Among the wicked problems confronting us today, none is more vexing than that of global climate change. Indeed, at a 2021 meeting of the Security Council of the United Nations, naturalist David Attenborough called climate change “the biggest threat to security that modern humans have ever faced.” Noting that atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide are at their highest rate in millions of years, he warned, “If we continue on our current path, we will face the collapse of everything that gives us our security—food production, access to fresh water, habitable ambient temperature, and ocean food chains.” These factors, in turn, will promote continued deforestation, influence migration patterns, and affect the ways humans interact with animals and each other, leading to greater likelihood of the spread of diseases such as COVID-19 and of violent conflict over the control of scarce natural resources. The most vulnerable populations, of course, are those who already suffer from food and shelter insecurity and who lack the financial and political power to change the circumstances of their lives. Yet, environmentalists warn that everyone on the planet is at substantial risk due to the increase in extreme weather events, rising sea levels, declining agriculture production, and the rapid proliferation of disease.
This year marks the fifteenth anniversary of the American College and University Presidents’ Climate Commitment, started by twelve college and university presidents convinced of “the power, potential, and imperative of higher education’s key role in shaping a sustainable society.” Within months, more than 350 other campus leaders signed on. Dedicated to exploring bold and innovative solutions to the global challenge of climate change, these leaders understood that as a sector, higher education is uniquely positioned to catalyze change by conducting research, producing knowledge, modeling commitments to carbon neutrality and resilience on campus and beyond, and serving as anchor institutions. A Climate Leadership Network subsequently emerged, offering networking opportunities and resources showcasing six hundred campus climate action plans, metrics on progress toward outcomes arising from campus inventories of greenhouse gas emissions, and strategies for achieving shared objectives related to safeguarding the planet. The organization that manages the network, Second Nature, also began coordinating the University Climate Change Coalition—a group of twenty-three research universities from the United States, Canada, and Mexico seeking to improve climate action through cross-sector collaboration on campuses and in communities on a global scale.
What these wide-ranging institutions have in common is their investment in human capital development through the creation of schools, programs, and engaged and experiential coursework around sustainability. This trend is supported in a recent National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine report, Strengthening Sustainability Programs and Curricula at the Undergraduate and Graduate Levels, which encourages institutions to develop courses and programs that “prepare students to address complex sustainability challenges in a real-world setting while incorporating problem-based and solution-oriented approaches to sustainability.” A first step toward this goal is ensuring that colleges and universities identify persistent barriers to keeping pace with the evolving and interdisciplinary nature of sustainability studies, including disciplinary silos; lack of full credit for team teaching; isolated curriculum planning and advising; tenure and promotion processes that fail to recognize the importance of applied, experiential learning and public pedagogies; and hiring practices that hinder diversity. This work is further complicated in an age of extreme polarization and partisanship, when despite incontrovertible scientific evidence about global warming and environmental racism, advocating for a sustainable future and preserving our natural and human environment for future generations are often viewed as political issues. This reality also impedes the willingness of college and university leaders at all levels to speak out, for fear of alienating donors, governing boards, and state legislatures and of violating the law.
Nevertheless, the popularity of assessments such as the Princeton Review’s Green Rating—which measures the performance of colleges and universities based on whether students have a healthy and sustainable campus life; how well they are preparing students to work in the twenty-first century’s clean-energy economy and to be citizens in a world characterized by environmental concerns and opportunities; and whether the institutions’ policies are environmentally responsible—reflects the fact that, increasingly, prospective students are choosing colleges based on considerations of sustainability. In addition, students are often the driving force behind institutional change to address environmental concerns. I was reminded of this at the end of the spring semester when listening to a senior honors thesis by Isobel McCullough, a 2022 graduate in film media, French, and music history and literature at the University of Rhode Island.
McCullough’s award-winning acoustic ecology project, which investigates the relationship of our coastal communities to nature, as well as climate change and industrialization, involved producing soundscapes depicting the sonic environments of Rhode Island’s South County—an area dramatically impacted by coastal erosion over the past century. The aesthetic time capsule McCullough created is a poignant admonition that environmental sustainability does not hinge on a set of choices in response to a single dilemma. Rather, the change needed is multifaceted, blending the socially responsible, scientific, and humanistic skills at the core of a liberal education.
Illustration by Paul Spella