by Joe Antonioli, Sr. Curricular Innovation Specialist, DLINQ

The apple trees look silly this time of year. Hundreds of new shoots point straight up from the branches, making the tops of the trees look like someone used too much mousse on bad haircuts. It is easier to get rid of these branches during the coldest months, usually January and February, there are no leaves or fruit to get caught in the clippers and chainsaws.

This year the warmer weather made it easier to move around the orchard. After a strong storm right before the last week in December, temperatures jumped up to the 40s and 50s. It is not uncommon for us to experience a week of warmer weather during the winter, but the days got above freezing for most of January. Luckily we still have time for our trees to get the necessary number of chilling hours.

Vermont relies on a substantial amount of cold weather for other agricultural and outdoor businesses. Some maple growers have already boiled sap. Local ski resorts are adopting snow-making systems to keep trails open. According to the Vermont Climate Assessment 2021 our state is getting warmer, and Climate Change in Vermont says that “freeze-free periods [have] lengthened twenty-one days since [the] early 1900s.” The warming of the state due to climate change lengthens the growing season of some crops, and extends the activity season for some sports. However, increased warming will have an effect on Vermont products and pastimes that we currently enjoy. Will we be able to slow the effects of climate change enough to keep our favorites? What is happening in academia to give us hope?

“What [John Michael] Greer says is when you are dealing with a complex situation where none of us knows how the story is going to end, what is needed is not to waste a lot of energy in trying to arrive at a single, agreed, shared plan. What is needed is groups of people of goodwill pursuing different possible answers, different possible paths into the unknown world that lies ahead, without wasting too much energy on pretending that we can know what might become apparent in hindsight about what it was that turned out to make all the difference.” ~ Dougald Hine, Future Trend Forums, January 26, 2023.

Bryan Alexander, host of Future Trends Forum and former Vermont resident, recently wrote Universities on Fire, a look at climate change and how it will affect colleges and universities. I have heard Bryan speak many times about the utopian and dystopian version of our future with technology in academia. In a recent conversation over Zoom he shared a broad and deep view of where academia intersects with climate change, questions that we can ask, and schools that are engaging with students in positive ways to help build alternate futures. Below is an edited version of that conversation.

“My thesis is that climate change and higher education intersect on multiple domains and each of those is pretty complex, and there is a lot of variability based on where the institution is located in terms of its culture as well as its geography. So, for example, there is the whole nature of the physical environment of a campus. Miami has a dozen campuses right on the Atlantic Ocean. You look at Bangladesh or India. There are quite a few campuses that are [at] sea level. They’re on the ocean. The former capital, Jakarta, in Indonesia… they actually withdrew the national capital out of Jakarta, because Jakarta is at sea level and potentially going under, but there is a university within a mile of the ocean.

“Then there are universities located in places where it is too hot and potentially too dry. So you know the American West, for example. We have, not only the American desert, but we also have a big zone of aridification around it. So you look at places in Phoenix. You look at Arizona-Nevada as a whole. Colorado, New Mexico. And you wonder just how safe it’ll be to be in some of those areas, both in terms of airborne particles from, you know, grit getting into the campus buildings and people’s lungs, but also just heat and the heat is especially a problem in areas like the American Southeast or the Sub-saharan Africa, where you have a combination of high temperature and humidity. Scientists call this wet bulb temperature. It’s possible that it would be too dangerous to be outside in some of these areas during hot months, in which case we have to think about quite a few dynamics, but that’s just one part we also have to think about.”

After sharing how climate change and physical geography will impact adaptation, Bryan shifts to choices that can be explored by colleges and universities about their energy consumption.

“Does a campus generate its own electricity? I know Middlebury has a solar battery, for example, or a solar panel set. Or do you install wind turbines? Do you attempt geothermal, or do you offshore your electrical power? Berea College in Kentucky, for example. Basically it’s a little complicated, but they purchased parts of 2 different hydropower stations in the same county off-campus, but still nearby. So, instead of sourcing their electrical power from cold-party plants or oil burning plants. They shifted to that but you know you think about the food that is served on campus? To what extent it depends on transportation which burns Co2, or it comes from animals or meat products, which, of course, add methane, which is a more powerful greenhouse gas. And so you get to individual buildings on campus that it works that they are carbon, negative carbon, positive or carbon neutral. And you think about things like the vehicles that can, just as a vehicle as a campus fleet switch to electrical powered vehicles. Do you try to encourage that among campus visitors, students, faculty, staff, or anybody? Or do you try to penalize people from driving fossil fuel?”

