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Covid-19 IS the Climate Crisis

How A New Form of Global Governance Led by Higher Education

Must Deal with Subsequent Climate Change Crises

March 30, 2020

Trent Batson, Ph.D., Director, The Last Humans Project

Our society, as represented in the media, labors under the delusion that the Covid-19 disease is not part of the climate crisis. It may not be directly related to climate change. But, maybe warming global temperatures influence the frequency and severity of a viral epidemic.

The study found that, to [a] certain extent, temperature could significant[ly] change COVID-19 transmission, and there might be a best temperature for the viral transmission, which may partly explain why it first broke out in Wuhan. It is suggested that countries and regions with a lower temperature in the world adopt the strictest control measures to prevent future reversal. [correction are mine; this study was rushed to publication without peer review probably because of urgency]

In this blog, I am not trying to prove that SARS-CoV-2 spread is affected by climate change. Such a relationship may be demonstrated by those studying the Covid-19 pandemic. The point is that the planet is warming and temperature may influence the frequency and spread of coronaviruses. And, beyond that, the major lesson is that our societies can learn from this Covid experience. It can learn how crucial planning and preparation is, how crucial coordination around the world is, and we can learn that, because this is the third SARS outbreak in this century, we are likely to have more.

Three coronaviruses have crossed the species barrier to cause deadly pneumonia in humans since the beginning of the 21st century: severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus (SARS-CoV) (Drosten et al., 2003Ksiazek et al., 2003), Middle-East respiratory syndrome coronavirus (Zaki et al., 2012) (MERS-CoV), and SARS-CoV-2 (Huang et al., 2020Zhu et al., 2020). SARS-CoV emerged in the Guangdong province of China in 2002 and spread to five continents through air travel routes, infecting 8,098 people and causing 774 deaths. In 2012, MERS-CoV emerged in the Arabian Peninsula, where it remains a major public health concern, and was exported to 27 countries, infecting a total of ∼2,494 individuals and claiming 858 lives. A previously unknown coronavirus, named SARS-CoV-2, was discovered in December 2019 in Wuhan, Hubei province of China and was sequenced and isolated by January 2020 (Zhou et al., 2020Zhu et al., 2020). SARS-CoV-2 is associated with an ongoing outbreak of atypical pneumonia (Covid-2019) that has affected over 90,000 people and killed more than 3,000 of those affected in >60 countries as of March 3, 2020. On January 30, 2020, the World Health Organization declared the SARS-CoV-2 epidemic a public health emergency of international concern.
. . .
The recurrent spillovers of coronaviruses in humans along with detection of numerous coronaviruses in bats, including many SARS-related coronaviruses (SARSr-CoVs), suggest that future zoonotic transmission events may continue (Anthony et al., 2017Ge et al., 2013Hu et al., 2017Li et al., 2005bMenachery et al., 2015Menachery et al., 2016Yang et al., 2015aZhou et al., 2020). In addition to the highly pathogenic zoonotic pathogens SARS-CoV, MERS-CoV, and SARS-CoV-2, all belonging to the β-coronavirus genus, four low-pathogenicity coronaviruses are endemic in humans: HCoV-OC43, HCoV-HKU1, HCoV-NL63, and HCoV-229E. To date, no therapeutics or vaccines are approved against any human-infecting coronaviruses.

The Many Faces of The Climate Crisis

The climate crisis that we humans have caused is made up of myriad disasters, and virus infections in humans seems to be one of those disasters. The world did not really turn away from the climate crises during this Covid-19 pandemic, instead, it experienced one more variety of natural disasters that are inevitable in this century. This time, it was not fire or flood or drought or rising seas, but a pandemic. We experienced another face of the climate crisis.

Did Our Governance Systems Respond Well During Covid-19?

