Wednesday, April 21, 2021 | Category: Insider Recap
What follows is a selection of coverage from the Eduvation Insider focused on environmental sustainability…
Ironically, just as astronomers in Cardiff report the possibility of life on Venus (phosphine anyway), everyone in western North America feels like they woke up on Mars. Millions of acres of forest are burning in California, Oregon, and Washington. Insurance companies report $2B in damages this year from severe weather events in Alberta (floods and hail). And yet another hurricane, Sally, is forecast to make landfall this morning along the Gulf coast.
Today, I want to focus on the single biggest crisis shaping the future of our planet and our society: climate change. In some ways, it has helped pave the way for zoonotic pandemics like COVID19. It is a steadily advancing natural threat to us all, regardless of national borders, that can nonetheless create national rivalries and competitions. To cope with either, we need to listen to scientists, and take extraordinary economic measures. And in some ways, our experiences with the pandemic are a good dress rehearsal for the bigger, more gradual crisis.
As we contemplate the next few decades for higher education, climate science and clean energy will be crucial areas of research, sustainability and social justice will be important to our missions, rising sea levels and geopolitical conflicts will drive mass migration and affect global student mobility. I’m no environmental scientist, but I can appreciate that the accelerating climate crisis will shape PSE programs, campus life, staff wellness, student markets, international exchange, and much more…
The Planet is Burning
California has been enduring record-setting, “kiln-like” temperatures up to 121°F, sparking 900 new wildfires in late August – which have already been creating their own weather systems and pyrocumulonimbus clouds. A “heat dome” over Phoenix AZ has set back-to-back records with an average high of 110.7°F in August, when Death Valley recorded 120°F – perhaps the highest temperature ever measured anywhere on the planet at any time. Australian bushfires in 2019-20 burned 28M acres and killed or displaced 3 billion animals (most notably koalas). Even Siberia has been ravaged by hundreds of wildfires since the snow melted in May.
Death by Global Warming
Earth hasn’t warmed this fast in 34 million years, according to a new study of seabed sediments in the journal Science. 2020 winds up the hottest 5-year period in recorded history, says the World Meteorological Association, with average global temperatures 1.1°C above pre-industrial levels. The Paris Accords are striving to avoid exceeding 1.5°C, by cutting greenhouse gas emissions 7% annually. Over the past 30 years, heat has killed more Americans than any other form of weather – and like COVID19, it preys on the homeless, the elderly, and those crowded into inadequate shelter. A new study predicts that major US cities could see up to 70 more days of peak temperatures each year by 2100. A UC Berkeley working paper estimates that rising temperatures could claim tens of millions of lives each year, “matching the global death rate for all infectious diseases combined.”
Rising Carbon Emissions
Climate change is being driven by carbon emissions from China, the US and India in particular – although per capita, Canada and Australia are also top offenders. (Multinationals are responsible for 19% of the world’s carbon emissions, and outsource much of it to developing countries.) Globally, coal has generated more CO2 than oil, and heating/electricity generation produces twice the emissions of transportation. (Wildfire CO2 emissions in California and Oregon have already exceeded those of their power sectors for an entire year.) That’s why, even with travel cut to a trickle by COVID19 lockdowns, CO2 levels continue to rise. Emissions dropped just 8%, and CO2 persists in the atmosphere for hundreds of years. “Humanity’s waste pile is in the atmosphere, and that doesn’t go away.”
Rapidly Melting Icecaps
For 40 years now, Arctic sea ice has been melting at worst-case scenario speed. Greenland’s ice sheet has “passed the point of no return.” Ice sheets in Antarctica and Greenland are melting at a rate that could doublestorm-surge flooding in major coastal cities, raise sea levels 17cm and displace about 16M people by 2100. More than half of Antarctica’s floating ice shelves are at rising risk of hydrofracturing, and a new study shows 2 enormous glaciers are slowly tearing loose – with the potential to eventually raise sea levels by 10 feet. Over the past 30 years, melting glaciers have swelled glacial lakes by 50%, threatening catastrophic floods, says a uCalgary geomorphologist. Pakistan alone has almost 7,000 glaciers, some 3,000 newly formed lakes, 33 of which threaten about 7M people. Since 1994, glaciers have shed 6.5 trillion tonnes of mass, and in the past century glaciers have been responsible for 35% of global sea level rises. UK scientists have found that since 1994, 28 trillion tonnes of ice have disappeared from the surface of the Earth.