As an electric car-using commuter I think about how adopting a technology can seem like you are going green, however there may still be an impact on the climate. Bryan shares how some of these kinds of questions can manifest at a school.

Campus computing plays a huge role in this in terms of everything, from trying to help gather data about campus. The environmental sensors, for example, are trying to track the carbon emissions of a building, and its full process from inception through renovation and eventual demolition. Do we try to follow what green computing is, and there’s no real consensus on that. There’s the idea that, for example, we might try to cut back on the most computationally intensive functions. So think Bitcoin mining. Think trying to churn out elaborate models digitally, not physically. Or do we see the opposite? Do we reduce our travel off campus in which you know all kinds of travel that might be for study abroad. That might be for research, professional development students traveling for you to attend campus, and if so, do we then correspondingly increase our digital use for virtual conferences, and so on, in which case again, campus, it gets to expand.”

Next, Bryan turns to academic activities, starting with research.

“I know Middlebury is passionately committed to the liberal arts tradition of combining faculty, research, and teaching, and supports faculty research. So, on the one hand, you think about the subject, the areas that research, the departments that conduct research into climate change because some of those are what you would expect. Meteorology, physics, earth science, environmental studies, obviously. But also we’ve seen the spread across the entire curriculum. For example, we have economists who study all kinds of things. How do you structure finance for global decarbonization? One economist received a Nobel Prize for building up a series of models trying to understand how we financially discount future generations as it applies to our planning about decarbonization. People in Political Science are trying to figure out things like what happens to national sovereignty when you have a transnational crisis, what kind of structures do we build in order to try to organize civilization? Psychologists have a whole series of models right now, trying to understand what happens to the human mind after climate change really, really begins to bite. So you have terms like climate-grief! We have an illogism called solastalgia, which is the kind of nostalgia for the climate you experienced as a child, but is now gone, and it’s not gone because of your own developments, it’s because the world has changed. We already have the environmental humanities movement. But you think about historians increasingly paying attention to climate change as a factor of many historical events. We see people in literature who are studying the ways that we represent climate. There’s a great book by Amitov Ghosh, who’s a novelist and writes about how English language novels portrayed Nature in a certain way that helped keep us not thinking about gleaming, and so on. So every discipline on campus conceivably can grapple with this. Moreover, it is a very interdisciplinary field. if you’re trying to understand, for example, what would happen to Boston in the case of massive sea level rise? To research, you have to bring in someone for environmental studies, Earth science, as well as urban studies, as well as perhaps history, perhaps sociology, and so on. So there’s an interesting structural question of how does a campus support its faculty doing this? And if we do more research into it, how do you support all of that? The computing side, for this, of course, is very interesting. What kind of tools are required to do this kind of research? Do you see more mapping tools, which, as an array of them, do you see more modeling tools? Do you see bigger statistical packages? And then how do you support that across a range of different disciplines? If you’ve got a philosopher who now wants to look at GIS, how do you support them in doing this?

These questions harken back to Dougald’s quote above, that we will need multiple perspectives and diverse expertise to address the “wicked problem” of climate change.

“I mentioned that the liberal arts tradition includes blending faculty research with teaching, and the teaching side is very interesting. Everything I said about academic units, studying and researching; the topic of climate change applies to them teaching it. So you know, a faculty in economics can teach about the discounting I mentioned. And psychology can teach about solastalgia. Faculty in Earth science, obviously right? And then this becomes very interesting because you get the classic problem of how to support faculty teaching these fields. How you support them in the fields may be contentious. So for example, I was talking to people at one university where they were trying to build an on campus solar array. And the students loved the idea. The staff loved the idea. The faculty were totally behind it, and the board of Trustees shot it down because they had several trustees who were very, very close to fossil fuel industries and wouldn’t have been personally injured, but found this ideologically incorrect. But what happens if you are a geologist on that staff on the faculty, and you’d like to then research some more of this. Would you feel a little less likely to do it, because you think this might get some static from the board? But then there’s also the question of how you support faculty doing the interdisciplinary way. Do you have, say, a first year seminar, which is taught by a grab bag of faculty on the climate crisis? Do you set up a center on campus that is able to support faculty, teaching and research on this, and then also how it is still kind of professional development. That’s just the curriculum.