Did government leaders at all levels manage the response to the pandemic effectively? At the moment, it would seem the answer is “no” in a number of countries, including the U. S. This was true at the top national government levels but less so at state and local levels. Local governments, states, and some countries did well even as they were hampered by the failures of their central government: these failures included hiding or ignoring the virus at first, minimizing it for a time, and then pushing to return to business as usual even as the pandemic became worse.

Regardless of one’s political orientation, we should all be able to recognize that the world, in general, did not prepare well enough for the 2020 pandemic. And, once the pandemic has ended, we should also recognize that we cannot return to “business-as-usual” since that means being unprepared for the next crisis of whatever variety. For example, the rise in ocean levels continues and is, like Covid-19, global.

The world has now been alerted to the dangerous disparity between the desperate need for global coordination and the political counter currents working against such coordination. As long as nations continue to compete so combatively, our species will face extinction from a cascade of climate change crises. If we cannot cooperate, we cannot survive. We have unleashed the “furies of hell” by overloading the atmosphere with carbon but we are far from ready to face those furies.

A Metamorphosis of World Governance

Facing continuous climate crises that will worsen in this century, the world needs a new governance system, not a variation on what we have, but a system different in form and nature. This can occur through not a revolution but a metamorphosis. This governance system will not give up current function, that is, broker the distribution of power and money in our societies, but the main and over-arching goal of this new governance system will be the common good. Human survival. The survival of our civilization must be the new “good,” not the concentration of wealth. We don’t want America to be “great,” for example, but “good.”

This change cannot be legislated, but it can gradually emerge in a few years by feeding a different kind of student into society from higher education: a socially conscious person and a socially adept person. Higher education does not do well at the moment to develop such a graduate. But since college graduates wield such outsize influence in all societies, higher education is where we need to begin to bring about the global metamorphosis.

The change in governance is not just a change at the top, but throughout society. We do this by re-orienting higher education throughout the world to produce leaders engaged in working for the common good – not all students, just a significant portion. However, all students will learn differently under our program and some of these better prepared students will choose work in the burgeoning non-profit world or alternate energy world, or other work for the common good in addition to earning a good salary and building a good career.

We need, in higher education, to return a previous idea of higher education building society. We can do that and at the same time keep a focus on jobs and career success. But, we need to develop the consciousness of students to energize society so all our societies will thrive in this century instead of fail.

The Solution

The climate crisis with its myriad disasters will continue and probably worsen over the rest of this century. Luckily for us, the global non-profit sector has grown very large over the past few decades. National governments, up to now, have been overly-influenced by wealth and its power, so they are not oriented in many countries to consistently plan for disasters or even care about the common good. We have seen governments fail over the past decades to reverse greenhouse gas emissions, so how can we believe they will function to prevent the collapse of global civilization? It is time to tip the governance balance toward the non-profit sector if we are to survive this century.

The word “governance” usually refers to the government, of course. So, I am using “governance” to mean, in this blog, the parts of society that act globally on behalf of the common good. These parts of society can, in many cases, also include for-profit companies such as green energy companies. The United Nations can serve, as it does now, to coordinate non-profit and common-good activities around the world. It cannot dictate. But numbers can. If 50 million students graduate each year from higher education with an orientation toward the needs of this century, those new leaders each year will influence how the world works – we create change through infiltration.

The Scale of Higher Education

Higher education, globally, has numbers larger than all countries except China, India and the United States. It is a sleeping giant in terms of global efforts toward adapting to the climate crisis. (Many parts of higher education are dedicated to environmental concerns and sustainability but the entire sector, as a whole, is not).

Higher education, the largest part of the global non-profit sector, is made up of 19,400 institutions and 250,000,000 enrolled students.

With those numbers, higher education can provide the workforce for survival in this century. But, this workforce must be capable of succeeding during a century of crises and must be oriented to the common good as well as to well-paying jobs. Fortunately, those two goals, career success and dedication to the common good, are actually only one since – today – dedication to the common good offers great career opportunities. This singular goal (career and social consciousness combined) can be met by learning experiences that develop cooperative abilities, creativity, communication, problem solving, innovation, and real-world learning. These developed traits lead to success in almost any arena of life.

