Climate change and universities – Time to act

Climate change is emerging as a life and death concern, and its effects will increase in the future. Universities have a critical role to play in adjusting to and mitigating the emerging realities of climate change.

Climate change has recently become a priority at the international level, for instance, the 2015 Conference of the Parties of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change indicated that there is much room for improvement in the role played by universities in implementing the Paris agreement.

The Climate Change Education for Sustainable Development (2005- 2014) document suggests the need for merging climate change education with associated forms of sustainability education, and it argues that convergence rather than divergence between climate change and education for sustainable development is crucial in addressing climate change impacts.

Research on climate change education policies and implementation remain scarce and universities are only now starting to adjust their policies and practices. This paper discusses how the Tanzanian higher education system is developing to engage new climate realities.

With a particular focus on the University of Dar es Salaam, it looks at how universities are responding in the following spheres: teaching (curriculum and pedagogy), research, campus activities (reducing emissions from the university’s physical infrastructure and activities); and community outreach.

Limited research

While there has been limited research on climate change, particularly in the Tanzanian higher education system, the few studies that exist have for the most part centred around climate change impacts on agriculture and natural resources.

At the University of Dar es Salaam, Tanzania’s oldest and second largest university, climate change issues are addressed primarily through academic programmes offered by the Centre for Climate Change Studies, or CCCS, the College of Engineering and Technology and the Institute of Marine Sciences. The initiatives are coordinated by the CCCS, including the establishment of short-term and long-term academic programmes such as the masters of science in climate change and sustainable development.

Studies have indicated that incorporation of climate change issues into higher education systems can be achieved through institutional policy that explicitly addresses environmental issues. However, transformative approaches have recently emerged which emphasise integration of sustainability practices into the mainstream or core activities of the institution.

Such a move from traditional to transformative approaches calls for much stronger emphasis on teaching and learning as well as the integration of a climate change agenda into all aspects of university activities in order for the institution to be relevant and for it to respond to prevailing community needs.

University mission

A key principle of the University of Dar es Salaam Vision 2061 is “to become a leading centre of intellectual wealth spearheading the quest for sustainable and inclusive development” (University of Dar es Salaam, 2014). In line with this mission, the university emphasises that its core functions are teaching and learning, research and innovation, and partnerships and networking.

Accordingly, Vision 2061 acknowledges the importance of university-community partnerships and stresses that the transfer of knowledge between universities and the wider public and private stakeholders should be symbiotic.

It should be understood that Tanzania, like other African countries, is particularly vulnerable to climate change because of its ecological and geographical systems. The situation is aggravated by the interaction of multiple economic and social factors and compounded by a low adaptive capacity.

To deal with climate change challenges, the University of Dar es Salaam has given great attention to incorporating climate change issues into its teaching and learning activities. At undergraduate level, basic environment and climate literacy is offered in university-wide courses such as development studies with the aim of preparing students to understand climate change impacts and ecosystems in general.

Academic offerings

Other academic departments, for instance, the department of sociology and anthropology, have also started to include climate adaptation education in their curricula. There is a plan to introduce aspects of climate adaptation into all core courses so that every university student acquires at least a basic understanding of climate change.

At postgraduate level, various academic units, namely the College of Engineering and Technology, the Institute of Marine Sciences and Centre for Climate Change Studies, offer academic programmes at both undergraduate and postgraduate levels to address climate change. Programmes include the MSc in water engineering, MSc in marine sciences and the MSc in climate change and sustainable development. In addition, the CCCS offers specialised short courses for professionals and non-professionals with interests in climate change-related issues.

Our study found that limited financial resources were allocated to climate change-related research and capacity building components despite the need for climate change education being articulated in the Vision 2061. The lion’s share of research activities undertaken at the university is financed by external funds from donors.

This is contrary to what is articulated in the University of Dar es Salaam Vision 2061, which stipulates that the university will allocate adequate funds to undertake research activities. However, it is not clear how the climate change agenda can be implemented amidst cost-cutting measures in all public institutions, including public universities.

Research units

It is time for universities to set up interdisciplinary research units to address the prevailing challenges in the country such as climate change.

Despite the fact that the University of Dar es Salaam is a leader in climate change research in Tanzania compared to other higher education institutions which have fewer research programmes and qualified personnel, the current climate change research focus is on either pure sciences or technological aspects of climate change. How climate change can be addressed through the humanities and social sciences requires more emphasis.

Beyond the curriculum, it is necessary to take steps towards adapting university operations.

In the light of the dire impacts of climate change, universities should embark on reducing their carbon consumption and subsequent emissions by adapting to renewable energy sources. It is recommended that a “carbon neutral or zero-carbon” policy be adopted.

Modifications should be undertaken of existing university buildings (including lighting, ventilation and cooling systems) in order to ensure they are using less energy. Energy performance should also be considered in the construction of new buildings on university campuses. Plans for all new buildings should consider climate change-induced risks.

In conclusion, the university’s role in climate change adaptation cannot be overemphasised, as it relates to its core functions of teaching, research and community service, and this study indicates that the University of Dar es Salaam has capacity in terms of qualified human resources. However, such efforts are hampered by inadequate financial resources allocated to climate change activities.

Simon Ngalomba is a lecturer in the department of educational foundations, management and lifelong learning in the school of education at the University of Dar es Salaam, Tanzania. This article is based on a presentation he made at the 14th General Conference and Golden Jubilee Celebrations of the Association of African Universities held in Accra, Ghana in June. He can be reached at: simonngalomba@yahoo.com.