Saturday, November 21, 2009

Climate Change and Higher Education

How will climate change impact tertiary education asks Joss Winn (via Stephen Downes). It's a topical question today as University College, Cork, my alma mater and occasional employer is badly flooded. Student accomodations have been evacuated, lectures cancelled for a week, and it is still raining hard.

It's impossible to tie this specific event to global warming. Cork (in Irish, Corcaigh, loosely translates as 'Marsh') is a city of rivers and bridges. This is, perhaps, just a regular 50 year of 100 year flood event, the damage multiplied by the modern habit of putting buildings on floodplains. That said, it is typical of the kind of climate event we are likely to see a lot of through the century as we face increases in temperature of between two and six degrees.

There are obvious first order effects of global warming on Tertiary Education. Physical damage and disruption like UCC is suffering can be put right, if it is infrequent. In warmer scenarios, some institutions may simply have to close or relocate. In the first world, we'll be able to afford this, as the change will unfold slowly through the century.

Our curricula will change. The world will need Geoengineers to try and fix it, Civil Engineers to run the massive coastal defence projects, Agronomists to manage transition of our agriculture as breadbaskets move north, and a new breed of Diplomat to wring their hands over the growing belt of Somalia style failed states as low latitude countries crumble in the heat.

In the first world, we'll be fine. There'll be wet carpets and cut budgets, certainly. There will be hand wringing editorials in the THE and The Chronicle. But our Universities came out of the apocalypse of the early 20th century better than ever, as the brave new world of 1945 needed graduates, and lots of them, to rebuild. A world bombed, beggared, widowed and orphaned found the money, and went on to give us a half century of remarkable economic transformation.

Without global warming, another half century would bring us a world population peaking at around 10 billion. Economic growth would put most of those living in relative comfort. Countries like India and China which, in 1945 sat close to famine would, in 2045 have middle income populations who could afford and expect a University education. The Great Universities of India, China and Indonesia will be vast. They will use technologies as force multipliers in ways our cosseted first world pedagogues will balk at. The scale will dwarf the old academic aristocracies of the Oxbridge and the Ivy League, reduced to an elitist sideshow, like first class travel in the Ryanair Age. The graduates they turn out, by the billion, are the true future of Tertiary Education.

Unless they are boiled alive. Severe global warming scenarios will hit these countries hardest. Much of the history of the century will hinge on whether these countries can take the heat and continue to deliver their people from poverty, or whether they will crumble back into war and famine on a scale that our experiences in Somalia, Afghanistan and Central Africa have only begun to prepare us. That is the central question.

(Image, Gluckman Gallery, UCC, upon the floodwaters.Photo: Tim O'Donovan)


  1. Great to see your comment on my post and your extended thoughts on this here. I've replied to your comment on my blog but in summary, I question whether "we'll be fine" in the first world. We face a massive and related problem of energy supply as we move to renewables and a +4c world could force migration from other countries to places like Ireland and the UK on a scale not seen before. The issues of energy supply and demand, climate change and an entrenched economic model of growth, all need to be considered with equal weight.

  2. You are correct, in that I use the word 'fine' somewhat loosely. But I didn't say we would retain our economic model or that it would be plain sailing by any stretch

    I expect in the first world we won't face malthusian population collapses or failed states. Our democracies may not survive, our economic model may not survive, but our society will. We can afford to fall back on cooler ground. We can afford, over a century, to build new cities in the north and migrate to them. We can, and probably will in the end, afford Geoengineering. It might not work, but we can afford to try, and once we start seeing regular climate related mass casualty events in the first world, we will. The 21st century might not repeat the economic growth of the 20th, but the first world will make it through, more or less. So, while it's going to be a very busy century, I expect my children to live through it.

    China? India? Indonesia? These nations live a lot closer to the line than we do. High temperature scenarios would bring the strong chance of collapse of civil society and death on a grand scale. They might not be 'fine'.

    Also, I'll tip my cap to you here and note that this is your field, not mine. I certainly don't disagree that 6C is looking likely now.