“We think about pedagogy, and there’s some interesting sides. What are the best pedagogies for teaching this? Some will argue that inquiry based learning, or project-based learning, is the best way. So what happens to Central Vermont if the climate goes up by 3 degrees Centigrade. Well, let’s explore that. But also, I think this is an area where simulations and gaming really come in handy, because simulations are great for understanding complex subjects. And, believe me, this is a complex subject. Gaming, of course, can do the same thing, while also involving students in really exciting ways. And on top of this just one more point. Middlebury is a global college. You attract students from all over the world, from all over the United States, which means over time, unless we are incredibly fortunate,…that the number of your students who have already suffered some form of trauma due to climate change will be increasing. So if you’re a faculty member in biology, and you decide to talk about how biomes change as a result of global warming, how should you treat the student who saw their entire home destroyed by a typhoon? How do you support them? And in a student centered environment like Middlebury College what role do they play in, say, teaching others about their experience? How do you support their voice, for example. And this, like I said, is just going to keep increasing.”

Next, Bryan spoke about the challenges of collaboration between higher education institutions and the communities that they are embedded in.

“Another box here is town-gown relations, and I know something about this from Middlebury, but I’m going to try and speak as generally as possible. There’s a lot of opportunities for collaboration as well as for friction. The University I mentioned that had this attempt to have a solar array on campus that failed a couple of years later tried to do something similar off campus. There is a bit of land nearby that was wasteland, and it was basically only being used for cows to occasionally graze. So the campus reached out to the local community with an understanding, a way of leasing this land and they could put up solar panels that would be plenty high enough for cows to just gorge to their heart’s content. And a small but vocal lobby within the community managed to block it, again, for ideological reasons, and perhaps something more. So how do you handle that kind of problem? How do you make it into a positive where the town-gown gets to collaborate? For example, you know, Middlebury is an area which gets pretty cold. If the cold increases, which is unlikely but it happens, do you offer warming shelters for people in the community? Think about the opposite. Think about somebody in Southern Texas? Do they offer cooling shelters on campus, and open that up to the community, and vice versa. Do you, at an institution, point your academics to off campus supports such as cooling shelters or medical care? What kind of synthetic projects can you work on together? Say you’re in Miami, and the county is trying to build a seawall to protect the area? Does a campus contribute labor in the form of service learning? Does a civil engineering professor contribute to the design and structure of that, for example? We can scale this up even further. This is where I think this seems like the most obvious connection, but it’s one that I don’t think we’ve taken seriously, yet, which is the idea of academia playing a role in this crisis on the World stage. In a sense we already are, if you look at the climate. Science is largely done by academics around the world. The IPCC is chock full of academic researchers, but we can do even more. We could have professors of meteorology speak to the state, the region, the nation about where they think climate change is changing weather patterns. You could have an economist speak about discounting, and so on. And then we can also look at how all this is changing as something that we can research and study. For example, imagine a religion scholar who is trying to look at how different religions respond to climate change. The current Pope has a long essay, I think, on climate change that’s interesting to see.”

I am especially interested in students’ involvement in climate change activities. Bryan had this to say about the student perspective.

“The phrase I keep telling people is that this is the Greta Thunberg generation. They are very, very different in their experience of climate change than their elders. There is no climate denial among them. They see the climate crisis worsening, and again, unlike their elders, they see their elders as making it worse with our eyes wide open. This is not an accident, this is something that we know we’re doing. So there is a great deal of built up friction and resentment just waiting there. One sign I see at a lot of climate protests is the slogan: ‘You will die of old age, we will die of climate change.’ I show that to faculty and staff over 50, and they’re just blown away every time they see it.”

Middlebury’s leadership around climate change shows up in many ways, for instance the Energy 2028 initiative, and co-founded with Bill McKibben. I prompted Bryan to share some stories about colleges and universities that are doing a great job engaging students.

