Environmental issues

International educators begin to confront the climate crisis

A new network of international education professionals is trying to get the field to face the crisis of climate change -- and the carbon emissions generated by student air travel -- head-on.

Colleges cancel class due to poor air quality from California fires

Dozens of colleges in California have canceled classes, some through the Thanksgiving holiday.

Barnard announces criteria for evaluating fossil fuel companies' investment worthiness

Barnard unveils criteria it will use to evaluate whether a fossil fuel company is a good or bad actor worthy of its investment. An emphasis is on climate science.

Middlebury meets aggressive carbon neutrality goal

Middlebury meets a tight deadline for going carbon neutral in part by using credits from forest preservation.

Conflicting reports on fossil fuel divestment make decisions more difficult for universities

Opposing reports this year offer colleges and universities mixed views on financial impact of selling holdings in fossil fuels.

Drought action plans leading to changes on California campuses

As California’s drought grows more severe, colleges across the state are stepping up their water conservation efforts.

Pitzer's approach to divestment: as much as possible, but not yet all

Pitzer's decision to divest some -- but not yet all -- of its fossil fuel holdings challenges assumptions about colleges' obligation to grow their endowment funds.

Harvard rejects call to divest from fossil fuels

University president says she doesn't believe selling holdings in fossil fuel companies is "warranted or wise," and suggests doing so would be inconsistent with how students and professors use energy.

Teaching about the environment in precarious surroundings (opinion)

We met recently on the Tulane University campus -- a professor of environmental literature from Loyola University and an environmental communication scholar from Tulane -- and we found ourselves talking about what it’s like to teach college right now, when our students often exude a sense of imminent doom. Our students are acutely aware of melting ice caps, our eroding coast and the courage of Greta Thunberg. They see the news of rising sea levels -- North America conspicuously missing from certain projected mappings.

Just last week, anxiety-producing headlines named our city one of several in the country showing the highest levels of “forever chemicals” in drinking water. Our students see clearly how politicians can talk change while doing nothing. Or worse, how leaders can claim greatness even as things get worse.

We work on issues of environmental significance -- the concept of the Anthropocene and the history and politics of Louisiana’s “working coast,” respectively -- so it makes sense for us to live here in New Orleans. But in some ways, residing and teaching here right now can feel fatalistic. Like we have to teach through the doom.

Each day, we have to come to terms with living at the frontier of climate dystopia. The combination of sea-level rise and the state’s coastal subsidence compounds south Louisiana’s disappearance into the sea. It makes sense to talk about the unfolding catastrophe just over the levees, because as one of the world’s harbingers for global warming, New Orleans is a real-time knowledge laboratory. But it’s unsettling when our work amounts to sober assessments and dire predictions that are at odds with the cultural resilience and richness that we also love about New Orleans -- and in many cases, why our students choose Loyola and Tulane in the first place.

We don’t want to be downers, or downers all the time. We want to inspire our students to make meaningful lives that change the world for the better. Ideally, that includes remaking our city for a real possible future.

But what is our role as college instructors, living in this turbulent time that our students feel even more vividly, because they are younger and will inevitably inherit the circumstances that we leave them with?

A recent podcast featured a respected climate warrior, Orrin Pilkey Jr. from Duke University, discussing his new book, Sea Level Rise: A Slow Tsunami on America’s Shores, which asserts that New Orleans is simply doomed. The message was so stark as to be shocking, even for those of us who know on some level that it is true. Sea Level Rise offers a template for loved ones afar to write and urge us here in the danger zone to move to higher ground.

Tactical and Strategic

While we both sometimes worry about being unable to sell our respective midcity homes, we want to think we can make a stand here. New Orleanians are tactical about the future, a mind-set that enables (or rationalizes) us to stay in the city we love despite the nagging indicators of a bleak future. So, while many students from Tulane and Loyola will return to their hometowns safely above the Pleistocene Ridge, a sizable contingent will join our ranks as the proverbial watchers on the wall.

