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ecoAmerica in Paris - Day 3: Scholar Activism - How Higher Ed Can Influence the Climate Process

By Peggy Knudson
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Noah Kittner, a PhD candidate in energy and resources at the University of California, Berkeley (UC Berkeley), ran cross country as a high school student in Raleigh, North Carolina. He may have learned a thing or two about endurance back then that is helping him through long days at COP21 this week. Here in Paris he is meeting with World Bank officials, US government representatives, and others to explain that there are clean-energy alternatives to building a proposed new coal-burning plant in Kosovo. And he’s done his homework.

Kittner’s project, a collaboration with others at UC Berkeley’s Renewable and Appropriate Energy Lab, is called Sustainable Energy Pathways in Southeast Europe. As it turns out, avoiding the construction of a new coal plant in Kosovo could help tip the scales away from similar new coal plants elsewhere. Tiny Kosovo could set a precedent.

 “Back in 2013, World Bank president Jim Kim said the bank would no longer finance new coal projects, except for rare circumstances where no financially feasible alternatives existed,” explains Kittner. "So our work demonstrates that there arefeasible alternatives, like wind, hydropower, solar, and biofuels, and we are showing this to the stakeholders involved.”

The more he dug into his research, Kittner sasy, the more he learned about other coal plant projects being planned across Europe, in ex-Yugoslav states, financed by the World Bank and other multilateral lending institutions like the European Reconstruction and Development Bank.

Kosovo could be a “wedge’ project,” says Kittner. He believes if his team can convince key decisionmakers that there are low-carbon energy options in Kosovo, it will be harder for the World Bank and other multilateral finance institutions to approve loans for new coal plants in larger greenhouse gas-emitting countries like India.

Is it unusual for academics to get involved in advocacy? Not at all, says Kittner.

“I see what I do as ‘applied research,’” he says, “or—even better—as ‘use-inspired scientific research.’ As a scientist, you want to step back and do objective analysis. But when you find out more about pressing challenges in our world—especially climate change and environmental protection—it inspires you to go beyond the classroom and into some of these real projects. It’s a type of scholar activism, and it’s actually not uncommon in our energy and resources group at Berkeley.”

Messaging complicated climate issues in a way that policymakers and others can understand is key to Kittner’s work in explaining clean energy alternatives. “You want to distill things as simply as possible,” he says, “to be concise in your message. You need to be able to present the facts, to say ‘this is the methodology we use.’ But you also want to avoid jargon and use clear language that is common to everyone. And make it relevant for your audience.”

Kittner believes higher education has a key role to play in changing attitudes and behaviors around climate change. “It’s really important to have a public that is informed about climate change,” he says, “because these issues are critical, and they are affecting all of us, and future generations.”

He adds, “There is so much policy and advocacy going on right now that is not based on scientific evidence. I would rather see a transition to more science from all disciplines in policy work. Not just the hard sciences but also political science, humanities.” These disciplines, he says, could all help countries work together to set and keep ambitious climate goals.

Kittner’s hope for the future lies in what he has witnessed in the several years since he narrowed his undergraduate focus to environmental science, which he says used to be considered “kind of a weird major.”

“Now I see lots of undergraduate students, even high school students, getting involved in environmental science. It’s so inspiring.”

Technology, too, has changed a great deal since Kittner’s days as a high school student in Raleigh, where he saw urban sprawl creeping ever closer to the beloved state park where he logged his cross-country miles.

“It’s not that technology alone is going to solve our problems,” says Kittner. “There are social disruptions that need to happen, behavior changes. But I think the confluence of all of these things—we’re at a very critical moment and there are enough students studying this now, we actually could make a difference.”

Noah Kittner is an inspiring example of how higher ed continues to lead on the climate challenge - not only when it comes to innovative, cutting-edge research, but also when it comes to shaping climate policy and communications. Kittner's recommendations for effectively translating technical, academic research into relevant and impactful climate communications for everyone are spot on. By leading on climate research and solutions, higher ed is an important ally in the fight for climate mitigation.