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Universities and climate action

Universities do not exist in a vacuum; they are very much affected by the world around them while at the same time they are expected to affect the world around them in the most positive ways.

Universities are often seen as the breeding ground for solutions to major issues. The higher education sector has led the way in enabling the world to understand the impact of climate change on the environment and on our future health and wellbeing. Back in the 1970s, academics were the canaries in the coalmine who first alerted the world to the potential catastrophe of climate change.

Whether indexed by the abrupt changes in weather patterns, continual climb in extreme heat and humidity, the melting of glaciers, the eruption of unprecedented mega-fire events or the rapid degradation of ecosystems and disruption of human settlements, climate change is here.

Universities have a critical role to play in preparing society to adapt to the impacts of climate disruption by providing research and education around adaptation strategies and science.

Universities are places of knowledge creation, curation and circulation, but their role is also to help resolve the issues around them. We know that some universities are more responsive to climate change than others; however, the big question is: are they doing enough?

Professor Keri Facer, professor of Educational and Social Futures at the University of Bristol, calls for immediate action by saying “to make the changes necessary, universities and colleges must act meaningfully, swiftly and must not ‘greenwash’ their activities.

There are a few practical ways in which universities could reflect and refresh their thinking and practice around their response to climate change:

Relevant and upgraded curriculum: looking critically at what is being taught, is the curriculum responsive to the current and upcoming challenges? How well are university aligned curricula and how well trained is the teaching and research faculty in delivering those relevant courses? Universities need to increase their curricular offerings on climate adaptation, both through mainstreaming the information in core courses and offering electives that specialise in the theme.

Demonstrating eco-friendly ethos: to what extent do university infrastructure, design and practices demonstrate their commitment to the mission? Universities must focus on massively reducing carbon emissions from their day-to-day operations including from international staff and student travel and committing to sustaining biodiversity. How many universities focus on getting relevant certifications and pass green/eco assessments?

How well informed and well sensitized are our university students? Smaller and easy steps also count. Dr Fozia Tahir a well- known environmental scientist, recalls how the University of Oxford continues to remind all students to not waste water and to turn lights off by putting small messages in service areas. We are aware that several universities in Pakistan too have started providing bicycles to students within campus, which they can issue using an app.

Students as active citizens: is the environment only the responsibility of students studying the subject? Finding ways to engage students in climate action projects that have local relevance. By equipping students with the knowledge to develop climate change solutions and to lead a sustainable life, universities can help create a society with a unified mission to revert global warming. Zofeen T Ebrahim, an environmental journalist, believes that students have the power to rally their peers at very short notice using social media and force decision makers to take action to adapt to and mitigate climate change. Remember Greta Thunberg, a schoolgirl is a household name, and her global movement has had a huge impact. We have seen this working as the British Council’s programme Active Citizens involves thousands of university students in Pakistan in leading community projects around climate change.

Breaking silos: universities need to open the doors of the compartments that they have boxed subjects into. The issues of climate change are cross-cutting and cannot be looked through either with only one lens. We need to figure out a way for universities to allow cross-disciplinary studies within the existing system, says Afia Salam a journalist and environmental activist.

‘The battle against climate change cannot be fought with ideas and targets alone. It requires a multi-pronged strategy involving educational institutes, think-tanks, policy makers and local community’ says Dr Muhammad Ali, vice-chancellor of Quaid-e-Azam University in Pakistan.

Organisations need to design their programmes in support of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goal on Climate Action. While thematically they can remain diverse, climate action and environmental responsibility needs to be a core component of the programme much like diversity and inclusion. For example, in the British Council ongoing research partnerships between Pakistani and UK universities through the Pak-UK Education Gateway, universities in Pakistan and UK are working around environmental issues to help suggest scientific solutions to climate change, and through GREAT scholarships for Sustainable Futures, students are supported to pursue higher education.

Collaborations and bridging the gap: building connections with networks to bridge the gap. Universities can serve as ‘hubs’ in their local communities for creating, testing, and disseminating knowledge about regional climate projections and adaptation strategies, and should work directly with their local communities to explain the science and implement solutions. At present, they split Climate Change into two camps. The first one led by activists who are on the billboards grabbing media headlines.

In the other camp are sectors like Coal and Oil which fuelled the industrial change, says Dr Moin Uddin who belongs to the corporate sector but is also a keen academic. He thinks that the HE sector has the potential to bridge the gap by taking charge of the climate change discourse and get better at collaboration – building alliances between scientists, artists, politics and listening to those in society – particularly from marginalised communities who have too long been ignored.

Universities have always helped shape the future. With climate change hitting everyone around the globe, it is time for the universities to rise to the occasion and steer the mission. More to be done than said!

Dr Nishat Riaz MBE is director education at the British Council in Pakistan.

Twitter: @nishatriaz

Sarah Parvez is head of higher education and skills at the British Council.