The question we might pose to our students is whether we can be tactical and strategic. Can we leverage our vantage point, here at the edge, to bear witness to our vulnerability and the practices that cause it? We’re thinking of the self-destruction of Louisiana’s coast, which rationalizes deep-sea oil drilling because it funds Master Plan restoration projects, or the wisdom of diverting the Mississippi River into our marshes while our petrochemical industry supplies factories and Midwestern farms with the toxic runoff that pollutes the river, or the illogic that assumes infinite economic growth here -- or anywhere, for that matter -- is possible.

If armed with the ability to critically recognize such systems of contradiction, our students can more nimbly advocate for change because they have not yet succumbed to the fatalism of their elders.

Teaching environmental awareness on the bank of the Mississippi River, we can reflect on its eons of meandering channels and more recent attempts to control its course; our close proximity to the river offers direct lessons in hubris and the ecosystem’s long duration. Nonnative species are not abstract subjects but nearby entities: from the brown anole lizards skittering everywhere to the Triadica sebifera tallow trees erupting from sidewalks, we can see the effects and tensions of global migrations right around us.

And we can translate this attention to the cultural landscape around us, too -- the dense weave of narratives and traditions, threads of violence and resistance. They can be found in the muddy swamps around New Orleans that offered tactical refuge to Native Americans and escaped slaves in “maroon” communities throughout the 18th and 19th centuries. Indeed, we see this historic relationship emblematized by African Americans who hand-stitch elaborate Mardi Gras Indian outfits to pay homage to this deep relationship. Our students, likewise, need only look up or downriver to witness the cultural and economic connections between modern petrochemical industries in Louisiana and the plantation system from which they were born. Today, extractive, dehumanizing practices of these industrial plants that stand on former sugarcane plantations pollute the water and air of the historic black communities that surround them. The environment is a site of politics and racial (in)justice.

At Tulane, students this November entered into wider conversations about the human toll generated by the current Anthropocene epoch in which we now find ourselves through projects and public programming from the recent Mississippi: An Anthropocene River project, which culminated in an international conversation of artists, scholars and scientists in New Orleans. Such initiatives exist to envision new methods of knowledge production from the ground up by listening to affected communities in order to direct future policy trajectories.

At Loyola, environmental studies students recently explored the surrounding wetlands by canoe, experiencing firsthand the swarming vegetal life of the bayous, as well as their crepuscular inhabitants. In a two-week course on nature writing last May, a group of students wrote about pervasive tensions between urban expansion and ecological fragility, tensions that vex the city.

Through such local case studies, we might start to imagine better paths forward.

We offer New Orleans as a site of possibility, a classroom writ large in which we can observe, interpret and disrupt the legacy of extractive thinking so as not to become merely a cautionary tale of ecological insanity. For this rising generation in precarious geographies everywhere, let us model the kinds of practices that can actually save the world in question and not accelerate its demise.

Christopher Schaberg is Dorothy Harrell Brown Distinguished Professor of English at Loyola University New Orleans. His new book, Searching for the Anthropocene: A Journey Into the Environmental Humanities, will be published by Bloomsbury in December. Ned Randolph is a Monroe Fellow at the Center for the Gulf South at Tulane University, where he teaches environmental communication, and a recent Ph.D. recipient from the University of California, San Diego.

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Drilling rig near a Louisiana bayou
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12 scholars share ideas for reducing carbon emissions in academic travel (opinion)

If you had to guess, how many flights would you say you have taken in your career?

We, the authors of this piece, estimate that we have collectively logged more than 1,000 flight segments for professional reasons over the course of our careers. This matters because air travel is one of the most significant ways that academics contribute to anthropogenic climate change. Dismayed by our own climatic impact, we are seeking to reorganize our institutions in order to limit carbon emissions.

Scholars at the University of California, Santa Barbara, estimate that air travel for academic conferences, meetings and talks accounts for about a third of the campus’s carbon footprint, “equal to the total annual carbon footprint of a city of 27,500 people in the Philippines.”

The average American is responsible for 16.5 metric tons of carbon emissions per year. That is more than three times the global per capita average, which is around five metric tons.

