Why Climate Action Is in Higher Education’s Best Interest

By Philip P. DiStefano

November 10, 2022

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The University of Colorado Boulder is proud to be cohosting the Right Here, Right Now Global Climate Summit with the United Nations Human Rights Office on campus December 1–4. This landmark summit is an opportunity for worldwide participants to learn more about climate change through the lens of human rights from some of the world’s foremost experts. In the leadup to the summit, CU Boulder Chancellor Philip P. DiStefano urges others in the higher education community to play a leading role in the defining issue of our time.

At the COP27 climate conference currently underway in Egypt, U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres said, “We are in the fight of our lives, and we are losing.”

It’s a notion that our youth seem particularly attuned to: many students and other college-age people identify climate change as the defining issue of their generation. 

As leaders in higher education, we can ignore this critical issue only at great peril to ourselves, our institutions, and our planet.

There are myriad scientific, political, financial, and moral arguments supporting climate action. These arguments are compelling and any of those factors alone are worthy enough reasons to act. It’s in society’s best interest for educators to continue learning and teaching about the issues, supporting research into causes and solutions, and sharing insights with our broader communities. Not to mention, our students are demanding it.

And in a society that’s increasingly skeptical of the value of higher education, taking a leadership role on finding solutions to the climate crisis is an important way universities can showcase our distinctive talents, demonstrate our worth, and remind the public that higher education benefits all of society—not just those who earn a degree.

Demonstrating our value

According to a survey of 1,000 registered voters conducted by the Winston Group on behalf of the American Council on Education in February 2022, about 38 percent of Americans believed higher education was “generally on the right track,” while 19 percent thought it was on the wrong track. The remaining 44 percent said they didn’t know. 

Those results certainly show room for improvement—and developing climate solutions could be an issue that helps higher education move the needle on public perception. Few other issues allow us to demonstrate our unique strengths in such tangible ways.

On our Boulder campus, like within so many of institutions, collaboration on research and creative work across geographic boundaries is second nature. Interdisciplinary research partnerships and an embrace of innovation are defining features of the modern university, and both give us a tremendous leg up in addressing worldwide challenges like climate.

And climate change cuts across curricula in a way that few other issues do. Virtually every major and field of study at CU Boulder is discovering connections to the topic, from business, engineering, and social sciences to communication, education, and the arts. 

Demonstrating our value to the broader public starts with demonstrating our value to students, and a curriculum that acknowledges the interconnectedness of our world and emphasizes the importance of major issues like climate across all fields of study is step one. It’s critical that we evolve to meet and anticipate the needs of our students, who are clamoring for information and context on this issue.

Climate also allows us to demonstrate our commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion. As the Right Here, Right Now summit will highlight, climate change disproportionately impacts the most vulnerable populations: the youngest and oldest groups, impoverished people, people with disabilities, and Indigenous and island peoples. Conversations about climate change that focus on human rights help us to understand diverse perspectives and practice empathy, allowing us to walk the walk on campus equity commitments.

Get involved

One of the things I’m most excited about as we prepare for the Right Here, Right Now summit is our Education Coalition, which counts ACE among its members.

Participating students and educators will receive free access to a coalition toolkit, which includes guides on hosting watch parties and spreading the word about the connections between human rights and our changing climate.

To reach even more learners, we encourage departments, classes, clubs, and people affiliated with educational institutions to join the summit by watching events from their computers and phones, either live or through recordings. Tuning in together can help spur conversations about the key issues that arise, including human rights-based climate solutions.

Summit organizers are also developing climate education and summit-specific resources for educators and will share them with coalition members as they become available.

Addressing climate change isn’t just the right thing for universities to do—it’s also the smart thing to do in a world that’s increasingly skeptical of the value of higher education. It starts right here, right now.

If you have any questions or comments about this blog post, please contact us.

About the Author

Philip P. DiStefano

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