Campus architecture: Challenges to greening universities

The list of possible climate catastrophes that opens Bryan Alexander’s Universities on Fire: Higher Education in the Climate Crisis (Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore) gives pause. Fires devour buildings, smoke damages lungs, while elsewhere, salt water infiltrates aquifers, resulting in dead trees, lawns and, ironically, so wetting the ground that buildings sag into the undrinkable mire.

Moved by compassion for climate refugees, Professor Bryan Alexander imagines students opening their dorms to the teeming thousands.

Scientific research stations in Antarctica teeter on the edge of the abyss as ice shelves melt. In other places, high ‘wet-bulb’ temperatures (combined heat and humidity) will reach the temperature “beyond which human bodies can regulate their heat and therefore start to become sick toward exhaustion and death”.

In the United States, dry heat will disproportionately affect Latinx and African Americans. If greenhouse gases are not cut to the levels agreed to in the Paris climate accords, counties in which the population is more than 25% African American will see 72 days, one fifth of the year, when the temperature goes above 38°C.

Later, Alexander brings the crisis home by naming some universities that will likely be submerged if the sea levels rise as predicted.

In addition to the 23 that are in Miami, Florida, and the dozen in New Orleans, which, because of America’s wealth would probably have relocated by the time the ocean rolls over their campuses, Tra Vinh and Can Tho universities on Vietnam’s Mekong Delta, will vanish. Others on the Nile Delta, on the coast of Niger as well as China’s western coast will also be under water.

Architectural challenges to greening

Alexander’s examination of campus architecture underscores how difficult it will be for universities and colleges to find ways to contribute meaningfully to halting, let alone reversing, climate change.

The very material most buildings are made of, concrete, is a major contributor to carbon dioxide emissions and methane, an even more dangerous gas because it traps more heat. Green lawns use up water as well as fertiliser, the making of and transportation of which produce greenhouse gases.

Alexander writes hopefully of electric campus shuttles, but here, I think, his hopes are forlorn. For, manufacturing them produces greenhouse gases. Further, the electricity that runs them has to be generated somewhere.

While some colleges and universities will take their power from grids connected to wind turbines and solar panel farms, many institutions won’t have that option and will remain tied to grids dependent on gas, oil, coal and nuclear generators. Atomic energy may not produce greenhouse gases while running, but nuclear plants use hundreds of tons of concrete and smaller systems are untried.

Even Quebec, Canada, which still has rivers on which hydro-electric dams can be built, cannot escape the carbon dioxide trap. Dams consume enormous quantities of concrete, as do the access roads necessary to build them.

Further, the thousands of hectares flooded behind the dam are thousands of hectares of trees and other vegetation that are subtracted from the equation of trees and vegetation absorbing carbon dioxide.

No doubt, Alexander is right that by sourcing locally, campus food services could contribute to cutting greenhouse gases – but not everywhere. Think of universities in Toronto, northern Alberta, Sweden or Scotland; they have no choice but to have much of their fresh food shipped long distances.

Meat substitutes, like Impossible Burger, were, so to speak, the flavour of the month some years ago. “Food providers could add charges to items … based on their carbon footprint.” In America, the main focus of Alexander’s book, these charges would fall most heavily on the poorest (and racialised) of America’s students.

Reconfiguring the curriculum

Curriculum revision is as old as Aristotle’s Lyceum (where, as the old joke goes, students were taught that everything taught over at Plato’s Academy ‘was all wrong’). Alexander’s foray into this thicket reveals just how daunting a challenge it is, though he highlights some areas of promise.

Biology should be reconfigured so that it stresses “the web of life”, as the paradigmatic study that “analysed how global temperature increases cut down one seabird population by pressuring closely related fish and plankton species”.

As a number of articles have recently shown, social sciences – and college and university counsellors – are already dealing with “climate grief”.

The American Psychological Association, which is not an organisation that incorporates new ideas quickly, has warned that “climate change-induced disasters have a high potential for immediate and psychological trauma” equivalent to the death of a loved one or loss of one’s job.

The story Alexander relates of a female student who broke down in class after hearing in her ethics class that as of 2018 the “amount of carbon in the atmosphere was over 400 parts per million (ppm) and there was no hope of getting it down to 350 ppm”, the figure that would begin to reverse global warming, is telling.

The reading list Alexander, who is an English professor at Georgetown University, proposes for an English course that foregrounds climate issues is excellent: Byron’s poem “Darkness”, Shelley’s “Revolt of Islam”, Mary Shelley’s The Last Man.

Political science students should play the World Climate Simulation video game, in which they become delegates of countries or blocks (eg EU) or interest groups. The game’s task is to find a solution to the climate crisis.

Perhaps all students should play Wayfinder, produced by Canada’s National Film Board. The game positions the player as an agent for ecological restoration, moving through an abstract landscape to gradually recover a sense of the world before climate change.