Now, let’s say you take a round-trip economy flight from Boston to San Francisco, with one layover along the way. That trip releases 0.78 metric tons of carbon into the atmosphere -- and that’s just you. Multiply that number by the hundreds or thousands attending the conference, and you can see why professional societies have a significant role to play in curbing emissions through diminishing faculty travel.

Long-distance travel for professional meetings is not only contributing to climate change; it is also vulnerable to extreme weather, as those who tried to attend the Modern Language Association Convention in New York City during the “bomb cyclone” in January 2018 can attest. In other words, the question of academic travel is not merely about guilt over our carbon footprints: climate change now constitutes the context for all our professional activity. We can all expect academic travel to become more challenging as extreme weather events become more severe and more common.

The moral: our institutional practices should shift to reduce academic air travel. To be clear, we aren’t calling for a moratorium on flying, and specific personal and professional situations will inevitably require some of us to travel more than others. But even modest changes could significantly reduce the carbon footprint of our professional practice. To that end, we’re calling on academic associations, societies and other organizations to require less flying.

Of course, it will be hard to forgo occasions for face-to-face meetings. They can be profoundly invigorating, and they have distinct advantages, including opportunities to get to know new places and people. Colleagues often mention side conversations over coffee as the moments when the really important connections and insights take shape. But what if new practices enabled those conversations to occur more frequently and productively? In other words, what if decarbonizing our professional practice also made it better -- more inclusive, inventive or useful?

Reduced-carbon conferencing has some distinct advantages. Virtual alternatives are less expensive and therefore more accessible to those without research funding, including contingent faculty, those pursuing alt-ac careers and graduate students. Rather than focusing on the sacrifices, we could put our minds to experimenting with fresh and exciting conference formats and imagining ways to increase opportunities for meaningful and sustainable sociability.

Doing so may also help us rethink how to make the travel we do undertake more effective and efficient, devoting as much time and energy as possible to those modes of experience and exchange that cannot be achieved in another fashion. Thus, our goal in advancing these proposals is not simply to reduce faculty travel but also to amplify the value of our trips.

At the same time, since climate change demands responses on a scale larger than the individual, we need to imagine experiments that reshape entire institutions and disciplines. Shocked by the carbon footprint of our small group alone, we have collectively brainstormed the following suggestions for reducing professional air travel. Some of these ideas will, we hope, also improve professional exchange and collaboration.

You may already be pursuing one or more of the following recommendations, but we encourage you to be even more intentional and creative in your efforts. We offer these ideas as a spur to conversation and further experimentation about how to lower the environmental impact of academic work.

Experiment with virtual platforms. Most of these platforms -- like Skype, Zoom, Webex, Connect and GoToMeeting -- can accommodate the participation of up to 50 people and, with special arrangements, even as many as 250 people, including breakout groups. It may be difficult simply to convert a typical conference panel format to virtual forms, but remote technologies could enable new kinds of panel structures. The Nearly Carbon Neutral Conference pioneered by Ken Hiltner is a fully online conference that has now run several times. The carbon cost of digital technology is worth noting, but it is negligible compared to air travel.

Organize regional hub conferences. Instead of a single in-person national or international meeting, a professional association or other organization could convene at multiple regional sites, linked digitally for major events like keynotes and award ceremonies.

Hold fewer conferences. Convening conferences every other year instead of annually automatically halves the carbon output. A large organization could also have a centralized conference in alternating years and a regional hub conference in the in-between years. That could have the added benefit of strengthening regional professional relationships if their meetings are staggered in alternate years.

Hold conferences in airport hubs. Convening in places like Detroit, Chicago, Atlanta and Houston can reduce the number of necessary flights. Not only do takeoff and landing burn the most fuel, but complicated flight itineraries often result in thousands of extra miles flown and increase the chances of unforeseen delays.

Limit overseas conferences. Scholarly organizations that are national or North American in their focus should reconsider the practice of holding conferences abroad -- unless the topic is explicitly international in scope. Such events are inaccessible as well as carbon intensive. While we recognize the benefits of overseas conferences in fostering international dialogue, digital add-ons to North American conferences, or digitally linked conferences on separate continents, could also build connections with international colleagues.

