UC Must Recognize The Ecological Crisis

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[1]. After more than three decades of obstruction, denial, and inaction on climate change[2], 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[3].

In April this year it culminated in sustained collective action that disrupted London, capturing the UK news cycle. Coinciding with the School Climate Strikes[4], a well-timed David Attenborough documentary on climate change on the BBC[5], 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[6]. Ireland has followed suit[7], as have France and Canada[8]. Here, as the NZ government prepares its Zero Carbon Bill[9], Nelson City Council[10], Environment Canterbury (Ecan)[11], Christchurch[12], Auckland[13], Wellington[14], and Dunedin[15] city councils (and more[16]) have all declared a climate emergency, as have more than 900 other local governments in 18 countries![17] 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.[18]

These are important symbolic first steps, but of course, they must serve as the basis for coordinated action.[19] 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[20]. 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[21] 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?[22] 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[23]. 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[24].

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.


[1] 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

[2] 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/

[3] Beginning in London, UK it has also spawned chapters active here in Aotearoa, New Zealand. https://rebellion.earth/

[4] https://www.schoolstrike4climate.com/

[5] https://www.bbc.com/news/entertainment-arts-47988337

[6] https://www.bbc.com/news/uk-politics-48126677

[7] https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2019/may/10/irish-parliament-declares-climate-emergency

[8] https://www.climatechangenews.com/2019/06/24/four-countries-declared-climate-emergencies-give-billions-fossil-fuels/

[9] https://www.mfe.govt.nz/have-your-say-zero-carbon

[10] https://www.stuff.co.nz/environment/climate-news/112774585/nelson-declares-climate-emergency  

[11] https://www.ecan.govt.nz/get-involved/news-and-events/2019/environment-canterbury-declares-climate-emergency/

[12] https://ccc.govt.nz/news-and-events/newsline/show/3614

[13] https://ourauckland.aucklandcouncil.govt.nz/articles/news/2019/06/auckland-council-declares-climate-emergency/

[14] https://wellington.govt.nz/your-council/news/2019/06/climate-emergency

[15] https://www.odt.co.nz/news/dunedin/dcc-votes-declare-climate-emergency

[16] https://www.stuff.co.nz/environment/climate-news/113747732/councils-declare-climate-emergencies-but-will-it-result-in-any-real-change

[17] https://climateemergencydeclaration.org/climate-emergency-declarations-cover-15-million-citizens/

[18] https://www.ecowatch.com/climate-emergency-colleges-universities-2639161884.html?rebelltitem=2#rebelltitem2

[19] https://thespinoff.co.nz/society/22-07-2019/so-youve-declared-a-climate-emergency-now-what/?

[20] https://www.ipbes.net/news/ipbes-global-assessment-summary-policymakers-pdf

[21] https://www.enviro-mark.com/what-we-offer/carbon-management?gclid=CjwKCAjw5pPnBRBJEiwAULZKvoTGxYFTNNm7WrVnGeC0DTUVaV7Br1ea5ckwrW_5oiUbe3r2kcZSyxoCb9kQAvD_BwE

[22] https://www.climateleaderscoalition.org.nz/

[23] 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

[24] 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.

2 thoughts on “UC Must Recognize The Ecological Crisis

  1. Well done for promoting this conversation. We need to have an adult conversation about what must be done that goes beyond “something must be done”.
    Sadly we mostly don’t move much beyond this which is actually quite the norm of the loudest voices in the climate change activist movement. There is no shortage of protest marches and “WE WANT ACTION NOW!!”. But what action? And this is where the protest voices come unstuck. Typically the sign that follows the demand for action reads “WE MUST REDUCE CARBON EMISSIONS – URGENTLY!!”. But this does not remotely address the far more important question – how? Sometimes we may get a list of possible initiatives. Some of these are pure virtue signalling and will make no difference (think local councils declaring a “climate emergency”). Some are simply implausible (think suggestions to ban cars). Some have little to do with climate change and more to do with other agendas (think “ban plastic bag” signs at climate marches).
    And I think this would be my main point of contention with what you have written in that I am doubtful it will do much to push us beyond the “something must be done” stage.
    Joining the Climate Leaders Coalition? Looks to me more like acquiring a badge and unlikely to result in new actions. After all, UC has set out a goal to be carbon net neutral by 2030 (though conveniently isn’t counting emissions of international students to get here) – what will be different? But we’ll have the badge…
    Adding something to the graduate profile? Virtue signalling.
    Encouraging inter-disciplinary work and collaboration? Has potential but it won’t happen just because it’s a nice idea. We need to restructure the incentives and while improving QS rankings, PBRF, etc. dominate then we should expect people to respond accordingly.

    Ok, so your legitimate question is “what’s your alternative?”. One of my favourite quotes in this area is by William Nordhaus (who won the Nobel Prize in Economics for his work on environmental economics)
    “Economics contains one fundamental inconvenient truth about climate change policy: For any policy to be effective in slowing global warming, it must raise the price of fossil fuels and the products of fossil fuels.  Economics teaches us that it is unrealistic to hope that major reductions in emissions can be achieved by hope, trust, responsible citizenship, environmental ethics, or guilt alone.  The only way to have major and durable effects on such a large sector… is to raise the price of carbon.”
    Page 20, A Question of Balance, William Nordhaus

    So here is where I would offer two concrete suggestions. First we should be advocating for a New Zealand carbon tax (with no exemptions) that rises over time. The proceeds of the tax are then returned to all New Zealanders as equal lump sum payments. (Paying the tax back out prevents the tax being seen as just another tax but it does not alter the important tax effect which is to raise the price of carbon intensive goods and services).

    Second, the University should charge a “carbon reduction levy” on every staff member and student equal to:

    (UC net emissions / number of staff + students) * IPCC social cost of carbon.

    According to the latest UC report (https://www.canterbury.ac.nz/media/documents/reports/UC-Sustainability-Report-2018.pdf) our emissions are 23000 tonnes. We have about 16000 students and staff. The IPCC SCC is slightly hard to pin down due to assumptions that differ around a whole range of factors, not least of which is the discount rate. But let’s take US$50 as a reasonable value or NZ$75. That’s generous in terms of what the price of carbon currently is under various ETSs.
    That works out to around $100 each. That’s a total of $1.6m which can be used exclusively for carbon emission reduction or offsetting initiatives or for serious prizes (e.g. $50,000 each) for ideas that reduce the UC carbon footprint in efficient ways. As our carbon emissions fall then so does the levy.
    If people care about this as much as they say they do then this will be readily accepted. And it makes the cost explicit rather than hidden. At the moment the costs are hidden by the university diverting funds from other activities.

    We have to raise the price of carbon. The rest will probably end up being quite a bit of hot air.

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