To this, I can add that any course that deals with maps or mapping should have students spend at least some time on the Climate Atlas of Canada, which not only tells you that in three decades the number of days Toronto will go above 30°C is likely to be 25 as opposed to the ten such days between 1976 and 2005. The atlas was developed in partnership with Canada’s First Nations and includes Indigenous knowledge and stories about how climate change has impacted ice in the Arctic, for example.

Green work requirement

About 20 years ago, Ontario’s government mandated that to graduate high school students had to complete 40 hours of (required) volunteerism. Teachers hate it. Parents hate it. And students try to game the system.

Having watched this programme fail to produce civic mindedness, I don’t think Alexander’s proposal that campuses require “green physical work for a degree” has much merit. The American ‘work colleges’, such as Berea College in Berea, Kentucky, or Sterling College in Craftsbury, Vermont, are not representative of American higher education because they are rural.

And, while they provide excellent education, students who go to them in large measure choose them because of their work/study model. By contrast, Alexander’s call that as a graduation requirement, college and university students must take at least one course in some form of “climate literacy” is timely.

The book contains much else of value – from how colleges and universities in the United States help the towns they are in to develop environmental plans, to telling us how universities, like Pepperdine University in Southern California, have had to develop extensive fire prevention plans because of the danger that wildfires will sweep through the region.

Reading that Red Deer Polytechnic produces 16% of its electricity from solar panels means that such panels can make a significant contribution even in such cold weather climes as Red Deer, Alberta, 250 miles north of the US border.

Uncritical approach to China

The book’s weakest moments occur when Alexander writes about China, or, as we’ll see in a moment, refrains from writing about the Middle Kingdom. It was great fun to be reminded that, with a straight face, when he was UK prime minister, Boris Johnson said Britain aimed to be a global climate leader – while authorising the burning of more coal.

But the same applies to China, which Alexander praises, despite the fact that in 2021 alone China began building coal-fired power plants capable of producing 33 gigawatts of power (Center for Research on Energy and Clean Air, Helsinki). According to Bloomberg News, since pledging to stop building new coal plants in China, China has built 14 in other countries.

It's unclear whether Alexander knows that the Xinhua News Agency is an official news agency of the People’s Republic of China; in other words, it is part of China’s state-controlled media and is ultimately beholden to the Chinese Communist Party.

This fact alone means that statements like, “by 2025, the total energy consumption by public institutions will be kept within 189 million tonnes of standard coal”, should be taken with many grains of salt.

By way of comparison, according to Reuters, in the first two months of this year, China imported 60.65 million tonnes of coal. If it keeps up the same rate for 2023, the figure will be a shade under 364 million tonnes – much of it from Russia. To reach the 189 million tonnes figure, China would have to halve its importation of coal in the next 12 months.

The five-sentence excerpt drawn from Xinhau’s 7 July 2021 edition (below) generates neither heat nor light. Indeed, it sounds as if it were written by a Large Language Model (like ChatGPT or Google’s Bard) or by a mandarin skilled at saying just what the boss wants to say – without saying very much of anything.

“Xi Jinping’s thought of ecological civilization is an important part of Xi Jingping’s thoughts on socialism with Chinese characteristics in the new era. It is a major theoretical achievement created by General Secretary Xi Jinping based on the practice of ecological civilization construction in the new era.

“It is a scientific guide and power for the construction of socialist ecological civilization. Ideological weapons are rich in connotation and far-reaching significance. To study and explain Xi Jingping’s thoughts on ecological civilization is a great responsibility and a glorious mission.”

Two paragraphs later, Alexander makes a category error. True, “the state can seek to compel colleges and universities located in its nation to change their behaviour, often as part of a broader policy direction”.

The example that follows does not seem to fit the case. Alexander points to South Korea, where the “leading political party asked the nation to cut greenhouse gas emissions by 40% in under a decade” (emphasis mine).

Asking one’s countrymen and women to bear the pain of such a transition is a far cry from the state “compelling” citizens or institutions “to change their behaviour”.

Of even greater concern is this paragraph’s first sentence: “Preparing such greenhouse gas reduction policies [he’s referring to those that can be imposed on academic institutions] may well involve well-known national political resources, actors and levers of change, including lobbying, lawsuits, fundraising, endorsing politicians, media campaigns, backroom deals, and less savoury methods.”

It’s one thing to remind us that to get things done, politicians and others have to mobilise public relations resources, gather political allies, use the courts and undertake media campaigns. Even the reference to “backroom deals” can be excused as being the words of a political realist.

“Less savoury methods”, however, is a bridge too far, especially when it comes in a group of five paragraphs that are mainly about China and follows one in which China is the only country named.

The acceptance of “less savoury methods” sounds like nothing so much as the inverse of what anarchist Emma Goldman (1869-1940) wrote in her memoir as a retort to Lenin’s strict reading of Marx: “If I can’t dance, I don’t want to be part of your revolution.”