Extreme Weather Events
Forecasters are bracing for 2020 to be one of the busiest hurricane seasons in 22 years, with more destructive storms thanks to rising sea levels, warmer oceans, and slower-moving storms. Hurricane Laura accelerated quickly to a Category 4 storm because of warmer ocean temperatures. Aside from flooding and wind damage, hurricanes bring other evils in their wake, like the hordes of blood-sucking mosquitos that have swarmed hundreds of cattle to death in Louisiana. Moody’s calculates that rising temperatures, flooding and water scarcity will threaten 57 US nuclear plants over the next 20 years.
The World Economic Forum warns that a quarter of the world’s population already face extreme water shortages that are fuelling conflict, social unrest and migration – and global warming will escalate the problem. Wells, irrigation and water systems are required, and “green infrastructure” like forests, wetlands and watersheds need to be preserved. Hurricanes and coastal flooding could force 13M Americans to relocate away from the coasts by 2100 – prompting Buffalo NY to declare itself a “climate refuge city.” The World Bank projects that 143M people will be displaced in equatorial nations by 2050, and 30M migrants could flee Central America for the US. Governments are being urged to start planning “climate havens” where sheltered cities have room to grow.
Wildlife populations have declined 68% worldwide since 1970, according to a WWF report, thanks to pollution, climate change, and the conversion of natural habitats into agricultural land. The report provides “unequivocal and alarming evidence that nature is unravelling.” Scientists behind the Global Safety Net project have mapped the critical regions that must be protected to preserve biodiversity and slow climate change. A paleoecological study warns that falling resilience of plant biomes in North America could lead to mass extinctions on a level unseen since humans arrived here 13,000 years ago.
Living Like we have 1.6 Earths
COVID19’s lockdowns and recession have bought us more time, ecologically speaking: 3 weeks, to be precise. The Global Footprint Network calculates “Earth Overshoot Day” each year, the day on which humanity’s demand for resources exceeds what the planet can regenerate in that year. Last year it was Jul 29, but thanks to a 9.3% reduction in humanity’s ecological footprint, it was pushed back to Aug 22 this year. “We are living as though we had the resources of 1.6 Earths.” The news is worse for Canadians: at the rate we consume resources, Overshoot Day was Mar 18. CBC
Putting a Price on Climate
Sadly, in capitalist societies it seems sometimes the only way to convey the severity of climate change is to put it into economic terms. A recent report commissioned by US commodities regulators concludes that extreme weather resulting from climate change will destabilize insurance, mortgage, and pension funds. “A world wracked by frequent and devastating shocks from climate change cannot sustain the fundamental conditions supporting our financial system.” On the other hand, the report also details the financial harm to the fossil fuel industry if aggressive efforts are made to curb carbon emissions.
Recycling and energy conservation won’t have as much impact on your personal carbon footprint as reducing meat consumption, air travel and driving, observes a UBC doctoral candidate. In this era of Zoom meetings and virtual conferences, we’ve all managed to cut our air miles down, in many cases to zero. But some scientists argue that meat and dairy production contribute to as much as 51% of global greenhouse gas emissions, when you include the impacts of deforestation. The solution is either a “plant-forward” diet, or “cellular agriculture” and lab-grown meat protein. Either could help preserve biodiversity and reduce the risk of zoonotic pandemics like COVID19.
Gen Z’s Perspective
73% of Generation Z are very or somewhat concerned about climate change, but the majority believe it is inevitable, according to a recent survey: 26% believe humans can stop it, 49% believe we can slow but not stop it, and 8% think it’s beyond our control. (15% have no opinion, and 2% deny it’s happening at all.) The most optimistic were males, democrats, with high incomes. Those who felt helpless observed that society is poor at collective action, or that “nature’s whims are not humanity’s to control.” When it comes to potential careers, though, 50% of Gen Z were interested in solar energy jobs, compared to just 15% who were interested in careers in coal.
