The Role of the University in Teaching Climate Change

In this thoughtful essay. Aleh Cherp of the Environmental Sciences and Policy department at Central European University reflects on the role of the modern university in addressing climate change

The University for a world with climate change: educating for crisis, change, caution and context

The modern University was born in the era of the Enlightenment, also known as the Age of Reason. The leading intellectuals of that time believed that the complexity of the world can be explained by several universal formulae derived by the scientific method. This meant that social progress could be achieved by applying generic scientific knowledge. The modern University has been a main tool of this ideology of the Enlightenment: it formalized and disseminated knowledge essential for changing the world for the better. In the last three centuries, this approach of simplifying and controlling the complexity of the world brought unprecedented prosperity and social progress to the humankind.

However, in contrast to this Enlightenment model, the modern world is shaped by
problems and challenges that are increasingly non-linear, unpredictably, messy and
context-dependent. Nothing illustrates it better than climate change. Its effects are decidedly non-linear and difficult to forecast. There are no guaranteed responses and
those proposed so far are very complex, context-depended, and in most cases disruptive.
Climate change is not an exception: most of today’s challenges cannot be solved
with universal formulae. Examples include the financial crisis, the rise of religious and
other fundamentalism, the reversal of democracy and erosion of respect for human
rights in many places, and continued misery of “the bottom billion” countries.

Consequently, the University of the 21st century should prepare its graduates not for
the orderly, well-known and manageable world of the Age of Reason, but for the world
dominated by the Unknown. Such a University cannot be limited to transferring existing
generic knowledge to its students. This is not a call for denying the Enlightenment
ideals or diminishing the role of scientific knowledge. In fact such knowledge will be
increasingly important and needs to become even more widely accessible, understood
and applied. Information and communication technologies play a huge role in increasing
power and accessibility of such knowledge. The Universities should capitalize on
this opportunity and perhaps even let YouTube and iTunes do some of the job formerly
only possible in a lecture hall.

However, giving the young generation scientific facts is clearly not enough to prepare
them for a world with climate change. The University should also find a way to teach
them how to handle unpredictable crises, lead great transition, exhibit caution and reflexivity and respect the context.

1. Education for Crisis

Crises, disruptive and unexpected events, are the reality of our world and will become
more widespread as the climate changes, but somehow Universities continue to educate
their students as if crises are rare. The illusion and expectation of stability (of societies,
technologies and natural systems) hinders our ability to deal with crises which we
will inevitably face. The results are leaders whose instinctive and common reaction to
crises is denial. We have observed it in Chernobyl and Fukushima, the BP Gulf of Mexico
oil spill, Hurricane Katrina, and the financial crisis.

Young people need to be prepared to face unexpected and disruptive crises which may
become increasingly frequent in the unlinear and uncertain world. Dealing with crises
requires three qualities: first, the ability to recognize and admit rather than deny a crisis;
second, the ability to overcome crises by finding effective, often non-standard and
unique solutions; third, the ability to learn from crises, in order to become more skillful
in dealing with them in the future.

2. Education for Change

Crises are unexpected, rapidly unfolding and short-term. Overcoming crises often
means restoring continuity, retaining the status quo. However, citizens of tomorrow will
also need to deliberately disrupt the continuity, to challenge the very nature of status
quo, to build differently organized technical systems and societies. There is a consensus
that tackling climate change requires urgent, rapid and large-scale transformations in
energy systems, land use, urban planning, food production and other areas. Such transformations are not unprecedented: they did occur in recent history, but they were
driven either by technological and economic developments (which we cannot afford to
wait for) or by brutal regimes (which we cannot agree to).

It is clear that governing such transformations might require rethinking models of governance at all levels. Yet, experts speak about changes in technologies, even “lifestyle”,
“culture” and “values” but somehow presume that all these changes will be brought
about by the same or largely similar institutions that Western societies created during
the Industrial Revolution and have used for the last century. As a result, bold visions of
technological and lifestyle transformations needed for tackling climate change are
rarely accompanied by any meaningful proposals for institutional and governance reforms
that can support such transformations, especially in countries that need it most.
The graduates of the modern University are rarely capable of conceiving and implementing
such changes because they often receive their education, especially policy
education, in static, timeless, universal categories. They are taught to uncritically accept
the nation state and its main institutions instead of considering them as products
of a particular period in technological development and social organization. They are
subsequently not able to contemplate, let alone guide institutional change which is
both inevitable (as a natural result of technological development) and necessary.

3. Education for Caution

Social change requires critical thinking and the need for critical thinking is pretty
widely recognized, at least in the rhetoric of modern education. Ironically, many of my immediate unreflective readiness to ‘lead the change’ carries many risks. For once,
many technological solutions to climate change such as geoengineering, nuclear energy,
carbon capture and storage, ‘the hydrogen economy’, and bioenergy are not riskfree.
Implementing such solutions requires extreme caution, wisdom and respect for
the complexity of the natural world, technologies and societies.
In addition to these natural and technological risks there are much less discussed social
and political ones associated with the change in governance institutions we might need
to tackle climate change. Most of the peace-time examples of rapid and radical social
transformations come from brutal dictatorships such as the USSR, China (both achieving
universal access to electricity in record-short times), North Korea (the only oil-free
economy) and Cuba (which rapidly gained food independence by increasing local production in ‘urban gardens’). There is a risk that such regimes may become advocated if
‘eco-fundamentalism’ joins forces with other “-isms” to create totalitarian societies in
the name of tackling climate change.
Modern Universities do not reduce such a risk by repeating the mantra of “educating
the leaders”. This slogan often explicitly fosters students’ aspirations to attain high positions in government or business in order to “lead the change” for the better. Henry
Mintzberg calls this “heroic leadership” , i.e. the willingness to force change without
consideration of complexities, risks and side-effects. Arguably, such ‘leadership’ was at
the roots of many catastrophic social failures, including the totalitarian regimes of the
20th century.

