Climate change calls for action – and universities need to step up

The UN’s Climate Change Conference in Glasgow (COP26) was inaugurated yesterday and there will now be some days with global focus on this important and crucial topic. Lately we have seen concrete evidence of climate change: Heat waves around the globe, with huge fires and shortage of water as a consequence. Storms and heavy rain in other places. Even Sweden has been exposed to the force of nature and weather.  

The step from natural disasters to serious effects on human health globally is shorter and more serious than many people are aware of.

The papers we publish today provide a strong scientific argument that the health dimensions of heat can no longer be overlooked.”

The quote above is from the editorial piece of The Lancet, published in August. It summarizes the current situation very well. There is no time to wait or hesitate. A study that the journal refers to, estimates that 1,7 million deaths worldwide in 2019 were linked to extreme heat and cold. The Lancet again:

What the health consequences of a hotter climate are and how extreme heat is managed will be two of the defining questions of this decade.”

Unicef and the organization Fridays for the future recently issued a data driven report entitled The climate crisis is a child rights crisis, which shows that 90% of the world’s children are exposed to at least two climate and environmental hazards, and that one child in two in the world lives in a country at extremely high climate risk.

Defining moment

In fact, this autumn could very well be a defining moment for the question of how we can meet the challenges that the climate change brings. The now ongoing COP26 will play a very important role when it comes to the future for the world we know.

IPCC, the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, earlier published its sixth assessment report. It addresses the most up-to-date physical understanding of the climate system and climate change – and once again we see overwhelming proof that actions must be made. And they must be made here and now.

Short time frame

In other words, the report contains no news. We already know that we have a short time frame to change the future, and the call for concrete actions – based on knowledge – is obvious. We have critically important work to do, and that includes the academia. In fact, the universities around the world need to step up in the effort to contribute evidence-based facts to decision- and policymakers – to strengthen, increase and accelerate the necessary action that is required.

Karolinska Institutet is one of the actors in this crucial mission. Our contribution is mainly in the field on how climate change affects people’s health and wellbeing. And let there be no doubt: The changing climate will affect human health both locally and on a larger, aggregated, scale. In fact, it is time to leave out the future tense. As The Lancet points out, climate changes already impact health. And significantly so.

More active part

KI has during the last years increased its efforts to take a more active part, aiming to influence the depressing development. The decision that I recently made to adopt KI’s Climate Strategy 2030 is one important step in this journey.

The climate strategy is a way of clarifying KI’s ambition in the climate area and is based on the Climate Framework, which KI has signed together with 37 other higher education institutions in Sweden. KI has undertaken to make efforts that are in line with the Paris Agreement and the so-called 1.5-degree target. For KI, this means driving the development of knowledge about climate change and health, including innovation for mitigating adverse effects on health, while at the same time minimizing our own negative impact on the climate.

International initiative

There is an international initiative for increased activity among the universities. The goal is to gather a thousand universities and engage a half million students in a worldwide manifestation for the climate.  

KI support this initiative and I urge KI-students, staff and others, to visit the web site about the one-day worldwide teach-in on climate solutions and justice in the transition.

Finally, together with Eivind Engebretsen and Anna Wahlberg, I wrote a chapter in the recently published book The responsive University and the Crisis in South Africa (ed. Chris Brink). In the text we discuss the responsibility the universities have to act on UN’s sustainable development goals. Our conclusion is that we have a double commitment: to contribute to scientific and technological development to optimise the use of resources across the globe but also to question and constantly criticize the same scientific and technological developments in order to counteract an overuse of natural and human resources.

These arguments and reasoning are also highly applicable when it comes to the effects of and measures against climate change.


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