Academic Institutions Owe Us Climate Justice

Higher education institutions have an opportunity to lead the transformation toward a climate just society through two key approaches: the deployment of resources and a redistribution of power.

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Many higher education institutions are committed to advancing social progress, including through climate action. Yet, many academic institutions remain invested in systems that exacerbate climate change and social injustice. My colleagues and I at Northeastern University recently published an article arguing that higher education needs a paradigm shift to center climate justice across institutional decision-making.

Climate change is unjust because the communities most harmed benefit least from its causes. A wealthy few have amassed the profits of fossil fuel extraction and processing, knowing it is the primary driver of climate change, without substantively paying the costs to remove pollution or emissions. Pollution and climate change most harm marginalized and under-resourced communities who use the least fossil fuels. These harms include health consequences like cancers and asthma, as well as losses from increasingly extreme weather, such as neighborhoods and food supplies being burned by fires or disrupted by droughts or floods.

Climate disasters underscore that assumptions of a stable future are no longer reliable. Human well-being, including survival of our institutions, is jeopardized by continued reliance on fossil fuels. Higher education, especially wealthy private institutions, are well-informed, well-resourced anchor institutions. They shape surrounding communities as employers, educators, and landholders, contributing to hospitals, governments, sports, and the arts. Higher education institutions have an opportunity to lead transformation toward a climate just society, starting from administrative emphases on prevention of further catastrophic climate losses.

Wealthy and prestigious higher education institutions have amassed billions of dollars of endowments and land to become powerful financial and real estate institutions. Institutions’ wealth empowers them to affect social dynamics beyond mere student education. For example, buying land increases rent and home ownership costs for neighboring communities while often raising student tuition. These burdens exacerbate inequalities and contribute to financial precarity that increases people’s vulnerabilities to climate impacts.

Recognizing that climate change is the largest challenge of our lifetimes, academic institutions can no longer ignore their unfulfilled potential for climate action.

Conversely, educational institutions that proudly lead scholarship and innovation have the capacity to put climate justice research into practice. We identified two approaches that could guide climate justice decision-making.

First is proactive deployment of resources toward climate justice. We have sufficient technology to transition off fossil fuels and mitigate climate change, but implementation requires social innovation to counter climate denial in politics and education. STEM disciplines are often prioritized in academia, including through research and faculty fund allocation. However, social sciences and humanities are better equipped to study the social dynamics of climate action and should be funded accordingly. Beyond teaching and research, academic institutions could support local climate justice initiatives. Peer-reviewed research suggests climate justice efforts from limiting conference air travel to remediating local air and water pollution to developing mobile health clinics. These initiatives exemplify Green New Deal-style investment in social equity and climate action across sectors, including health, energy, and labor.

The second approach is redistributing power (literally and figuratively) away from fossil fuels via an energy democracy approach. Big Oil continues to expand fossil infrastructure and fund climate denial. Like Big Tobacco, Big Oil executives have lowered their costs by funding academics and lobbyists to undermine the known health and financial impacts of fossil fuel pollution and climate change. Investing in fossil fuels and accepting their research funds legitimizes their business model, contributing to their continued success despite the known human loss and suffering they cause. Refusing fossil fuel influence includes rejecting their executives’ donations and trusteeships, transitioning to 100% renewables, and divesting endowments.

Recognizing that climate change is the largest challenge of our lifetimes, academic institutions can no longer ignore their unfulfilled potential for climate action. Higher education institutions need to listen to their researchers and start centering climate justice in decision-making like they, too, have a stake in a livable future.

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