American democracy is in crisis. So too is the planetary climate. These crises are connected: America’s political dysfunction has both delayed the adoption of popular climate policies and fed a widespread sense that government is out of tune with the people. But lessons from the country’s past indicate how higher education could help address both crises.
During the gravest democratic crisis the United States has ever faced, President Abraham Lincoln’s Republican Party made major investments in science and higher education that served to strengthen democracy and advance rural development. The early Republicans’ vision led to the pathbreaking land grant university system, which was created by the Morrill Acts of 1862 and 1890, the Hatch Act of 1887, and the Smith-Lever Act of 1914. Land grant colleges expanded access to higher education beyond the traditional elite and created broad, long-lasting economic benefits, measurably reflected in population growth and increased industrial productivity in their surrounding communities [Liu, 2015].
These investments also fostered networks of researchers and extension agents focused on advancing and leveraging science to solve problems facing rural communities. In the pre–World War II era especially, the cooperative extension system connected to land grant universities facilitated democratic engagement. It constituted “a new leaven at work in rural America,” in the words of two interwar observers, “bringing rural people together in groups for social intercourse and study, solving community and neighborhood problems…enriching the life and broadening the vision of rural men and women” [Smith and Wilson, 1930, p. 1].
The land grant university system—comprising land grant colleges, cooperative extension, and agricultural experimental stations—has been essential to the development of American agricultural technology and has played key roles in education and research related to environmental challenges such as soil and water resources conservation [Alston and Pardey, 1996; Headley, 1985].
The land grant paradigm of integrating broad-based education, use-inspired research, and sustained community engagement provides a model for how higher education could mobilize to tackle the climate crisis—conducting the science needed to inform climate mitigation and adaptation challenges and working with communities to put science and technology into action as they tackle those challenges. Now is the time to create a new system of “climate grant” universities that extends the land grant model for the 21st century.
Mobilizing Universities for Transformational Change
A number of public and land grant universities are already experimenting in bringing the land grant model to bear on the climate crisis. Rutgers University, for example, hosts the New Jersey Climate Change Resource Center (NJ CCRC). Established by the state in 2020 to support application of actionable science for mitigation and adaptation efforts, NJ CCRC builds off more than a decade of work at Rutgers in use-inspired climate research and extension while also leveraging the strengths of other academic institutions across New Jersey. It has developed decision support tools to help planners assess climate risk; hosted a broad suite of webinars for stakeholders in government, nongovernmental organizations, and the private sector; and launched a graduate student Climate Resilience Corps to support municipal climate resilience planning.
At the University of Connecticut, another land grant institution, the Connecticut Institute for Resilience and Climate Adaptation (CIRCA) works with communities to provide practical solutions for climate change problems. In cooperation with state agencies and municipalities, CIRCA is developing regional coastal resilience plans and pursuing projects related to coastal hazards, living shorelines, and water quality. Along the Gulf Coast, meanwhile, the Deep South Center for Environmental Justice has organized the Gulf Equity Consortium, which links historically Black colleges and universities—including several land grant and public universities—with community-based organizations, like the Lower 9th Ward Center for Sustainable Engagement and Development, to tackle environmental harms that fall disproportionately on Black communities.
These programs are important experiments, but they are small relative to the scale of the global climate crisis. On the basis of current estimates, U.S. greenhouse gas emissions each year cause about $300 billion of damage globally through a broad variety of channels, including harmful impacts to human health, agriculture, and coastal property [Interagency Working Group on the Social Cost of Greenhouse Gases, 2021]. The annual federal investment in the land grant system today is about $1 billion and is matched by a comparable amount of state funding, whereas climate-focused land grant–style extension amounts to a handful of projects on roughly the million-dollar scale [Croft, 2019]. Leveraging the full potential of higher education to help communities tackle the climate crisis will require investments on a scale comparable to those the United States has long made in the land grant system.
The United States already makes substantial investments in climate research: Across all federal agencies, the U.S. Global Change Research Program (USGCRP) has an annual research budget of about $2.4 billion, a significant portion of which flows through research universities. But only a sliver of this amount is invested in work that links science and action in the manner that the land grant system has done so successfully in agriculture. A recent National Academies report recognized this gap, calling upon USGCRP to “accelerate the integration and communication of research on coupled human and natural systems to advance understanding of effective options for managing urgent climate change risks” [National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, 2021, p. 31].
