Working Paper Series
The impact of universities on climate change:
a theoretical framework
By Tristan McCowan
Universities have a crucial role to play in addressing climate change, but the complex and multifaceted nature of the issue presents challenges for the traditional functioning of the institution. While there is a growing body of work on campus sustainability and climate issues in the curriculum, there is a need to understand more holistically the forms of influence that universities have on society and the environment. This paper puts forward a framework for understanding the impact of universities on climate change, involving four stages: the modalities of university action (education, knowledge production, public engagement, service delivery and campus operations); direct engagement with bridging actors; the broader influence on societal understandings and practices; and finally impact on the ecosphere. Specific pathways of impact are identified, involving either mitigation of or adaptation to climate change. This framework serves as an analytical tool to identify the trajectories of impact already in evidence, but also presents normative implications for the role of higher education institutions in addressing the current climate crisis.
McCowan, Tristan (2020) The impact of universities on climate change: a theoretical framework. Transforming Universities for a Changing Climate, Working Paper Series No. 1