5 Grand Thermal Challenges
Humanity may push the climate over the tipping point toward our own extinction, because >90% of our energy consumption involves generating or transferring heat. If research can address 5 key challenges in the next 20-30 years, we can save ourselves: 1) thermal storage systems for the power grid, 2) decarbonizing industrial processes like cement and steel, 3) cooling without dangerous refrigerants, 4) long-distance transmission of waste heat from power plants, and 5) variable conductance building envelopes (which could let heat in or out on demand). Nature Energy
Climate will Disrupt like COVID
Time observes that the debate about reopening US schools this fall “is a preview of climate-related disruption to come.” Campus precautions against COVID19 echo 2010 plans to reopen Bangladesh schools post-flooding and make them resilient to future climate events. Extreme weather may force schools to close for days, weeks, or months. Rising temperatures make students less effective learners, even with air conditioning. “If the COVID-19 pandemic is any hint, the educational system will be woefully unprepared.” Time
Here Be Dragons
Speaking of climate change and the psychological obstacles to action, uVic is supporting the production of a new 8-part podcast series, “Scales of Change,” based on the “Dragons of Inaction” identified by Robert Gifford. There are 36 species of dragons, in 7 genera: limited cognition, ideology, social comparison, sunk cost, discredence, perceived risk, and limited behaviour. Future Ecologies
“It’s clear that climate change may force educators to make similar calculations to those that have come in response to COVID-19. How can classrooms be renovated with resilience in mind? Is it safe to bring kids back to the classroom in the first place, or should they learn remotely? What about students who lack resources at home, whether that’s high-speed internet or air conditioning?” – Justin Worland, in Time
“Responding to climate change and escalating inequality could provide a unifying national purpose like we haven’t had since World War II. This gets to the very heart of who we want to be as a people in the 21st century.” – Thaddeus Pawlowski, Columbia U Center for Resilient Cities and Landscapes
“From the 80 billion land animals and trillions of sea creatures killed annually for food, to unchecked deforestation displacing habitats and migrations routes, to biodiversity loss and accelerating rates of extinction, the Anthropocene has made the world hell for earth’s other inhabitants.” – Jan Dutkiewicz, in The New Republic
Trusting in Science
A number of polls have found that trust in science varies according to political affiliation. But overall, a Pew Research poll this summer found that public trust in science was “as strong as ever,” confirming results back to the 1970s. 38% said they had “a lot” of trust in scientists to do what is right for the public. Confidence in medical experts has declined significantly, though, while confidence in military leaders has risen. Scientific American asks “is public trust in science enough to drive actions at a scale sufficient to effectively combat a nationwide emergency like that of a pandemic? The answer seems to be ‘no.’” Scientific American
Clearly we need to improve the scientific literacy of the general public, but many have also emphasized the need to instill more liberal arts principles as well…
What Makes a Good Life?
Carleton prof Shawna Dolansky encourages students to consider the humanities, and assures parents that “employment prospects don’t need to come at the expense of happiness.” Skills that the future labour market will most demand – judgement, critical thinking, cultural awareness, social perceptiveness – are developed in the humanities. But perhaps more importantly, “we have a dearth of engaged and empathetic citizens and leaders capable of critical thought and reflection on ethics and humanistic values.” STEM skills are obviously essential, but “humanities make scientists better at their work.” At the core of humanistic thought is the question, “what makes a good life?” In pondering answers to that question, and developing their own, young people learn about themselves and uncover happiness and meaning. Ottawa Citizen
Leading the Pandemic Recovery
Although initially the pandemic concentrated research funding in medical research, “as we enter Act Two, attention has shifted towards the societal and economic impact of COVID19. Humanities and Social Sciences researchers can play a leading role here, to inform and shape the recovery,” write 4 researchers at uManchester. H&SS researchers bring “deep knowledge of how cultures, societies and economies function,” and are already examining cultures of misinformation and the impacts of the pandemic on front-line healthcare workers. “Addressing the scale of the challenges created by COVID19 will require complex, large-scale projects with interdisciplinary solutions at their core… Universities as anchor institutions can guide the recovery precisely because of the breadth of expertise they bring.” Higher Education Policy Institute
A Global Ethical Perspective
The pandemic underscores just how tightly interwoven our world has become. From the Black Death and Smallpox to COVID19, “each time humanity takes bold steps toward deeper integration, disease follows.” Higher ed benefits from the pooling of cultures, knowledge, innovation and technology, from research collaboration and international student mobility. But our interconnected world also accelerates threats like “misinformation, warped ideologies and hatred.” Instead of viewing ethics from a personal perspective, we need to consider our obligations at the level of global humanity: our actions, through nuclear war, genetic engineering, or climate change, pose existential threats. We need an ethical lens that considers “the hundred billion people who came before us, the nearly 8 billion alive today, and the countless generations yet to be born.” As a species, humanity is still in its adolescence: “we can be impulsive and careless, seizing the short-term benefits but neglecting the long-term costs.” We need to grow up fast. World Economic Forum
