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Bristol University and the Climate Crisis: Reflection on The Role of Higher Education Teaching and Public Engagement in Addressing the Climate Emergency

I am a student with considerable climate anxiety. I worry constantly about how my own actions could possibly lead to the demise of human society and am often left apoplectic with rage at the seemingly blasé attitude of governments around the world, and occasionally that includes my own university. Although it is a significant accomplishment that Bristol was the first university to declare a climate emergency, I often look around at the computers that won’t turn off or the enormous amount of plastic and paper wastage at Freshers Fair and think, is this enough? How could the university be doing more? 

Although this conference did not solve the climate crisis, it was a great relief to see a variety of staff from an array of areas expressing their concerns and thinking of possible solutions. Not to mention, the guest speakers from universities in South Africa offered an insight that we should be considering significantly more when talking about the climate crisis: we are not the ones that are bearing the brunt of the climate disaster. Our university does not have droughts or 4 hours on then 4 hours off of power. You thought the strikes were bad? Imagine only being able to use the internet half of the day. Professor Coleen Vogel illustrated this beautifully and although her talk did not soothe the anxiety, it did contribute to the sense of urgency that characterised the day and brought a universality to the crisis.  This conference demonstrated to me that the university not only has to mitigate these consequences for itself but has a responsibility to inform students about how their actions impact people across the world. 

One of my favourite speakers of the day (other than one professor who sang and gave us a deeply needed wake up 3 hours into the conference) was Professor Keri Facer, who spoke about ‘living on a lively planet’. What really struck me about her talk was that it went beyond the doom and gloom approach to climate change, lecturing on how we need to reexamine our relationship with the planet and each other. For the first time (to me) it presented climate change as an opportunity for growth and learning, rather than a signifier of the apocalypse. I often feel that climate change can be disempowering, particularly for young people, as it undeniably presents some giant obstacles. This outlook, however, is less than useful as it means that every step in the right direction feels like dropping a stone into a void. Keri’s lecture demonstrated a different approach and climate change finally felt like something that could be a learning process for the human race. 

The other speakers were absolutely fantastic, open and urgent but also presenting options for how to move higher education forward. It was incredible to have staff from such a wide variety of backgrounds, meaning that conversations were extremely interdisciplinary and each talk brought about a wide variety of responses. The talks themselves also included an ‘arts-based approach’, including creating a transformative engagement toolkit to building lasting partnerships with civil society. Hearing this side of the argument was refreshing, as the science-heavy focus has often felt like it leaves fifty per cent of the population in the dust, not to mention that the inclusion of community engagement already had me absolutely invested. 

However, although I enjoyed the day and was grateful to be part of the conversation I couldn’t help but think: Is this how we treat an emergency that is causing half of Australia to catch fire and kill over a billion animals? That’s caused three cyclones in Fiji in the past two weeks alone? This event demonstrated to me that the university needs to take its role as a world leader seriously but also that there are impassioned academics who are trying to take that role. One of the professors said that climate change presented an opportunity for academics to use the social capital we have been afforded and to use it to create change. We have the opportunity to truly lead the charge in the fight against climate change and for that, we need drastic action. 

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