Comet Neowise swept through our night skies this summer, and we might imagine how planet Earth caught its cosmic eye, spinning blue and white against the black of space. We might also imagine Neowise shaking its head in dismay, bewildered by a species so advanced it is capable of understanding the damage it is inflicting on its delicate home, yet inflicting it anyway.
Covid-19 is seen by many as our final wake-up call to climate catastrophe.
Like coronavirus, immediate climate symptoms such as heat waves, storms and floods will manifest visibly in the short term. And like Covid, the more devastating effects will be less obvious. The spectres of economic disruption, a new world order, wars over water and air, social unrest – all these loom on a not-too-distant horizon.
But hope twinkles: from the pandemic we have learned to respond quickly on a global scale to an immediate existential danger and, unlike with the virus, when it comes to climate change we know what we need to do and we know how to do it.
The stars are aligning in Ireland right now. We have a pivotal chance to rebuild our economy and society differently as we learn to live with Covid-19. We have a new coalition government with the strongest green voice in our political history, a government which will be in the international spotlight for how it responds to the recent landmark judgement on our Climate Action Plan.
We have a new Department of Further and Higher Education, Innovation and Science giving dedicated attention to post-secondary education, research and innovation for the first time. We are creating at least five new technological universities with distinctive missions for impact.
Many of our universities are already global leaders on the sustainability agenda and all have stepped up for the Covid-19 crisis, contributing valuable expertise, research, facilities and influence to the national response.
In Ireland right now, there is a dazzling opportunity for global leadership on climate action if the potential of our higher education system is recognised and realised.
Our universities are funded primarily by the public, through taxes or fees, so as citizens we have a say in what they do. We must recognise, however, that national imperatives often take second place to the pursuit of world rankings in university behaviour.
So what could our higher education system do to shape our brave new world?
We could fundamentally reconsider what we fund our universities to do. We could adjust our emphasis from the traditional missions of education and research, and measure our universities on their engagement with society, their contribution to reforming public policy and their leadership on the toughest climate challenge of all, moving the corporate dial from profit only to profit, planet and purpose.
European trends suggest universities can have a much stronger role in their regional innovation ecosystems as proactive, neutral and trusted conveners of disparate stakeholders around regional challenges.
We could ask our universities to convene their stakeholders for evidence-based actions in their regions, bringing their global networks and cutting-edge knowledge across the spectrum of the actions we need, from long-term regional planning for just transitions to short-term public education initiatives like the ten most effective actions an individual, SME, school, sports club or community group can take.
We could look for track records in advancing the sustainability agenda as a key criterion when appointing senior university leaders. We could recognise our researchers for the tangible impact they have on regional initiatives (the relative mundanity of saving bees and building flood defences) as well as for their work on the grand European research missions.
We could ask our universities to reform all their curricula so every graduate of an Irish university has the skills to live sustainability and to lead climate action in their chosen career and sector. We could ask our universities to be exemplar organisations themselves in minimising carbon footprints through remote working and virtual learning. We could ask them to lead by example and rethink the need for travelling to international academic conferences.
At national system level, we could include higher education explicitly in the new National Mitigation Plan. We could consider green skills a skill there is a shortage in and prioritise it for funding in the same way ICT and other skills are currently prioritised.
We could ask our National Forum for Teaching and Learning to develop high quality educational resources which can be used by all institutions. We could reconsider what kind of research we fund, or even press pause on funding new research, just for a while, to deploy our resources on solving the most immediate problems.
We could reform the National Framework of Qualifications to include explicit learning outcomes for sustainability (and equality, diversity and inclusion while we are at it). We could embed sustainability targets in the quality audits of our universities and in the strategic performance compacts set between the universities and the Higher Education Authority (HEA). We could even make it a legal requirement by including it in the new legislation reforming the HEA.
What gets measured, and funded, gets done. The dominant debate in higher education in the past decade has been funding. We could ask, respectfully and in full recognition of the contribution already made by universities, funding for what? Funding to continue to develop the talent and research capacity Ireland needs to be economically competitive? Funding to play the snakes and ladders of global university rankings? Or funding for leadership on climate and helping us all transition to our brave new world?
During the Covid-19 crisis, the impossible became the norm. Without fear of ridicule, we can now ask similarly impossible questions for climate. We have seen how global leadership can spring from the most unexpected sources: a Swedish school girl school-striking for climate, a small country like New Zealand leading the way against Covid-19.
With the stars in alignment in Ireland right now, what if our higher education system mobilised for climate action like it has against Covid-19? What if we mandated our universities to mobilise their staff and students, to use the full breadth of their education, research, innovation, global influence and ability to convene stakeholders for this existential challenge? Just for a little while. Just until we solve it.
Is it not a tantalising thought? And then maybe when Comet Neowise looks down on Earth when it returns in a few thousand years time, it will still see a blue and white marble and not a charred cinder.
Is féidir linn.
Deirdre Lillis is a member of the board of the Higher Education Authority, the Senate of the National University of Ireland and head of computer science in TU Dublin