Fortunately “educating the leaders” is becoming less appealing as young people less
and less aspire to follow the footsteps of the leaders who have recently led the world
from one crisis to another. The University should build on this sense of disillusionment
in current leaders to move from educating ‘heroic leaders’ to educating ‘concerned
citizens’, i.e. people who are prepared to both lead and follow, but who more importantly
have the ability for self-reflection and doubt.

Young people have always been good at doubting existing systems. At present they also
need to learn the art of doubt at a higher level. They need to doubt themselves before
they doubt everything else. Such doubt, or awareness of one’s own fallibility is closely
connected to reflexivity. Reflexivity, the awareness of one’s potential fallibility is absolutely
essential for dealing not only with financial markets, but also with climate
change and other great challenges. This could help avoiding major risks and harnessing
the complexity of natural and social systems.

4. Education for Context

There are no universal solutions for climate change in the same way as there are no
universal solutions for economic growth, democracy, and other major problems. Each
country, region and even locality will need to find their own way to mitigate its impact
on climate and adapt to the unavoidable change.

Such context-dependence poses a challenge to the modern University which by its very
name promotes universal knowledge and generic solutions. In contrast, the University
of the 21st century should train the students to pay attention to diverse contexts and to
understand the limitations of generic approaches.

Context-dependence is sometimes confused with claims of uniqueness of a particular
nation or a community so that it can disregard common values and ignore global interconnections. The University of the 21st century should not allow its students to fall into
either an illusion of context-independent panaceas or a trap of isolationism denying
global realities. Instead it should teach “global contextualism” where effective solutions
to global issues are developed within local contexts.

Thus the University of the 21st century should prepare its students to deal with pervasive
crises, while promoting radical transitions, not as reckless ‘heroic leaders’ but rather as concerned and reflective citizens who have practical skills to relate global issues
to local contexts.

Each of these abilities is difficult to acquire, but finding the four together is at best an
improbable mix and at worst an impossible contradiction. Dealing with crises requires
short-term focus on protecting against from disruptions to ensure continuity. On the
other hand, driving transformations presumes focusing on long-term change defying
continuity. While leading change requires resolve and certainty, whereas avoiding risks
requires caution and doubt. Another contradiction is that both envisioning transformations
and reflexivity require deep contemplation and abstract thinking, but there is
rarely room for such thinking in dealing with crises or practically engaging with a local

Some of the great contemporary thinkers have identified the paradox that the University
of the future needs to foster very different, sometimes contradictory, qualities. In 2003,
Henry Mintzberg wrote about “Five Minds of a Manager” and in 2009 Howard Gardner
wrote about “Five minds for the future”. Inspired by their ideas I developed a course “Five minds for sustainability” where students learn both the potential and the limitations of different ways of thinking about the environment. I also coordinate a Master’s program which is based on the idea of different ‘mindsets’. Within this program my students move from one setting to another to absorb different perspectives.

They observe politics in Budapest, water management on a dry Greek island, waste
treatment in laboratories of North England, ‘green economy’ on shop floors in South
Sweden. This helps them to understand why very different perspectives on environmental
problems are not only inevitable but also necessary.

But this ‘multi-mindset’ approach may not be enough. It is not always possible to train
a student to be a cautious, reflective and doubtful analyst, an effective “doer”, a visionary
leader, and a fearless crisis-buster all at the same time. In fact, if one side of the Enlightenment’s idea of universality is that generic knowledge can solve all problems, the
other side of the same idea is the belief that all people have similar minds and hence
should be educated in equal ways. An opposite idea with more and more evidence
from cognitive science is that people have different talents for leadership, caution, or
managing crises or contexts. Perhaps, in the University of the 21st century, these differences in talents should be recognized and built upon rather than glazed over. In this
way it may be possible to train some students with leadership talents to champions
radical change and to educate other students with inherently cautious and analytical
minds to identify and manage risks.

In summary, the modern University born in the Age of Reason is facing difficulties in
preparing the students for the increasingly unstable, unpredictable and contextdependent
world under a threat of climate change. The proposition of this talk is that to prepare young people for the future Universities should educate for tackling crises, leading change, managing risks, and respecting diverse contexts. The challenge of developing
such competencies is that they are associated with very different, even opposite
cognitive qualities. Students should be explicitly trained in all these different mindsets,
while at the same time recognizing their initial inclinations or talents for particular
roles. Climate change can only be tackled if seemingly opposite mindsets productively
cooperate rather than annihilate each other. Foundations for such productive interactions
should be laid in future classrooms where students should learn not only to think in different ways, but also to understand, appreciate, and respect perspectives, mindsets,
and roles of people, different from themselves.

Related posts:

  1. Scholarships for MSc in Climate Change and Development at University of Sussex, UK
  2. CAMEL Program for U.S. Climate Change Teaching
  3. Curriculum video on teaching environmental law in an era of climate change
  4. M.Sc. program in Climate Policy, University of Sussex
  5. Scholarships at the University of Sussex

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