Reading group on Five Times Faster #4: Rethinking the University's approach to climate action

22 August 2023

Reading group on Five Times Faster #4: Rethinking the University of Cambridge's approach to climate action

Reported by Madeleine Ary Hahne, 2nd year PhD candidate in Geography, Pembroke College

At this fourth and final session of the reading group, participants were joined by the author, Simon Sharpe, who was introduced by his mentor and friend, Sir David King (Founder and Former Chair, Centre for Climate Repair), who also provided some opening remarks on the book. The goal of this session was to move beyond the individual sections and recommendations of the book and assess the larger question of what pragmatic steps could we at the University of Cambridge take to implement the changes we know we need to make?

System change, not climate change — teaching for the new reality

First among these, Simon’s popular saying “system change, not climate change” was raised as a mantra for how the University and those within it should think about our role. The system was fashioned for a different period with different concerns, and now is out of step with the crisis. There are numerous loci for serious change. First among these addresses the University’s most basic function — teaching. We need to refashion the way the University teaches, adding modules on climate change wherever possible and in any subject where the topic is implicated (which are many). Research should be refocused in the direction of overcoming, mitigating, or adapting to the crises caused by climate change so that, across the board, the University of Cambridge becomes a place of climate-forward thinking, innovation, and realignment.

Finding the University of Cambridge’s point of leverage

In spite of its reputation, real systems change actually does begin with individuals and institutions, not just governments. Effective systems change actors look at their position in the world, identify a point of leverage (or a way in which their actions can have broader impact) and focus all their efforts there. The idea was raised that the University of Cambridge has at least three points of leverage on the climate issue, each of which corresponds to a major section of Sharpe’s book:

  1. Science — Robust and ongoing risk assessment. Currently, there is a dearth of robust research on the many risks associated with climate change, the probabilities of them being exceeded, and their changing functions through time. The University’s extraordinary scientific community can remedy this through encouraging scientists to pursue regular studies on the risks and probabilities facing us from each of the many impending climate consequences (e.g., albedo effect reduction, gulf stream shifts, wet bulb temperature thresholds, etc.). The University could also go further by establishing the first permanent climate risk assessment working group which, ideally, could report directly to policy makers and heads of government, ensuring that these results are widely understood and disseminated.
  1. Economics — Spearheading a new systems approach to economics. The siloization of academia has prevented synergies around leveraging emerging green technologies in concert with the development of healthier economic systems. The University of Cambridge could mirror the University of Oxford in developing an institute with the role of applying complexity science to economics, thereby ensuring that systems scientists join economists in the room when discussing shortfalls, and opportunities, in world economic practices related to the climate and environment.
  1. Diplomacy — Make climate change a key point in international relationships. The University of Cambridge has many relationships with international educational entities. It can leverage these relationships to conduct joint research. This research can focus specifically on shared opportunities for collaboration around climate change. It can then inform initiatives such as “The Breakthrough Agenda” which has, hitherto, almost exclusively focused on burden instead of opportunity.

Further recommendations for ways the University of Cambridge can adapt to the crisis include:

Protecting (and ensuring) innovation by investing in it

New technologies are generally extremely expensive to produce, and highly inefficient in their first iterations. They require targeted investment and a protected incubating environment where innovators are free to iterate, fail, and retool. The University of Cambridge can provide this protective environment, ensuring that new technologies are well funded and supported for the 5-20 years of development they require.

Changing institutional norms

Participants felt that currently, the University, like many well-established institutions, is reticent to take any action which may entail reputational risk. This results in a preference for inaction over action, as doing nothing is less prone to cause offense than taking a decisive stance. However, on the issue of climate change, this prevents us from doing what needs to be done. Moving away from this thinking will require a shift in our institutional norms, a process which, as our new Vice-Chancellor knows from years of research on this topic, is long and complex. It must, however, be done if we are to shift into a new era of decisive, world-changing leadership on climate change.

Engaging governmental, industry, and public stakeholders

Any research, recommendations, or policy concepts produced within the University should be communicated more regularly with the key stakeholders in the array of fields that have the greatest impact on climate action. Given the complexity of the system, the potential engagements are plentiful. Policy makers, industry leaders, educators, and grassroots movement leaders — all would be potential interlocutors. Key here, however, is limiting paywalls, cliquishness, and other insular trends that have prevented academic institutions from exercising their full potential for influence in the past. It is now up to members of the University to implement these lessons learnt in how we can act five times faster on climate change.

Image by Jean-Luc Benazet on Unsplash.