On June 1, President Trump announced that he was taking the United States out of the Paris Climate Accord, making the U.S., Syria, and Nicaragua (which felt the deal was not sufficiently ambitious), the only nations not to support the agreement.
The Paris Agreement sets a series of goals and is voluntary by design. Its value principally is that the agreement got everyone to the table to work on a pressing global issue that crossed national boundaries and directly impacted the quality of life on the planet.
Predictably, there has been a sharp reaction on both sides. Mr. Trump’s critics object to the use of discredited “doomsday” data to justify the American exit. His supporters argue that it was a job-killing “bad deal.” When asked the generic question about whether they were concerned about climate change, over 70 percent of Americans believe that it is a challenge that Americans must face. But differences in opinion emerge as the implications for the American consumer and taxpayer become clearer.
Higher Ed’s First Climate Leadership Conference was 10 Years Ago
The leadership in American higher education has taken a stand on climate commitment for more than ten years. The American College & University Presidents’ Climate Commitment (ACUPCC) emerged when a group of presidents meeting at Arizona State University sent a letter to almost 400 of their colleagues to join them. By June 2007, the ACUPCC, with a signatory group of 284 higher education leaders, went public with the first Climate Leadership Conference. By 2010, there were 697 higher education institutions in all 50 states and the District of Columbia as signatories. Collectively, they represented 5.6 million students.
Higher Education Leaders Encouraged Support of Initiatives to Battle Climate Change
In December 2016, as the transition of national political power began, 235 senior leaders in higher education sent a letter to the new Congressional delegation and incoming presidential transition team. They asked that the Trump Administration continue to support the Paris Agreement, encouraged research based on leading scientific and technical knowledge, and petitioned the Trump Administration to make investments in a low carbon economy.
In letter to Congressional and executive leadership, these college and university leaders noted that they prepare graduates for the American workforce and that their institutions led the country in innovative and ongoing research to address climate challenges, pledging to work with the new administration to meet them.
Decision to Exit Paris Accord is Global Teachable Moment, Beyond Politics
Mr. Trump’s decision to abandon the Paris Agreement moves the discussion to a new stage. The question that higher education leadership must now address is what to do next. It’s an ethics and morals question that will likely also emerge as a global teachable moment for America’s colleges and universities.
Whatever the next step, higher education now has an opportunity to align with an issue of global importance rather than a policy emerging from a political platform promise. In fact, the opportunity is so large and significant that whatever higher education puts forward will move immediately beyond politics.
It is also, therefore, the perfect opportunity for higher education leadership to regain some ground as a leading voice of moral authority as America’s bedrock institutions like higher education continue to come under fire and diminish in reputation.
America’s higher education leaders must have the courage to lead. And they must be strategic in how, when, and where they exercise this leadership. Colleges and universities must not become centers of unfocused, if well meaning, protest. Yet they must vigorously protect the First Amendment rights of their stakeholders, including the right to protest.
That having been said, the optics must show that colleges and universities are the sane and reasonable centers of rational thinking about the impact that climate shifts will have on global society. They must be the “go to” authoritative source that will dampen nationalist efforts to ignore global challenges for political gain.
In American society, colleges and universities are the conduit through which society passes on its history, traditions, challenges, and aspirations. They are where theories are tested and research is undertaken.
The outlandish efforts to deny climate change must be met with ongoing advanced research that supports the efforts by the American educational community to act responsibly and globally.
Whatever the action that emerges to Mr. Trump’s decision, it has to be more than a political response. The federal government is now too dysfunctional to operate effectively to address higher education’s concerns on climate.
As Economic Engine, Higher Ed Can Join Cities & States in Battling Climate Change
Higher education needs a game plan on climate change. A good opening step may be to align the higher education message on climate change with local and state authorities. If the states work together to develop a kind of alternative national policy on climate change – even if only temporarily – then colleges and universities might be able to use their moral influence and capacity as economic engines to work with regional economies to offset the worst excesses of the abandonment of the Paris Agreement.
At least it’s a start. At best it may be a pathway to a sane and seasoned approach to addressing a global problem.
This article was first published on the blog of the Edvance Foundation.