Fighting Climate Change One Classroom at Time: Higher Education in the Era of Biosphere Disruption

Each week on the blog we pull back the curtain on our Wildlife Ecology & Conservation graduate students’ seminar class. This post is by master’s student Nick Vitale. 

In response to the looming threat of climate change, Dr. Stephen Mulkey has undertaken an ambitious plan to redefine the college classroom. He stresses the need for learning environments to help “build society’s capacity for environmental mitigation, adaptation and resilience.”  Though he has been accused of sounding like Dr. Doom, Dr. Mulkey believes that “avoiding catastrophic climate change will be the organizing principle for humanity for the next 30 years.”  Institutions of higher learning, says Dr. Mulkey, have an ethical duty to prepare future generations for the challenges of climate change.  In doing so, higher education can be a solution for fostering regenerative ecology and sustainability.

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Dr. Stephen Mulkey

Climate change research has produced alarming evidence demonstrating why this type of education is critical.  CO2 is increasing at unprecedented rates, and even if all emissions ceased today, CO2 levels would remain well above those of the pre-industrial era for hundreds of years to come.

Dr. Mulkey says that climate change matters because of its impacts on all living systems, and that it is already producing dramatic effects.  For one, water currents in the Atlantic Ocean are slowing, which is widely suspected to come from the massive amounts of Greenland’s melting ice.  Some of the environmental responses to climate change (such as decreases in permafrost) create their own negative cycles, further driving the forces controlling climate change.

Here in the U.S. our natural areas are predicted to experience catastrophic responses to climate change.  The U.S. consists of a patchwork of disconnected natural lands.  This fragmentation in the eastern U.S. may stop the environment from adapting to climate change because organisms are limited in their movement to new habitats.  McGuire et al. suggest that recent efforts to create habitat corridors may not matter.

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Fig. Improvements due to corridors. Patches that never achieve success (orange), succeed with adjacency only (without the additional facilitation of corridors, blue), and succeed only if corridors are present (yellow) are shown (McGuire 2016).

Dutton et. al suggest that with climate change, homogenization of forest types will occur by 2100, allowing a few resilient species to dominate the landscape while many others die off due to a changing environment.

Dr. Mulkey is an environmental scientist, and has spent more than 20 years as a forest ecologist.  There he observed the effects of climate change on the landscape first hand.  Later, Dr. Mulkey served as President of Unity College in Unity, Maine from 2011 to 2015.  There, Dr. Mulkey started to implement his forward-thinking vision by initiating a movement among colleges to divest endowment from fossil fuel.  He also restructured the classroom by integrating various disciplines and empowering students through problem solving.

Together with a team, Dr. Mulkey created a guide for college programs to adapt classes to meet the environmental imperatives that he feels are non-negotiable.  Below are the major recommendations they suggest:

  1. Fully integrated IES (interdisciplinary environmental and sustainability) programs should have authority over staffing and resources and recognized status as an autonomous unit within the university.
  2. IES units should have their own core faculty lines in sufficient numbers and ranks to ensure effectiveness to meet their mission. Continuity of faculty is necessary for program stability, so tenure track positions are required.
  3. University budgets should explicitly allocate base funding for these programs in sufficient amounts to ensure continuity. Development support needs to be provided for expanding new initiatives.
  4. IES leadership and staff should be adequate to ensure innovation and development of the program.
  5. Affiliated or jointly appointed faculty that participate in IES programs should have formalized tenure and promotion criteria that recognizes the importance and value of their interdisciplinary research, IES teaching, service, and outreach activities. There should be opportunities for all faculty to devote some proportion of their efforts to interdisciplinary programs.
  6. Clear guidelines for retention, tenure, and promotion should be developed for all faculty that participate in IES programs.

According to Dr. Mulkey, “the evidence shows that higher education has largely failed in its ethical obligation to prepare students to face the sustainability challenges of the coming decades.  The present crisis in higher education offers an opportunity to realign institutional priorities with the overarching mission to maintain and renew civilization.”  Now is the time to make a difference and educate future generations about what may be the world’s most important battle.