ‘s focus is delineating the impact of the university, as an institution, on the ecosphere. His project adopts a participatory action research methodology. Some of the participant countries are Mozambique, Kenya, Fiji and Brazil, where in affiliation with national state authorities and local communities is monitoring climate change mitigation and adaptation strategies in universities.

Q1: In your methodology, the university is positioned as a structure that impacts on society and its ecosystems and shapes them, for example, through its alumni. Is the university, according to this reading, a powerful institution that can drive top-down societal change? a) What are its key tools/mechanisms for doing so? and b) What actions and policies are the most important in this kind of framing for sustainable transformation in the university?

The institutional power that universities hold in societial formations are quite familiar to academics and beyond. Surely, there is power in the role that the university has come to play in society’s structures, as a centre for knowledge production and dissemination, acting as bridge between knowledge and private/state actors through the framing of cultural beliefs and aesthetics and as impacting on the ecosphere, either positively or negatively, through its direct or indirect effect on ecosystems. Overall, Tristan argued that universities are powerful enough to drive change, and they are indeed driving change at the moment, but it’s not necessarily a top-down influence, more of a horizontal relationship, interacting with other communities and organisations. He then suggested that “building this confidence of being a transformative institution” ought to be one of the main tasks of universities in present and future agendas and this should entail a sustainability framework to be taken up by universities around the globe. A common framework is essential globally if we are to act on a wider environmental basis and not just in one university, in one “green” city. Toward this aim Tristan recognizes in his paper fifteen pathways of impact that can either be positive or negative. Some examples are through public engagement, secondments, awareness raising, research, personal change in attitude. Negative impacts are also regular, for example through fossil fuel endowments, raising political mistrust to climate science or the development of extractive technology. Embodiment is a useful notion here, Tristan noted, which can be utilized in order to rectify such trajectories. Mapping out these areas and intervening where necessary can be key mechanisms on transforming universities. 

Still, this is not enough.  A simultaneous normative framework should be at work. Perhaps this is better understood as the embodiments and policies that universities try to pass onto society. Tristan here reminds us of the importance of the educational/pedagogic role and the idea that the environmental crisis should be seen through the lenses of “a civilizational rather than a mere technical problem”. For this to happen there should be a considerable shrinking of much university activity around international rankings, labor markets and extractive industries. It is also crucial to understand that a qualitative change of the university demands a fundamental re-imagination of power and hierarchical relations too, from race and gender equality to new understandings of care, well-being and the commons. This does not mean according to Tristan a negation of the developmental university, which he finds to be a positive thing, but rather a deconstruction of the linearity of development and the quick-fix solutions that go with it. In other words, universities need to add up emergence, criticality, quality teaching, community engagement, subversities, and including diversity to develop anew. 

Q2: Following the previous question what kind of knowledge is more compatible toward this aim and more specifically, is the knowledge economy model, which currently predominates HE narrative worldwide compatible with sustainability?

One of the main contribution of universities on climate change is the knowledge that academia produces about the environment. This is a rather complicated matter, as scientific knowledge on environmental issues is neither objective nor apolitical. This is because environmental issues are deeply implicated with political objectives of natural resource management, state development and growth imperatives. In addition, the follow up and report of climate change effects are rapidly changing, which renders them somehow unpredictable and thus difficult to manage in a one size fits all policies. Scientists also contribute to this by producing science that can be regarded, largely, as pro-environmental, through innovations and renewable technologies that can facilitate mitigation and adaptation strategies or environmentally destructive technologies and extractive science. This duality in academia is one of the major issues that universities need to challenge in order to ameliorate the institution’s direct impact on climate change. Tristan pointed this out and talked about the necessity of mapping out the areas in which universities may be implicated with such knowledges, and where possible, put on a sustainability track. 

In a sense, this kind of scientific-objective knowledge reflects the knowledge-economy model that currently predominates scientific work, lives, and possibilities in universities. But the model is characterized by complexity. Other characteristics of the model, according to Tristan, are “autopoiesis, emergence and open-endness”, since the political economic system is somehow structured from the top-down but allows for new forms to emerge from the bottom-up that can cause change. This change of course, as Tristan observes pertinently, is highly dependent on the space left for different dynamics to develop. According to Tristan then, the knowledge economy model stunts sustainability aims, since it does not leave sufficient space for other forms of knowledge to unravel. Apart from that, it also ignores fundamental western-scientific knowledge on the bio-physical limitations posed to the aims of unlimited economic growth (see Bioeconomics by Nicholas Georgescu-Roegen). He then suggested that to face climate change there is a need for non-linear, multifaceted and interdisciplinary knowledges. In sum, the most compatible knowledge is the one that derives from a pluriverse reading of the world (including of course Western tradition), rather than a follow-up dynamic of developmental patterns that generate massive ecological and social imbalances.

Q3: At the institutional and political level, is it a prerequisite for a mitigation strategy to work the university to keep a relative autonomous institution from private and state actors? I am thinking here of current free speech constraints in universities and how this may affect the academic deliberation and delineate future outcomes, or the coupling of extractive industry with academic research?

The university has always been an institution in the interregnum of governance from state and private sectors of society. However, over-mediation by these sectors on the academy may hamper free academic deliberation or direct it to non-ethical, profit-making aims. On the other side, total disengagement from them has led critics to talk about the “Ivory Tower” of academia. Tristan maintains here a balanced view, where universities manage to keep a degree of autonomy whilst keeping a degree of connection is the ideal middle way. He emphasized the importance for academia to preserve its distinctive space within societal powers, as it is the way to unlock and infuse systemic change and sustainability frameworks within society. 

Q4: What are the challenges facing universities (academics/students/administrators) in advancing collective actions to secure sustainable agendas? 

Tristan pointed that the element of time and the element of unpredictability/instability are essential in understanding the challenges. There is the notion of urgency when talking about time in a climate system, which may contradict the notion of change in the slow-time of education, and thus we have the distinctions between direct-indirect and short-long term change. This connects to the second point; that of unpredictable outcomes in both climate systems and educational ones, as one process may have different outcomes from that expected (let me remind you here of the rebound effect). Despite the difficulty in framing the right timings and securing a standard model, Tristan suggested letting go of notions of rigidity in actual contexts and add the element of difference when discussing climate-university complex, notwithstanding the importance of framing the political economy of current systems and set the minimum sustainability framework globally, as discussed above. The unpredictability of climate change and educational outputs, the long-term unforeseen effects, the contradictions in our institution and in ourselves that stem from our political economy and our own constraints pose serious challenges to the transformation of the university into a socially and environmentally sustainable institution. Transformation of an institution the size and the age of the university may even sound unrealistic, or daunting to some. In these challenging times posed by the pandemic, climate change should be an opportunity for socio-economic, cultural and environmental renewal, going back to my initial question. It is an opportunity to reflect and transform utilizing all the knowledge, historicity, and criticality that academia has to offer. Fortunately, there are plenty of alternate social paradigms and non-dominating knowledges that we can draw from to renew our institution. The care, non-utilitarian, gift economy and sumac kawsay / buen vivir literatures are only a few of them that can inspire a more positive vision for the university of the 21st century. Surely, it will not be easy, and it will take hard work, if universities are to be transformative institutions and policy leaders internationally. Frankly, it is their responsibility and their choice to be active and positive agents of change.


Photo by Patrick Hendry on Unsplash

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