By Piers Locke
In October 2018, after a meeting held here in Christchurch in March, the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) issued a report that gave us 12 years to implement radical change to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees. After more than three decades of obstruction, denial, and inaction on climate change, this seemed like the urgent wake-up call our governments needed to hear. Shortly afterwards Extinction Rebellion (XR) emerged, an activist movement advocating non-violent civil disobedience to force governments to declare a climate emergency.
In April this year it culminated in sustained collective action that disrupted London, capturing the UK news cycle. Coinciding with the School Climate Strikes, a well-timed David Attenborough documentary on climate change on the BBC, and Greta Thunberg’s invitation to speak to a coterie of top politicians, the UK parliament then passed an historic motion to declare a climate emergency. Ireland has followed suit, as have France and Canada. Here, as the NZ government prepares its Zero Carbon Bill, Nelson City Council, Environment Canterbury (Ecan), Christchurch, Auckland, Wellington, and Dunedin city councils (and more) have all declared a climate emergency, as have more than 900 other local governments in 18 countries! Furthermore, 7000 colleges and universities have already declared a climate emergency, with a commitment to carbon neutrality by 2030, mobilizing resources for action-oriented climate change research and skills creation, and increased delivery of environmental and sustainability education.
These are important symbolic first steps, but of course, they must serve as the basis for coordinated action. Furthermore, the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) has recently released a highly significant report that alerts us to the biodiversity extinction crisis and the threat to the ecosystems upon which organized human life depends. In short, the environmental consequences of human activity and our industrial economy now pose an existential threat to civilization as we know it. This requires nothing less than a transformation of our values, our thinking, and our political and economic systems, as well as a reorientation of our technological endeavour, and much greater ecological appreciation of the impacts of human activity. Business-as-usual is no longer tenable and transformative change is imperative, as contributing authors to the IPCC and IPBES reports acknowledge.
Daunting as this may be, it follows then that we must also rethink the University to meet the extraordinary challenges of the 21st century- a time when the global scale of ecologically transformative human activity has proven sufficient to propose a new geological epoch- The Anthropocene. The University is making positive strides with a new Sustainability Plan and an advisory group for its implementation (of which I am a member), but greater integration of research and teaching with operational planning remains a gap to be filled (although another working group has been formed to address this). What should we do then to make ourselves fit for such purposes?
Here are three modest suggestions:
– The University of Canterbury is already a CEMARS-certified institution measuring and reducing its carbon footprint. Perhaps then it could consider following Victoria University to join the Climate Leaders Coalition, participating in the Climate X collective to steer New Zealand toward a zero carbon economy? It would make sense to formally plug-in to this initiative as an institution since the University is home to manifold expertise on diverse aspects of the climate crisis (including a member of the IPCC).
– If our graduate attributes represent a charter for the skills, knowledge, and capabilities we think our students need as 21st century citizens, surely then it would be negligent not to include the ecological crisis. While some of us may have experienced the implementation of the graduate attributes as little more than a matter of bureaucratic compliance, that does not mean they cannot become meaningful for staff and students as they are increasingly integrated into teaching practice (although I note that most of my students still seem unaware of them). Proposing an additional, distinct attribute may not be the most desirable approach to take since the predicament we face today is at least partly a result of failing to integrate environmental consideration with thought and action in the domains of society, politics, economics, and technology, i.e. treating the environment separately is a key part of the problem.
Bearing in mind the institutional effort the attributes have required, perhaps then it would make greater sense to modify the existing attribute of global awareness than to implement a whole new one. My suggestion then is that it be adjusted to consider planetary as well as global awareness (since the former suggests the biophysical materiality of the life systems upon which we depend, while the latter suggests the social dynamics of an increasingly inter-connected world).
– Finally, I think we should make a concerted, institutional effort both to encourage more inter-disciplinary collaboration and to reconfigure our curricula to make them better suited to the challenges of these extraordinary times. Our disciplines can sometimes seem like territories to be defended, especially in the age of audit, which has pitted them against each other in competition for student enrolments. This has sometimes deterred us from exploiting complementarities and working across disciplines (although corrective initiatives are now afoot in this regard). Disciplines are neither eternal verities nor discrete islands of knowledge, but rather configurations of knowledge and practice subject to change and hybridization. This is acutely pertinent to the global ecological crisis as a multi-faceted phenomenon, which exceeds the reach of any one discipline and the all-too familiar boundaries between the social sciences, humanities, and natural sciences that have been integral to the structure of the modern university. To address the crisis, disciplinary knowledges either need to be put into more rigorous conversation with each other or integrated into hybrid forms, both of which are occurring with renewed urgency.
The education our students need then,
is one that prepares them for a world of tumultuous change that may be more logistically,
sociologically, and psychologically challenging than any generation has
previously had to confront. Indeed, climate grief and ecological anxiety do not
just represent novel topics of enquiry, but something at least some of our
students are experiencing now, reminding us that a disinterested understanding
of global ecological processes and the role of human activity is insufficient. Surely
then, we have a moral responsibility to ensure we equip our students with the
skills, knowledge, and dispositions with which to exercise meaningful agency in
averting social and ecological catastrophe.
 For a summary of the IPCC report see: https://www.ipcc.ch/2018/10/08/summary-for-policymakers-of-ipcc-special-report-on-global-warming-of-1-5c-approved-by-governments/
For commentary from Professor Bronwyn Hayward, a member of the IPCC here at UC, see: https://www.canterbury.ac.nz/news/2018/new-ipcc-report-marks-end-of-magical-thinking-about-climate-change—uc-expert.html
 For the story of the political struggle among scientists, activists, politicians, and corporate lobbying here in New Zealand, watch the documentary film Hot Air: Climate Change Politics in New Zealand. http://www.hotairfilm.co.nz/
 For instance, here’s a recent article arguing why science needs the humanities to address climate change: http://theconversation.com/why-science-needs-the-humanities-to-solve-climate-change-113832
 In my own Anthropology teaching on the global ecological crisis for example, I combine earth system science with sociocultural anthropology, human geography, and environmental history, introducing students to discursive fields where academics talk across and beyond disciplinary boundaries.