Members of POWER Interfaith gather in April 2022 in Pennsylvania for the Fight for Our Future: Rally for Climate, Care, Jobs, and Justice.
Magazine Reflections

What Is the Role of Higher Education in Responding to Climate Change?

Summer 2022

It might seem odd for me, an instructor of English at an urban community college, to teach about climate change. That is what I tell my students as we read essays about environmental racism, species extinction, and climate justice. My students learn about the moral dilemma of climate change from environmentalist and author Bill McKibben and the honorable harvest (principles that govern our interactions with the natural world) from botanist, author, and Potawatomi Nation member Robin Wall Kimmerer. After engaging with these readings, students often conclude that the Indigenous practice of reciprocity can become a guiding principle for saving our planet. We need critical thinkers who understand the big picture and work collectively to promote solutions across all disciplines.

—Mary Lawrence
Gateway Community College

Universities can play a key role in minimizing greenhouse gas emissions and maximizing climate resiliency by partnering with organizations in their communities. Community-engaged courses taught by interdisciplinary faculty teams can help students understand coupled human-Earth systems, develop technical problem-solving and practical implementation skills, and foster the collaborative and equity-minded ethos required to create a carbon-neutral (or carbon-negative) society. Classes might partner with planning commissions to assess stakeholder concerns about renewable energy, propose a transition timeline, and evaluate technology options. Via this model, students are motivated by seeing the impact of their actions, faculty lend skills to needs identified by the community, and universities build local networks.

—Kelsey Bitting
Elon University

Colleges and universities are places of curiosity where people experiment with ideas and ask questions. A liberal arts education creates innovators and problem solvers by using an interdisciplinary approach to introduce students to complex problems and approaches for solving them. Climate change is one of the complex problems of our day, and higher education has an opportunity to leverage the strength of its religiously and spiritually diverse communities, on and off campus, to address it. Indeed, faith-based groups are increasingly involved in environmental efforts: The Greater New Orleans Interfaith Climate Coalition is working to preserve Louisiana’s wetlands. Faith leaders in North Carolina are demanding divestment from fossil fuels. In Climate Change and the Art of Devotion: Geoaesthetics in the Land of Krishna, 1550–1850, Sugata Ray highlights how global climatic transformations affected religious practices and philosophical systems. At Interfaith America, we launched the Black Interfaith in the Time of Climate Crisis project.

Religious and nonreligious traditions alike center creation care as an important value, and we are responsible, we are called, from our various traditions, to respond.

—Janett I. Cordovés,
Interfaith America

Photo: Members of POWER Interfaith gather in April 2022 in Pennsylvania for the Fight for Our Future: Rally for Climate, Care, Jobs, and Justice. (Lisa Lake/Getty Images for POWER Interfaith)