Wednesday, 6 November 2019

Climate change and university governance

Governance is, in a nutshell, a set of principles and practices which ensure that good decisions are taken properly. (Longer definitions are available, but that’s my working shorthand.)

In the context of universities, these practices include the use of risk management, and a focus on evidence to support decision-making. Risk management helps universities to identify priorities and to ensure that significant issues are not ignored; the encouragement to use evidence is to ensure that decisions are grounded, where possible, in knowledge about the situation.

In this blog I want to look at how climate change poses a challenge for university governance.

Rising sea levels

A recent paper by Kulp and Strauss in Nature Communications gives the results of a more precise modelling of the likely impact of sea-level rise. The model uses a method which reduces the uncertainty in previous models, arising from problems in interpreting satellite data.

The data has been used to create maps of the forecast rises in sea level. In red are those areas which are currently land and which, the authors forecast, will be under water at high tide by 2050. (The map works on most browsers but not Edge or Internet Explorer. A quick download of another browser, if you need to, solves the problem, I found).

Naturally, the maps spark curiosity. Looking at Great Britain, there are areas of the south coast; of Kent; of the Thames Estuary; of East Anglia; of Lincolnshire and Humberside; of the Tees valley; of the Lancashire Coast; of South Wales; of the Clyde valley, and of the Somerset levels; which are forecast to be sea not land. By 2050. If I do well, that’s in my lifetime – its only 31 years hence. And it won’t happen with a swoosh in 2050 – some of these areas will be under water sooner, if nothing is done.

Now Nature Communications is a serious journal, and the work presented has been subject to serious peer review. (It is educative to look at the Peer Review File which is linked at the end of the Nature Communications paper – this shows experts working to improve a publication. Proper science.) Any forecast will always be subject to the ultimate scrutiny of reality, and what has actually happened by 2050 will no doubt differ in some respects, but the paper and the maps derived from it represent current best estimates. They are evidence.

So what impact is there on universities?

A quick tour round the areas of Great Britain which are impacted shows that a number of universities, or university campuses, are in areas which are forecast to be under water in 2050. Working clockwise, and starting at North, we have:

  • Durham University, Queens campus
  • The University of Hull
  • The University of Lincoln
  • The University of East London
  • The University of Portsmouth
  • The University of South Wales, Newport and Cardiff campuses

 Here's some of the maps; remember - the red is forecast to be under water in 2050.

University of Portsmouth

Durham University Queen's Campus

University of East London Docklands

This looks properly scary. The forecast inundation of Portsmouth in particular strikes home to me. My nan lived in Portsmouth, and I spent a fair few childhood holidays staying with her. I’m feeling slightly teary as I write – no more Southsea Beach; no more dockyard. Sic transit gloria mundi.

Rationally, we can argue that reality will be different. The maps, obviously, take no account of mitigations which might be put in place (sea defences, for example). There’ll probably be local factors which will make a general model inappropriate for a specific location. But the broad parameters of the model seem robust. And the challenges it presents for universities – some very specifically, some by implication – are surely a matter which now begins to fall within the scope of university governance.

The challenge for university governance

The challenge is two-fold.

Firstly, there’s a case that risk registers should now include the potential impacts of climate change. Sea-level rise is one example of this; changed weather patterns (flooding seems to be getting more common in the UK) are another. These will become pressing matters.

There are also the impacts of measures to mitigate climate change. Changing diets. The installation of charging points within university car parks. Stopping flying for university business – academic conferences, overseas student recruitment, university field trips.

And if as a society we’re spending more on mitigation (which we will be!) then there’s less to go around elsewhere – funding for HE will be more pressured.

Risk registers should arguably begin to include all of these things: not as a bureaucratic exercise, but as a prompt for university managers to begin to think about the impact of these on the university’s life and operations, and begin to come up with workable and sustainable long-term approaches.

The second challenge relates to financial governance.

Put simply it is this: If it is reasonable to assume that climate change will impact upon the usability of university buildings and property, when does this get reflected in balance sheets? Do buildings which may in the medium-term become unusable retain their current asset value? 30 years is within the scope of long-term borrowing. When do lenders begin to demand higher interest rates, or even refuse to lend on certain areas? Perhaps more critically, how do insurers react? Higher premiums are one approach; but when do business premises become uninsurable?

In answering these questions, we’d need to look at the likely effectiveness of government action to mitigate. Universities do not exist in a vacuum: their local communities will have similar concerns. Are universities playing a role in looking at mitigating actions? Is government responding?

Mitigating against sea-level rises of this magnitude means large scale engineering projects. These don’t happen quickly, and they’re not cheap. For example, work on HS2 – the high-speed rail link from London to Birmingham and the North – began in earnest in 2009, when the company was formed. The first trains won’t run to Birmingham until 2026 by the company’s own estimates, and until 2033 to Leeds/Manchester. That’s twenty-four years, with what are likely to be optimistic estimates. And the cost is between £81bn and £88bn.

This means that a plan to the impact of rising sea levels in 30 years’ time needs to be put in place pretty quickly, with resources allocated, for it to have a chance of succeeding. The evidence on its likely effectiveness will begin to be available quite soon.

The robustness of local and governmental responses to climate change will be a factor in considerations of risk – not just for universities but for businesses with which they work, including banks and insurers. The more that is done effectively now – mitigation measures and carbon reduction at a suitably quick rate – the less risk arises. We’ll all have our individual views on this and how likely it is to work.

What should universities and university governors do?

What’s clear to me is that all universities – and definitely those which can identify a clear issue which impacts on them – should be considering climate change as an increasingly significant risk. This means:

  • Identifying how climate change might impact upon them – sea levels, changed weather patterns
  • Identifying how changes behaviours to mitigate climate change might impact on business and operating models – reductions in the availability or acceptability of flying; changed diets, using less meat and dairy; changed local transport
  • Identifying what they can do to become more sustainable, and to live more within their values. Are university cars and vans electric rather than petrol or diesel? Do policy frameworks mandate the most sustainable/least carbon transport options?
  • Making sure that governors are aware of what is being done, and why. If radical changes are necessary at some point, a governing body which is forewarned is much more likely to be onside.

The challenge to governance – coming back to where I started – is that these are very big questions. The changes which are likely to be necessary represent significant changes from business as usual. Will university governance be up to the challenge?

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