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Duke needs a climate school

koched and loaded

The climate crisis is often framed as just another “social issue.” Well, it’s one hell of an issue. Here are some fresh new highlights: we are currently living through an incredibly fast mass extinction, the rapid destruction of ecosystems critical for human survival and permanent shifts in the water systems civilization is built along. For those not particularly concerned about other species, sea level rise alone is projected to force hundreds of millions of people from their homes in the next thirty years (around when your kids start college), swallow our most valuable cities, undermine breadbaskets of the world and spark dangerous social cascades resulting from the cumulative weight of the chaos. Not to mention, if we keep chugging recklessly forwards, we can unlock climate tipping points that will unleash fun new horsemen of the apocalypse, like trillions of locusts triggered by increased cyclones. Or melting permafrost awakening ancient plagues from their icy cocoon. To complicate matters further, the eco-fascists (and regular fascists) are here—both the Christchurch and El Paso shootings were motivated by an alt-right ideology that incorporates population control for environmental purity. I honestly was bored watching the last “Mission Impossible” because the stakes seemed lower and the mission more possible than the project of stabilizing our biosphere while also dealing with the endless pile of existential garbage. 

Our only chance for stabilizing the climate is to reduce net global emissions from 55 billion tons a year to zero tons a year before we all qualify for senior discounts. But the path to get there is incredibly complex. Modern society is stupidly dependent on fossil fuels, which we use in our fertilizer, plastics, transport, aviation, manufacturing—14 trillion dollars worth of infrastructure in total. I’m not going to tiptoe around the scale of the problem, but I’m also not interested in writing another tired episode of “We’re Fucked.” The next decade will be among the most consequential in human history, with physical consequences that can be measured in geologic time. Faced with the burdens of living through this era, armed with the rare combination of resources and talent, we at Duke are uniquely positioned to boldly face the climate crisis head on. Which then begs the question—what sort of education do you need to maximize your impact on climate change? 

Climate change is not a singular issue, but an era whose causes and effects are  embedded deeply into the institutions of modernity. It magnifies all other problems, driving resource scarcity, migration, racial violence, communicable diseases and inequality. This is a crisis that cannot be solved in isolation. If you pull on this thread long enough, you will find it winds through the fabric of society. 

Starting with the cold, hard science: we need to model the changes so we can prepare for them and figure out what damages have already happened. Are there any irreversible tipping points that we need to work hard to avoid? You’ll need chemists, physicists, computer engineers, mathematicians, ecologists, biologists, geologists, atmospheric scientists, glaciologists to figure these out. Now add in some economics: what are the potential economic damages of climate change? Could we integrate the climate models to economic models? Mix in some policy: what if we placed a price on carbon? We’d need to build the political will to pass a carbon price and attract enough allies to pass it. Uh oh, that triggers political science. We need communications to build support. But looking back at the history of the issue, powerful industries use self-serving political economic theories as a way to justify killing regulations or action on climate change—we’ll need new legal and philosophical frameworks to ensure sustainable power dynamics. Oil industries invented Public Relations, after all, and use psychology to inform advertising. We also have to consider international relations to solve a global issue.

Maybe our engineers can help: after all, we need to decarbonize the transportation, industry, electricity, and building sectors. We’ll need electrical, mechanical, civil, chemical, computer science and biomedical engineers. They’ll need funding; enter entrepreneurs and financiers. We’ll need doctors and nurses and public health professionals to deal with tropical disease that seeps to the North. Due to the deep racial and economic inequality, sociology and social justice are critical to finding a viable path, as any faulty assumption about the realities of our world could sink the best laid plans. The strain on our systems will probably lead to collapse of our physical infrastructure and our economy—are there answers on how to avoid collapse from anthropologists who study past failed civilizations versus the societies that have lived sustainably for thousands of years?

Every scrap of knowledge produced is useful; every profession is in play. It all matters; it’s all connected. But our university as currently designed is not providing the necessary infrastructure to support the next generation of climate leaders. Unlike pre-med, or pre-consulting, which benefit from clarity, prestige and career stability, a “climate career” is still nebulous. What are the entry level positions, the opportunities for advancement, what classes do you take, what internships are “the best?" Duke has more climate and energy opportunities than most, with the Stanback fellowship for summer internships, research and robust career services. But even still, too many talented students, drawn to corporate jobs’ entry-level infrastructure, end up optimizing advertising algorithms. 

Like Columbia University, Duke needs to create a Climate School to ensure that students who want to tackle climate change have all the tools to do so. First, it’s a safe bet. The climate crisis is only going to intensify in our lifetimes, and work required to reduce emissions and deal with consequences will create a demand for skilled professionals. Second, it will accelerate climate action. Losing students to legacy industries by default is an incredible failure, as most young professionals prefer to not spend their working hours dismantling their own future. Providing effective training and support to a formalized climate path would increase the number of students fully focused on the problem, and send  a signal to employers that strong climate policy is a recruiting advantage. To cap it all off, Duke is uniquely equipped to create a top-line climate university. There are pockets of climate genius scattered throughout Duke far beyond the Nicholas School of the Environment, and yet so few students experience these courses in a coherent path. The interdisciplinary opportunities and the Climate School would be a chance to explicitly set a mission aligned with the scientific consensus, providing students and faculty the chance to align passion, effort and purpose. 

A final note. Education is only really valuable when paired with opportunity. It is clear that a Trump re-election would eliminate any hope of a green economic recovery, and with it hundreds of thousands of climate jobs across the economy. Many students, even those who care infinitely about the climate crisis, will be forced to take what they can get. For many, a climate career starts as a side project, an honest conversation with a manager or returning to school. Believing that only people with explicitly climate jobs will work on climate is absurd and dangerous, because every single industry and position and skillset is in play. A top education must face the real world—and right now, that world is heating up fast. 

Nathan Iyer is a second-year Master's student in the Science and Society program. His column, "Koched and loaded," normally runs on alternate Tuesdays. 

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