As higher education leaders in California and Louisiana, we see the impacts of the changing climate across the communities we serve.
Propelled by historically warm oceans, after the hottest July ever recorded, Hurricane Idalia wreaked deadly havoc across the Southeast. In Louisiana, the record heat exacerbated hundreds of still-burning wildfires. In California, when Tropical Storm Hilary hit, the National Weather Service warned of life-threatening flooding, the streets filled with mud and residents were evacuated by bulldozers.
As these events demonstrate, our students, faculty, staff and institutions are at severe and sustained risk from the increasingly destabilized climate. Climate change will impact the entire system of higher education — its operations, facilities, fiscal model and mission. With each unprecedented weather event, our systems are being tested and too often fail — even as we welcome students back to our campuses this fall.
This means that we must be at the forefront of a response to climate change, supporting the health and welfare of our campus communities and understanding the myriad effects of the climate crisis on students. Many have been displaced from their homes by severe weather events; all are impacted by excessive heat and heightened levels of climate anxiety.
Yes, this is yet another opportunity for higher education to focus on resilience, but we must do more than merely navigate daily challenges.
Our mission to prepare students and graduates to lead calls upon us to actively address what leadership means in a changing global climate. As stewards of our communities, we serve as hubs of learning and research, and now we must incorporate climate literacy and climate action too.
As co-chairs of the Higher Ed Climate Action Task Force with the Aspen Institute, we recognize the scale of these challenges and the opportunity for higher education to advance solutions. Our task force consists of students, faculty, college presidents, business leaders, climate leaders and former government officials working together to build on the important leadership that we have seen emerging in our sector.
Hundreds of campuses have begun working to reduce their carbon footprints and increase climate resiliency through Second Nature’s Climate Leadership Commitments, and we must advance this action more broadly.
We are in the vanguard, too, of real solutions: Much of the research documenting the climate crisis and advancing potential responses originates from colleges and universities.
Yet, both the scale of the problem and the currently under-utilized asset of higher education highlight the urgent need to do much more. Our task force will create a road map for higher education’s expanded role. This means teaching students, advancing research and embracing our mission to serve a broader public good alongside other social leaders. It also means, more specifically, training the clean energy workforce and partnering with key sectors, including businesses, government and community-based organizations, to find ways to remediate the damage and remove the threat to future generations.
Climate change can spark heated debate, but we also know there is no better place than higher education to have a productive dialogue that will lead to concrete solutions.
To inform this comprehensive framework, our task force is learning from leaders on the ground and across the country about a range of climate issues facing higher education. Kanika Malani, a medical student at Brown University, outlined her work with other students to push medical schools to incorporate teaching about heat-related illnesses into their curricula. Ayana Albertini-Fleurant, a Howard University alumna and founder of Sustain the Culture, highlighted her efforts with historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs) to ensure that the coming clean energy transition equitably extends to all populations, recognizing and reversing racial inequality in the economic and environmental spheres.
Mixed into all these discussions is a focus on efforts to effectively prepare our students to be entrepreneurs who will create great, climate-friendly jobs and innovators who will find new climate solutions.
On campus, we can convene students, faculty and staff, community members and leaders to explore ideas to decarbonize campus operations, adapt to climate risks — including extreme weather — and increase support for students’ mental and physical health.
We can pursue grants, financing and the tax credit opportunities in the Inflation Reduction Act to fund this work, and we can work with private-sector partners to align credential opportunities with workforce needs.
And as we embrace the central role of faculty to promote climate literacy, meaningful action can help prepare students for the effects of climate change across a range of fields, from business to agriculture to architecture and beyond.
Nationally, by recognizing that climate change will disproportionately affect Black, Latino, Indigenous and other people of color, and low-income rural and urban communities, higher education can help advance a just transition to a sustainable economy with a focus on alleviating disparities.
The Deep South Center for Environmental Justice in New Orleans provides a leading model, demonstrating how HBCUs, tribal colleges and universities and other minority-serving institutions have already helped prepare their communities to adapt to climate change.
Climate change can spark heated debate, but we also know there is no better place than higher education to have a productive dialogue that will lead to concrete solutions. Through an open exchange of ideas, practical research, collaboration and our commitment to serve as stewards of place, higher education can provide vital tools and help shape our societal and scientific responses to climate change.
Doing so will motivate our students and launch a new era of innovation, deeper citizen engagement and the creation of a more equitable, sustainable and resilient economy, society and world.
Mildred García is the chancellor-select of the California State University system and Kim Hunter Reed is the commissioner of higher education for Louisiana. They serve as co-chairs for Higher Ed Climate Action with the Aspen Institute.
This story about higher education and climate change was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for Hechinger’s newsletter.