Whether you’re concerned with the mobility of international students, labour market demands and research needs in green technology, environmental remediation or disaster mitigation, or even the future of populations and PSE campuses in coastal regions, the future of our environment will drive key developments in the longer term…
Biden Embraces the Paris Accord
US president Joe Biden is hosting a virtual climate summit with 40 world leaders, and reputedly he will be pledging to cut greenhouse gas emissions in half by 2030 (from 2005 levels), and to reach net zero by 2050. Political divisions in congress and across state legislatures will make it challenging, but achieving the target will require significant growth in green energy production, and cuts in fossil fuel use. Some Republicans argue the “punishing” target will prompt higher energy prices and job losses. AP
“The United States must be an undeniable global leader in climate action. We cannot preach temperance from a barstool and not pay our fair share, when approximately 40% of all the excess carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is red, white and blue.” – Ed Markey, Massachusetts senator
Global Politics Warming Too
The Huffington Post calls the summit “Biden’s climate debutante ball,” and suggests we may see more multilateral cooperation with China. Jair Bolsonaro, president of Brazil, on the other hand, is as bad for global environmental efforts as the pandemic. (See “Biological Fukushima.”) He won election in 2019 on a promise to industrialize the Amazon jungle, and Biden is reportedly negotiating billions in aid conditional on arresting the rate of deforestation. Expect to see more pressure on wealthy nations to contribute the remaining $90B promised to a UN Green Climate Fund. And there may be pressure to waive patents on green energy tech, just as we have seen for COVID19 vaccines. Huffington Post
As you might expect, the army of professional communicators, researchers and planners in CdnPSE are going to be timing plenty of announcements and events to coincide with the one day a year when more people think (at least a little bit) about climate change and environmental sustainability. The list that follows is definitely not all-inclusive, but gives you a sense of the range of announcements out of the gate yesterday…
Media advisories flooded the Twitterverse yesterday, as universities offered environmental experts to reporters for Earth Day interviews. McGill U profiled 3 researchers in health and social policy, earth and planetary sciences, and atmospheric physics. York U profiled 7 researchers in environment and climate change, available to discuss “the world’s ecosystems, emerging green technologies and innovative thinking.” (And there were many other examples…)
Canada’s Greenest Employers naturally wanted to remind us of their dedication to sustainability, and of course the list (published this week in the Globe & Mail) includes many CdnPSEs, including Durham C, Humber C, McGill U, Mohawk C, Red River C, UBC, uAlberta, UNBC, uToronto, uVictoria, Wilfrid Laurier U, and York U. Mohawk College made the list for the 8th time, thanks to initiatives like discounted transit and Zipcar passes, a bicycle loan program, greening its own fleet of vehicles, disposable water bottle ban, apiaries and pollinator gardens. York U made the list for the 9th time.
Institutions also reasserted their commitment to the UN Sustainable Development Goals. Selkirk Collegereports it is the first CdnPSE to sign onto the SDG Accord, which already includes 207 of the world’s colleges and universities, and commits it to embedding SDGs in the curriculum and operations of the college. “From a bioswale project in the Castlegar Campus parking lot to ongoing social justice work at the Mir Centre for Peace and the college’s Indigenization Plan to its Trades Discovery Program for Women, a foundation of current work ties in well to the overall goals.”
The Times Higher Education Impact Rankings rank 1,115 universities worldwide for how their research, teaching, outreach and stewardship delivers against 17 UN SDGs – for “their social and economic impact, and for taking action to combat climate change and its impacts.” They released their results yesterday, just in time for Earth Day, and Canadian universities were quick to celebrate positive results. Simon Fraser U ranked 46th in the world, and in the top 10 globally for 3 SDGs: climate action (#7), sustainable cities and communities (#6), and peace, justice and strong institutions (#5). Dalhousie U reports that it ranks among the top 200, a “small drop” from last year, attributable to 348 new universities joining the rankings. Dal ranked 3rd in Canada on clean water and sanitation, 4th for good health and wellbeing, and 5th for life below water. (The Dal News story also provides a detailed explanation of the ranking process.) uSaskatchewan ranked 13th in Canada “for making cities inclusive, safe, resilient, and sustainable,” and placed in the top 100 again this year, for 5 categories. UBC ranked 2nd in Canada for impact (13th in the world) and 1st in the world for innovation and industry partnerships, and placed in the top 10 for 6 categories. “University-industry connections are critical in bringing inventions and solutions to life, and this was certainly brought home as UBC spin-off companies AbCellera and Acuitas played significant roles in the earliest treatment and vaccine responses to the COVID19 pandemic.” (UBC itself is accelerating towards net zero emissions by 2030.) uGuelph participated in the rankings for the first time this year, and placed in the top 100 on 5 metrics. (UofG was also one of the first CdnPSEs to commit to full divestment of fossil fuel holdings in its endowment fund last April.) Universities Canada reports that more than one-third of its member institutions include the SDGs in one of their main strategies.