Such learning experiences are available and functioning now in higher education but not widely enough. Higher education at this moment provides that combination of necessary abilities to only a small number of students. And the very structure of higher education works against developing those abilities:

· Grading individuals only instead of grading both group projects and individual deliverables so learning is competitive instead of cooperative. Grade the team, not the individual – in the real world, what good does it do if one member of a team performs superbly but the team project fails?

· Using lecture as the default despite the fact that lecture should be only a small part of the learning experience in most courses. Active learning is better.

· Focusing on jobs as a means only to individual financial success when the need and rewards now are for graduates who can work for the common good and have both financial and personal rewards. Let’s keep the focus on “jobs” but change the nature of those jobs so they redound to the common good in addition to individual benefit.

· Staying with disciplinary learning paths almost entirely when the need is for interdisciplinarity in this century.

· Basing university structure on the idea that knowledge is a thing (and therefore can be commoditized) and not a process. The idea of the university as a business, though at one level it certainly is, ignores society. The idea is, instead, that the university is the engine and soul of society.

Each of these anachronistic or wrong-headed structural elements weakens the chance that graduates will create value for society. Not only do learning researchers point out the problems with each of these features, but each one ignores actual human traits and abilities developed during human evolution: working cooperatively in groups, learning in conversation (social interaction), surviving as specialists/generalists (“interdisciplinarity”), constantly adapting to new conditions (that is, learning new systems) and evolving within a society, not as “rugged individuals.”

Once we use knowledge from human evolution studies, interpret that knowledge within learning theory, pay attention to trends in higher education toward active and authentic social learning, and recognize the demands of this century, then we in higher education can see a clear path toward the metamorphosis of higher education. We need to begin with evolution because that is the large thinking we need now – but we need to actually understand how we humans evolved and thrived over the past 2.5 million years. And, then, within that large context of 2.5 million years, better understand the dramatic change we are going through now, and then better understand what we need to do over this next century.

Instead of the legacy structural elements listed above that militate against good learning, we offer below a new structure that is appropriate for this century.

Here are the requirements to begin the metamorphosis (of higher education and then society):

· All learning units must use “content” (existing knowledge) as a way to create questions for students to address in problem-based or project-based structures. Content kicks off learning; it is not an end in itself.

· All learning must be social, interactive, cooperative, but individually responsible as in having an individual “deliverable” as a necessary part of the group project. Problem-based learning (PBL).

· All learning must be assessed and evaluated at the team level, not the individual level, as is true now, because humans learn socially and team cooperation is the core element of the new world governance model we envision (and of most jobs, too).

· All learning must be authentic – both directly applicable in the real world and aimed at the public good.

· All learning must involve opportunities for creativity and innovation.

· All learning must be aimed at students learning how to create new knowledge in the relevant field.

· All learning must involve formal, required, and variable forms of communication (writing and speaking) for project success.

· All learning must use the affordances of technology in imaginative ways, based in part on eportfolio technology abilities – eportfolios provide a learner-managed shared space on the Web with the ability to set permissions.

· And, a large percentage of learning must be situated (all learning is situated) in real world settings for a part of the course of study – internships, service learning, cooperative learning, work study, field studies, and so on. College students should graduate already engaged in real life work. This is what humanity needs in this century.

Trent Batson, Ph.D., joined the faculty of Michigan State University in 1963, and went on to serve as professor or administrator at 7 other universities including George Washington University, Gallaudet, Carnegie Mellon, George Mason, Seton Hall, University of Rhode Island, and MIT. He became a technology and learning leader in 1987 with the first of many large grants, receiving an EDUCOM (now EDUCAUSE) award for best innovation in 1989, and went on to found The Association for Authentic, Experiential and Evidence-Based Learning (AAEEBL) in 2009, leading it until 2017. AAEEBL has institutional members in 4 countries.

His Ph.D. is in American Studies from George Washington University.

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