“One of them is Dickinson College, in the middle of Pennsylvania, and I think in many ways they’re at the bleeding edge of this, at least in the small college world. Students have to take a class on sustainability to graduate. It’s not one given class. Different classes can fulfill that charge like a writing requirement. Students also run/work at an organic farm near campus. Dickinson is in a farm rich area. It’s an agricultural area so they run that, and they bring produce back to a site in town, which is a combination grocery store/restaurant, where you can buy produce directly. Buy apples, and so on. But also they make food, and it’s all vegetarian, I think. Vegan? I’m not sure but definitely vegetarian food, so you can get your onion soup and everything else there. Students get to run that. There is a sustainability Major and a program run by one very, very hard working genius, and there they’ve done some great projects. One of my favorites is that they approached the town of Carlisle… They analyzed the carbon footprint of the town, and presented that analysis to the town, and the town thought it was great that it was really, really useful. The town then pointed them to the county… then presented that to the whole county, and as far as I know, they’re still working on that. Just think about what it meant to talk about real life work, and also the work and the farm is fascinating. When I talked to students, they were talking about different things they were learning, the different practices, and how they wanted to do more.

“Another one is out in the west coast Pacific Union College. They’re in a spot off of California which, like much of California, is a serious fire hazard. They’re surrounded by forests that are routinely too dry, and they burst into flames. And so the campus has done all kinds of stuff. They clear-cut what’s called, not a burn zone, an area around the campus where there are now no trees, so the fire cannot jump to the campus, a firebreak. This is the entire campus, faculty, students and staff. They went to the surrounding forest, and they de-brushed it. They basically went through the forest and removed all underbrush that wasn’t trees and soil so that makes it much harder for it to catch on fire. They cleared all that out. They also did a lot of water reclamation. They put some of their acres of land they owned into a land trust. They made their cafeteria all plant based food. Now it’s a private university, and it’s religious, I think Seventh Day Adventist. So there is a bit of a religious backing for this. They added a whole bunch of climate classes. They set up a conservation technology major, which may be the only one in the United States. And also when I mentioned everyone’s involved,faculty and staff, some of them are cross-trained in local emergency response, so that when fires break out they can actually fight fires with the appropriate skills. They have a helipad, so they can, you know, take off and spray water and [fire retardant] chemicals onto the fire, and so on.

“Another one is Colorado College. they have a whole raft of things. For example, like Middlebury, they declared themselves Net-Zero in terms of emissions. I’m not sure what year that was. I want to say 2010, but it may be after that. They have an interesting policy towards travel. When faculty or staff travel they buy carbon offsets, but they are very precisely targeted. They are not generic carbon offsets, so they try to do things that are actually pro-environmental. They have a whole series of classes that focus on climate. But they also have student-professor research collaborations on climate issues, which again, is a classic liberal education aspect. And then they have a “tree semester”. Students live sustainably, so I believe this is special housing in which they help build. And they also teach K-12 kids in the area about sustainability. They even decommissioned the local power plant. One thing that the President of Colorado College told me that was really interesting, this ties into an issue that we haven’t spoken about. She observed that the students who worked on this felt positively about it in terms of their own mental health. Yeah, this was one thing that they were dreading, and that they could actually do something productive about.”

A few days after my conversation with Bryan, my wife and I strapped on our snowshoes and took a walk around the orchard. Our dogs pulled and tugged on their leashes as they sniffed the deer tracks. When we returned to the barn we brought crates of utility apples, ones that may be used for baking but not eating as a snack, and we dumped them all over the snowy ground. This keeps the deer from eating the bark off the trees during the lean winter months, they eat the apples instead, then lay down in the snow for a nap before the herd moves on to their next destination. The dogs think that these snow “nests” are good spots for rolling around. Taking care of the trees, keeping them healthy, is one small way we can contribute.

Academia will continue to play a critical role in mitigating the effects of climate change by bringing together expertise across disciplines, sharing critical research with new approaches and innovative technologies. People like Bryan also play a critical role, aggregating and synthesizing information from thought leaders and activists, and sharing it with a broad range of audiences who can do their part to influence decision-makers.

Take Action

  • Is your local government tracking climate change in your area? If not, find a local college or university that is. Learn about how climate change can affect your way of life.
  • At the beginning of the article I talk about apples and maple syrup, two of my favorite foods. Look for climate information about the location where your favorite food is grown. How will climate change affect the future of that food? How will that affect buy local initiatives at your college or university?
  • Use a climate change simulation, like Illuminate, a game from the University of Waterloo.

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