In what promises to be a ground-breaking initiative in the battle against climate change, Stellenbosch University (SU) officially launched its School for Climate Studies – the first of its kind with faculty status in South Africa – on Thursday (29 July 2021).
The School will create transdisciplinary capacity to combine the climate-related knowledge systems of SU’s faculties, the public sector’s climate policies and initiatives, the private sector’s climate redress and innovation capacities and the social impact mission of SU in both academic and applied ways – all in support of the transition to a climate-resilient society and a low-carbon economy.
In addition, the School will conduct research, coordinate curricula development and facilitate postgraduate training, advice and consultancy as well as technology transfer in the multiple fields of climate studies. This will be achieved by engaging a network of researchers at SU and other universities, institutions and organisations in South Africa and abroad to actively collaborate on climate studies and their application. One such collaboration will be with the Global University Alliance on Climate (GUAC), which includes the universities of Oxford and Cambridge, Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), the University of California, Berkeley, and other leading universities across the world. SU is the only African member of GUAC at present.
In his opening address at the launch, Deputy Minister of Higher Education, Science and Technology Buti Manamela said: “A recent joint report by the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) emphasises the need for a new generation of scientists who are not only experts in their fields, but also able to think across multiple disciplines to identify synergies and innovate solutions to climate challenges.
“We now know with greater clarity that our economies and ecological systems are co-dependent and interacting. While human ingenuity is infinite, our natural resources are not. Ingenuity is needed now more than ever before to allow vibrant human societies to develop sustainably within a finite resource landscape.”
He said the new School for Climate Studies would add to the existing excellence and pool of training centres in the increasingly crucial field of climate change and its negative impact on the economy and society. “Focused studies on climate change are a positive step towards giving this issue the attention it deserves – a move away from dealing with it under the traditional umbrella of environmental studies or science. Direct benefits of this focused approach are the potential for new knowledge generation, the development of a new generation of well-trained climate scientists and students, as well as increased research outputs, including scientific evidence to support policy development, planning and general decision making,” said Manamela.
Prof Wim de Villiers, SU Rector and Vice-Chancellor, said establishing the School for Climate Studies would offer society a very urgent and necessary service. “Sometimes, it seems that we, as South Africans, tend to revert to the notion that only the major economies of the world are big offenders when it comes to our warming planet. But actually, as a major contributor to the emission of greenhouse gases on the African continent, South Africa cannot simply sit back and shrug off this mounting humanitarian crisis. As such, the School for Climate Studies, together with collaborating partners from all over the world, will have the capacity to contribute significantly to research and solutions in fighting climate change.”
SU’s Prof Guy Midgley, a global leader in biodiversity and global change science, said climate change presented an opportunity for the School to identify risks and harness the opportunities. “A 2018 World Economic Forum report identified extreme weather, natural disasters, water crises, the failure of climate change mitigation and adaptation, food crises and large-scale involuntary migration as the major risks to the global economy by virtue of their likelihood and impact. It is very obvious that these are all elements of the same problem − an overuse of the environment. So, we need to look at this holistically if we want to solve it. If we can get this right, we would be able to address a wide range of the top dreaded disasters.
“It is really about how we integrate two very complex systems – the ecological system and the economic system. For some reason, we prioritise the economic system; we feel that human well-being lies in economic well-being. This has led to the strip-mining of the world’s ecological system to support the economic system. We should reset the balance between the two.”
According to Prof Eugene Cloete, SU’s Deputy Vice-Chancellor: Research, Innovation and Postgraduate Studies, work on the development of new curricula (modules) for the School at both undergraduate and postgraduate levels is well under way.
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More about the School for Climate Studies
The vision of the School is to be a world-class institution for interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary climate and related studies in and for Africa, and to support and encourage research partnerships with other entities, both nationally and internationally. It has a broad mandate to work across all faculties, centres and institutes at SU, as well as with other national and international higher education institutions and public and private enterprises.
South Africa is a major contributor to greenhouse gases on the African continent. It has become essential to move towards a greener economy. SU has the expertise to lead the way through research and innovation, and has already done cutting-edge research on, for instance, renewable energy. Stellenbosch is also leading the field in the move towards a carbon-neutral university.
The School for Climate Studies at SU will engage in the following core activities:
1. Research and development
⦁ Consolidating and integrating current thinking on climate, particularly in Africa, including climate variability and climate change, and the multiple interactions between human socioeconomic and ecological systems and the climate system
⦁ Developing and implementing an innovative, Africa-focused research programme that responds to established and emerging issues so as to understand climate impacts as well as adaptation and mitigation responses, and thereby supports human climate resilience
⦁ Making available research results by means of publications, research papers, seminars, short courses and dissemination to relevant stakeholders, including the broader community
⦁ Obtaining, procuring and managing specialised equipment, software and facilities for climate studies so as to create the required platforms for data-intensive research and innovation
2. Learning and teaching
⦁ Facilitating and developing curricula, sharing climate training and learning expertise across multiple faculties at SU through undergraduate and postgraduate modules, and coordinating interfaculty climate training. The quality assurance of undergraduate and postgraduate modules will be the responsibility of the respective faculties.
⦁ Developing climate competence (monitoring, impacts and adaptation) through student research projects
⦁ Hosting climate workshops, short courses, training events, congresses and any other appropriate events, such as summer and winter schools
3. Collaboration, capacity building and consultancy
⦁ Strengthening and expanding current climate studies collaborations at SU
⦁ Facilitating new climate research partnerships and collaborations across SU’s faculties
⦁ Establishing new climate-related strategic partnerships and collaborations with other researchers and institutions in Southern Africa, the rest of Africa and further afield
⦁ Developing new academic capacity, career paths and infrastructure for climate studies at SU
⦁ Creating opportunities for students to gain work experience in leading national and international public and private entities engaged in fundamental and applied climate studies, while the entities benefit from having access to talented students
4. Commercialisation and social impact
⦁ Offering consultancy services to other departments and divisions at SU as well as to clients and partners outside SU, within the School’s capacity and the SU policy framework
⦁ Providing climate expertise to industry and other private and public organisations
⦁ Contributing to the development and application of climate-related technologies that address issues on the broader social agenda, such as diversity, inclusivity, poverty alleviation and job creation