Experiment with coordinating conference timing. Smaller meetings could be tagged onto larger ones, requiring one trip for two conferences. And more conference organizations could co-sponsor meetings with others.

Invite speakers to give talks remotely. To make sure their visits still provide opportunity for conversation, speakers might have a virtual meeting with colleagues and/or graduate students before or after the conference. Their talks could be broadcast to audiences around the world, if the speaker is willing.

Invite fewer distant speakers and ask for more work from each one. A conventional visit from a scholar entails a talk and a dinner. A smaller number of speakers could be paid more and asked to do more while there. They could convene workshops for graduate students, meet with classes or read book or grant proposals.

Focus on making a single flight serve multiple purposes. Encourage any invited speakers to tag talks onto one another, delivering a paper at the conference and then visiting a campus nearby.

Build carbon offsets into the funding of conferences. That can be done either by raising institutional funds or by adding a small “tax” to registration fees for those willing to contribute to an event offset fund. Carbon offsets are a limited response, as they do not prevent the carbon from being emitted into the atmosphere in the first place; still, they are worth pursuing as a mitigating strategy.

Minimize the carbon impacts of the conference itself. Serve vegetarian food, encourage digital rather than paper programs, minimize swag and work with your venue to serve food and drink in reusable or compostable containers.

Envision new ways to build community online. For example, a group of climate scientists has organized a website for academics who are committed to reducing their individual air travel. The No Fly Climate Sci site is now open to academics of all disciplines, as is a similar blog, Flying Less, with a corresponding petition.

Convene online reading or discussion groups. Participants might read and discuss a shared text, including a work in progress, then meet via virtual platforms such as Zoom. Online reading groups could be linked to regional in-person groups discussing the same texts.

Make best use of the setting. Of course, travel can provide extremely rewarding and indeed irreplaceable opportunities for professional interaction. But a few people listening to a paper read out loud in a windowless conference room does not necessarily make the best use of the opportunities that travel affords. If you are hosting an in-person event, you should always consider how it might be organized around the specific affordances of a given setting or location.

We urge faculty members to work to imagine new ways to collaborate with colleagues on their campuses and come up with other ideas. And we encourage colleges and universities to support and fund innovative conference thinking on the part of their faculty. Many institutions have set ambitious goals for achieving carbon neutrality and should be willing to support experimentation toward this end.

We close by suggesting a set of priorities for any group or organization hosting events. These are not “solutions” but questions for consideration.

  • Calculate the carbon impact of your event. What steps can you take to minimize that impact while achieving your goals?
  • How might decarbonization improve your event -- whether in terms of intellectual exchange, equity and inclusion, or some other factor?
  • What goals for your event could be achieved by means other than an in-person meeting?
  • How can your event make the most of its setting and the physical travel that it involves?

Other ideas? Keep them coming! Now is the time to brainstorm and experiment.

Caroline Levine, David and Kathleen Ryan Professor of the Humanities and Picket Family Chair, department of English, Cornell University

Elizabeth Carolyn Miller, professor of English, University of California, Davis

Benjamin Morgan, associate professor of English, University of Chicago

Jesse Oak Taylor, associate professor of English, University of Washington

Lynn Voskuil, associate professor of English, University of Houston

Daniel Williams, lecturer in discipline, department of English and comparative literature, Columbia University

Deanna Kreisel, associate professor of English, University of British Columbia

Heidi Roop, lead scientist for science communication, Climate Impacts Group, and affiliate assistant professor, department of environmental and occupational health sciences, University of Washington

Stephen Wheeler, professor of landscape architecture and environmental design, University of California, Davis

Arnold J. Bloom, Distinguished Professor, John B. Orr Endowed Professor, department of plant sciences, University of California, Davis

Robert Warren Howarth, David R. Atkinson Professor of Ecology and Environmental Biology, Cornell University

Fredrik Albritton Jonsson, associate professor of history, University of Chicago

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