Research universities must play key role in climate policy solutions

Illustration of climate change scientists at a meeting
Emily Bi/Senior Staff

“Knowledge is power.” This phrase is attributed to the father of the scientific methods of inquiry, Sir Francis Bacon, dating back to 1597. This ancient idea forms the basis of the mission of the University Climate Change Coalition, or UC3

Launched by Second Nature and a group of now 20 top-tier North American research universities, including the UC, the collective is working to advance climate solutions in partnership with local governments, businesses and communities. Now, through the coalition’s new Research for Policy Platform, UC3 is stepping into evidence-based climate policy engagement with the goal of limiting global temperature rise to 1.5 degrees Celsius in order to avoid the worst impacts of climate change.

We currently face a three-dimensional dilemma. First, society needs to enact smart policies to transition our energy infrastructure from a dependence on air-polluting and climate-disrupting sources to clean and renewable options. Second, there is a moral imperative for us, as a community, to do so in a just and equitable way that does not leave vulnerable populations in the dust. Third, and perhaps most confounding and restrictive, is the political divide and stark partisan differences that hinder collaborative pathways forward in time. 

Climate change is a Rubik’s Cube of a problem that we need rigorous cross-disciplinary study and expansive thinking to solve. That’s where research universities come in. We need these knowledge hubs to dive deep in their academic work, discover new solutions, and present the best options to each other and the public and private sectors. Universities are ideally positioned to connect across city and state governments, businesses, and communities and share relevant, evidence-based knowledge that will help guide the transition to a more climate-secure future. 

The policies guiding this energy transition must be informed by credible research and testing. UC3 institutions are taking the lead in this area, transforming their campuses into energy-smart systems with policies that reduce emissions and expand renewable energy infrastructure. Many are on their way to carbon neutrality.

The UC system is pursuing a community-oriented approach to sustainability by using its campuses as living laboratories, testing new ways to reduce emissions, cut down on food waste and boost energy efficiency. The trials and successes of each location provide evidence that can then be modeled and scaled up.

The collective’s new Research for Policy Platform allows universities to take a collaborative step further in influencing the climate policy space. Joint research efforts across disciplines, including economics, political science and the natural sciences, will generate comprehensive briefs to inform policy engagement. For example, the first product of the new UC3 platform is a policy brief on the role that higher education can play in advancing carbon pricing. In this way, the proven successes in emission reduction for campus operations plus the research spanning across disciplines form a double-stranded cord to help fashion stronger climate policy frameworks.

On the environmental justice front, the universities’ social justice-focused faculty and students are working to develop policy solutions that can help safeguard communities most likely to be impacted by climate change. New climate policies hold the potential to help address past injustices still ingrained in society, from housing issues to air pollution problems.

For example, the UC system recently produced a white paper that outlines how a new California climate solutions collaborative could spur job creation, innovation and climate resilience in disadvantaged and vulnerable communities in California and beyond. As leaders in their communities, universities have a responsibility to encourage just courses of action, particularly in the area of climate policies that will have resounding socioeconomic effects in the future.

Finally, in the current political climate, the need for nonpartisan voices and objective sources on climate change is paramount to guide the way forward. As public academic institutions with unique research and technical expertise, universities are well situated to synthesize the latest research and identify potential paths forward that can be embraced by elected and community leaders across the country.

Knowledge is power. In the case of climate change, we need knowledge to figure out how to power our world so that it remains prosperous for future generations. With the Research for Policy Platform, UC3 universities have formed a knowledge-sharing network — backed by the best available knowledge and expertise on climate — that will generate new insights on the policies needed to act quickly and cohesively to address this global challenge.

Betsy Painter works in communications for Second Nature and is responsible for sharing the cross-sector climate action work of the University Climate Change Coalition.