Western U announced on Tuesday a new interdisciplinary major, “Climate Change and Society,” which will integrate perspectives from science, social science and the humanities. “We developed this module because we believe climate change is an immense civilizational challenge, and something universities have a responsibility to teach not only in individual classes, but in an integrative way.” Addressing the environmental crisis will demand complex transformations to agriculture, transportation, energy generation, and the built environment. Western reports the major is unique in Ontario.
Carleton U shared findings of a research meta-analysis that found that natural soundscapes “can alleviate stress, improve mood and enhance cognitive performance.” Natural sounds – like waves lapping ashore, a loon call echoing across a lake, or songbirds chirping – can even decrease pain during medical procedures, and result in health outcomes “180% better.” Noise pollution, on the other hand, has negative impacts on humans and wildlife alike.
Yesterday I gave an overview of CdnPSE engagement with Earth Day, with some serendipitous examples drawn from the media releases I spotted in my RSS and Twitter feeds, media review, and email inbox over the preceding few days. Naturally, I missed as much as I included, and much more flooded out on the day itself…
More THE Impact Rankings
I honestly don’t know how I managed to overlook some universities’ performance in the Times Higher Education Impact Rankings… Mea culpa!
Queen’s U placed first in Canada and 5th globally! In fact, Queen’s placed in the global top 10 for 5 indicators, and was ranked #1 in the world for “No Poverty” and for “Peace, Justice and Strong Institutions.” In part, this is due to programs like the Promise Scholars (for local first-generation students), the Equity Locator Map (of accessible and gender-neutral spaces), and specialized pathway programs for Indigenous and Black students. Queen’s Climate Action Plan is committed to climate neutrality by 2040, and Queen’s researchers are engaged at the Queen’s U Biological Station, the Beaty Water Research Centre, and more. Principal Patrick Deane even published a video announcement (which would have hit my feed, if only it hadn’t been “unlisted.”) He says, “at Queen’s we believe our community—our people—will help solve the world’s most significant and urgent challenges through our intellectual curiosity, passion to achieve, and commitment to collaboration.” Media Release | YouTube
McMaster U placed 14th in the world and 3rd in Canada, as well as first in Canada for good health and wellbeing, partnerships for the goals, and decent work and economic growth. Of particular note, McMaster developed an online toolkit to help other researchers and institutions align their work with the UN SDGs. Education News Canada
I gave Western U some attention for their new climate change major, but they also placed in the top 5% in the THE Impact Rankings: 8th in Canada and 52nd in the world. “Rankings are one way we measure our achievements against our aims as well as in the context of other universities’ work. Probably the greatest value of this reflective activity, though, is that it helps us share valuable ideas with peer institutions and the whole global community, for the betterment of the planet.” Western News
Concordia U placed 62nd in the world, top 25 in 3 categories, and tied as #1 in Canada for reduced inequalities. “In the past year alone despite the pandemic we launched the Next-Generation Cities Institute, our Sustainability Action Plan and the President’s Task Force on Anti-Black Racism, in addition to opening the LEED-certified Applied Science Hub that will support advanced research directly linked to many areas of the SDGs.” Education News Canada
uAlberta placed 64th in the world, ranking highest in “life on land” and “zero hunger” for initiatives including the Botanic Garden’s Green School, Augustana’s Miquelon Research Station, the Dairy Research and Technology Centre, and the Sustainable Food Working Group. Education News Canada
And of course, inevitably, many Earth Day announcements came out after my own Earth Day issue, on the day itself…
CICan released a new position paper yesterday, to highlight the role of colleges and institutes in helping Canada achieve net zero emissions by 2050 through skills training, applied research, living labs, Indigenous knowledge, nature-based solutions, and leveraging their green campuses. “We need ingenuity in the development and teaching of new green skills, seeking new business opportunities for Canadian companies, and innovating scientific and technological solutions within a green economy.” CICan
Brescia UC became the first “blue campus” in Ontario, and the second in Canada, by banning all plastic water bottle sales on campus and recognizing access to water as a basic human right. Brescia is challenging other universities to take the pledge from the Council of Canadians. CBC
Confederation College proudly announced it was the second PSE in Ontario to sign the SDG Accord. “It is critical for us to help lead the way in addressing the urgent social, economic and environmental challenges facing our planet, including climate change and issues like poverty and inequality. We not only want to do our part for our collective future, but also want to inspire our College community, particularly our students and employees, to do the same.” Confed
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