Sleepwalking in times of climate injustice

Making it on time for my class is a lost battle. I’ve been trying to return to the Netherlands for two days now, through multiple train delays. However, I’m still committed to minimising my carbon footprint. I want to take this train.

I take pride in the fact that my university, more often than not, reminds me of its mission to become a climate-neutral university through the reduction of water use, energy efficiency, and increase in the university’s own energy production. At the same time, however, I can’t help but ponder over the cruel irony of these measures.

Because they alone are not enough. Becoming a climate-neutral institution entails much more than becoming a climate-neutral physical space. Banal slogans like ‘heating down, sweatshirt on’ will not do it. Becoming a climate-neutral institution means investing in your core business: research and education.

Becoming a climate-neutral institution means investing in your core business: research and education

While we’ve seen some steps towards gaining research independence from fossil companies, the discussion around higher education has remained largely oblivious to the fact that climate change is not only literally killing us, but also exacerbating existing social inequities.

How many of us have redesigned our courses to incorporate readings related to the fact that certain communities are disproportionally impacted and have been made even more vulnerable through climate change? How many courses are currently offered at the intersection of sustainability, social justice, and climate activism? ​​

How many of students’ projects are situated within local contexts and are aimed toward serving disadvantaged communities? How many (minor) programmes are designed through a truly interdisciplinary and intersectional approach to support not only understanding, but also actions that address the interlocking inequities of the climate crisis?

The goal really should not be to teach our already-expert students what climate change is

A quick search on Ocasys leaves me feeling that we are sleepwalking our way into the climate apocalypse. While a few related courses are offered, these focus on raising awareness, and are probably contributing even further to our students’ climate anxiety.

The goal really should not be to teach our already-expert students what climate change is and how grim the future looks, but to create a resilient and just society through activism-based climate education.

An example of this is a research proposal I found myself working on with colleagues across faculties at the intersection of biodiversity, public health, sustainability, and social justice, that targets disadvantaged local communities: a five-year long, multi-million euro activist research.

It’s only through such work that transcends disciplinary boundaries and puts justice at the forefront that we can lead the way toward more sustainable futures instead of preparing students for a future world that actually won’t exist.




  1. Because we teach science, not political activism. Things like ‘Social Justice’, ‘Climate Justice’ and so forth are political constructs and should not be the core outcomes of any compulsory course unit, as one could argue it’s a form of political indoctrination. However, a scientific and ethical reflection on climate change would be absolutely perfect, as individuals can then draw conclusions according to their own worldviews.

    • Much as I appreciate these columns, I tend to agree with ‘collega’ here. Of course science has a huge responsibility towards society, but that responsibility primarily lies in developing knowledge and understanding – which may well include a deeper theoretical understanding of different conceptions of justice, an empirical analysis of how various forms of injustice may hang together, and so on. History teaches us that scientists should be wary of aligning themselves too much with any particular political cause. That said, I’m not sure a ‘quick search on Ocasys’ will tell you a lot about what people actually do or do not address in their courses; in my own teaching I do explicitly address such issues, but this is never visible in the formal course descriptions (nor would I want it to be).


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