Tell it like it is – climate realism needs to go mainstream, beginning in universities | Oxford Magazine

This article first appeared in Oxford Magazine.

In 2023 everything changed. It has been confirmed as the hottest year on record, the consequences of which have been felt worldwide for perhaps the first time.

I’ve long been warning that the brutal reality is that the 1.5 degree C of overheat global maximum target is dead in the water but, according to the Met Office, this year it will likely be confirmed. Just let that sit for a minute; the target conceived to avoid the worst impacts of global temperature rise and minimise the risks – and costs – of reaching even higher warming levels is going to be broken. Already. Not in 10 or 20 years but, in practice, right now.

While we went beyond the crossroads some time ago, I do wonder if in years to come, when we look back on 2024, we see it as the year when there was finally a u-turn in the battle to save our planet. Is this the year when all the warnings finally hit the target and we began to go all out to save ourselves?

For me, at least, last year was already the beginning of that. In September, I agreed voluntary severance with the University of East Anglia (UEA) after 26 years. Increasingly, for the last 16 years of that time I had been taking sabbaticals, working part-time and taking unpaid leave in order to work as a climate activist. While it was definitely something, it never felt quite enough.

As I mentioned in a previous article (Oxford Magazine, No. 447, 8th Week, MT 2022) : “The next big step forward in climate action must bring the public with us. We need together to step beyond the lures of polarisation, roll our sleeves up, and get down to business changing the operating system: so that it no longer resembles a conveyor belt to hell.”

In that year, having said farewell to Extinction Rebellion, that’s what I worked on. The Climate Majority Project, of which I am co-director, officially launched in 2023 and I gave up my academic role to join others to undertake the shared project of saving the world. 

The central idea of the Climate Majority Project is that everyone, be they a lawyer, a teacher, a creative, a food-grower, a parent, a child, or whatever, has a real and potentially unique role to play, doing what they do, together with others, in addressing the crisis of our times. You don’t need to break the law; you don’t need to protest or become an ‘activist’.

But you do need to actively reflect on what YOUR potential superpower is. That means you probably need to reassess what you are doing with your life. You can’t take for granted that the best way to carry on or up the ante on caring for the future is to carry on doing what you are doing.

I’ll look back on my academic life with much affection, but also with some anger, and most definitely with anguish. While UEA was in serious trouble, the fundamental cause of my departure, is that I’ve gradually come to see academia as constitutively ill-suited to contributing seriously to the epochal question of our time: our wilful destruction of our collective life-support system.

Perhaps you feel the same? Even now, with everything that’s happened, there are many in academia, even some who work on the frontline of the climate crisis, still trying not to frighten the horses. Still practicing some degree of scientific reticence. Still not focussing on the way, when we talk about climate, we need to be talking about adaptation more than merely mitigation. Still not saying publicly what they whisper over a beer or to a therapist or friend privately, about where they think we are really at.

I spoke at the Oxford Net Zero conference four years ago. While my talk went down well, a question from a don asking why I was offering any criticisms whatsoever of scientists as opposed to only criticising deniers etc. also got a good round of applause. I had to explain that when scientists fail to practice the precautionary principle, or when they make it sound as if we can still stay below 1.5, they do a public disservice. Four years later, sadly, making my point would be much easier, and probably the question wouldn’t even be asked. For the warnings that I and others have been sounding for the last several years about how the situation is more desperate than the IPCC has made it sound have, tragically, been vindicated by the awful on-going off-the-charts spike in world temperatures, this last 12 months.

Maybe you’re considering consciously quitting? Perhaps you feel, like me, you have more to give outside of the limits of academia? If you can, I would urge you to; but those who remain have a strong and important responsibility to tell their students (and funders) the truth.

As the editorial in the recent climate-focussed issue of this Magazine suggests (Oxford Magazine, No. 459, 8th Week, MT 2023), while the Vice-Chancellor is planning to make teaching on dangerous human-triggered climate change available to interested undergraduates, it’s no-where near enough. In the face of blistering record-breaking temperatures, it’s almost laughable, to just make such teaching ‘available’. Oxford students are in a privileged position and they need to be emboldened to use that to the advantage of the planet. Climate and ecology should now be a spine running through the teaching of every single subject (except Maths).

Then of course there is research. Here too, every academic who remains ought to be thinking about how to make their research relevant to the more-than-emergence that faces us. And vice versa. In, as I shall explain, a very broad sense.

Key here, of course, are the emerging and growing agendas/concepts of engagement and impact. On balance, I think the impact agenda is probably been a good thing. It was certainly kind to me. I was able to turn the work I do beyond the ivory tower into benefit for my department and university (and, hopefully, for the world). But – and it’s a big “but” – the crude mode of its implementation has been profoundly suboptimal. It assumes economic gain to be a central goal of enquiry and the measure of whether society is getting value for its money.

Since those engaged in research know that the criterion of economic gain completely misses their discoveries’ true value as contributions to knowledge (let alone to wisdom), a sense of alienation results. We are not only being valued merely as tools, we are being asked to contribute to a project misdirected towards an end that has no real value in itself – an end that may, indeed, be destructive of the well-being of all parties to the transaction, given the causal connection between economic growth-ism and climate breakdown.

The research community needs to resituate itself. It should be a contributor to society by virtue of its adherence to authentic (though waning) scholarly values. Contributions to freedom, to clarity of thought, to virtue, to beauty are also kinds of impact. A proper historical view would remind us of the importance of such things for flourishing civilisations. Sometimes the most important research will be work revealing how wrong and misguided our values and measures of success are. Such research might, for example, require the society that funds it to change course.

To return to the climate example, it may require society to curb its quest for growth and to end its exploitation of natural resources, human workers and research expertise.

That is why it is an abomination that one of the criteria for “successful impact” is increasing GDP. This wholly prejudges the issue and constitutes blunt systemic bias against the rising number of academics who take it as increasingly obvious that post-growth/degrowth is now required, and whose research shows this in detail.

It is, above all, the arts and humanities that are equipped to remind us of the things I am saying in this column. Yet the impact agenda embodies a simple-minded model of “progress”, based on a whiggish idea that technological progress goes hand in hand with social benefit – despite the overwhelming evidence that it does not. That entire way of thinking about science, as a kind of “investment” to promote economic growth and “productivity”, needs to be called out as bogus.

University managers continue to embrace this STEM bias, too. UEA’s ills, for instance, are heavily to do with managerialism and scientism, and this will only be entrenched by the fact that the arts and humanities are suffering the bulk of the cuts – despite having run a surplus for years and subsidised the rest of the university during that time. The “cure” will be more of the disease. I do not want to throw the “impact” baby out with the polluted bathwater of the agenda’s implementation. But I hope I’ve said enough to indicate that a far loftier version of impact is needed. We need the kind of ambition present in the neglected works of Nicholas Maxwell, who urges universities to redesign themselves to be in their essence of service in an age when outdated epistemologies are contributing to an eco-driven collapse of civilisation.

Perhaps those of you remaining in the system can find the determination to demand this reinvention. In the meantime, I will join others trying to save the world from outside the academy.

Don’t get me wrong: many of my best friends are academics. But: While there is much about life as an academic that I sometimes miss, I’m glad to have moved on. When the opportunity came to do so, I knew it would be a failure of will not to take it – I can only urge you to at least consider doing the same.

For, in words made famous in Lord of the Rings, and very pertinent to us: the hour grows late.

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