A nationwide system of climate grant universities, with at least one in every state, could play a crucial role in helping states, communities, and businesses mitigate and adapt to global change.
Local, Credible, and Equitable
Wealthy jurisdictions like New York City have access to the best available science to inform decisionmaking through well-established institutions like the New York City Panel on Climate Change. Smaller and less wealthy jurisdictions do not. A climate grant system that, like the cooperative extension system, places a climate agent in every county will democratize access to climate knowledge. Linking the expertise of the research community to local problems, climate agents will facilitate science-informed, community deliberations about how to mitigate and adapt to climate change.
A national climate extension network will address local-scale gaps in the U.S. climate knowledge system created by the unequal availability of climate services. As the Fourth National Climate Assessment noted, “adaptation entails a continuing risk management process; it does not have an end point” [Lempert et al., 2018, p. 1,310]. Climate services, which provide climate information to assist decisionmaking by individuals and organizations, aim to address the iterative need for climate risk information. “Such services require appropriate engagement along with an effective access mechanism and must respond to user needs,” according to the World Meteorological Organization’s Global Framework for Climate Services.
The United States does not currently have broadly available climate services. Federally funded efforts like NOAA’s Regional Integrated Sciences and Assessments and the U.S. Geological Survey’s Climate Adaptation Science Centers point in this direction but are too small to address the full scope of need. Private climate services are too costly for many communities and are subject to limited quality assurance. Climate grant universities will provide locally rooted, scientifically credible, and equitably available climate services to communities across the country.
A Flexible Approach
Efforts to establish a network of climate grant universities will face several challenges. The first is securing adequate funding: Supporting use-inspired climate education, research, and extension on a scale comparable to the land grant system will require roughly $1 billion in annual federal support, as well as comparable levels of state support. This is a relatively small amount, however, compared with the cost of climate change and with the scales of funding currently being discussed for infrastructure investment. And this investment will serve multiple purposes, including providing climate services, advancing scientific understanding, and developing a workforce skilled in making climate science usable for decisionmakers. A bargain compared with single-purpose investments, this funding will bring manifold returns.
A second challenge involves delineating the climate grant system’s ties to federal agencies. One approach to building such a system would be to use the existing land grant system as a foundation and to expand appropriations under the Hatch, Smith-Lever, and related acts to fund research and extension activities that support community decisionmaking. This approach has significant advantages: The institutional structures for integrating science and action already exist, and land grant universities enjoy broad bipartisan support. Indeed, the Climate Stewardship Act, recently reintroduced in both the Senate and the House, would substantially expand multiple elements of U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) research funding, including support for land grants, with a focus on mitigation, adaptation, and nature-based solutions for agriculture and communities. This legislation might provide a vehicle for building a climate grant system atop the land grant system.
On the other hand, existing expertise in use-inspired climate scholarship and extension does not necessarily reside solely or even primarily at land grant institutions in every state; rather, this expertise may sometimes be concentrated in other universities or research institutions. This variation might call for a more flexible approach, akin to the way land grant programs were initially established, that provides block grants for climate services to states, allowing them to choose where to deploy the funds.
In addition, the need for climate services is not limited to the agricultural sector; such issues as human health and coastal resilience may be top priorities in many states. This is not an inherent problem for land grant institutions, which have always had a broad mission of community development extending beyond the agricultural sector. But situating a climate grant system within USDA could create incentives to focus primarily on agricultural systems, even in states where the primary climate risks are not to agriculture. To avoid this narrowing effect, a climate grant system will need strong ties to all the federal agencies participating in USGCRP, not just USDA.
Ultimately, a mixed approach—expanding land grant climate funding while also providing flexible funds to states and working with USDA and existing land grants while also building interagency networks tying climate extension to multiple federal agencies—will address many concerns.
Investing in Action
In addition to federal and state funding and coordination, an effective climate grant system will require institutional commitment from participating universities. Like the land grant identity, the climate grant identity should become a core part of an institution’s identity.
Just as the Biden administration has recognized that climate change requires whole-of-government action, climate grant universities should commit to whole-of-university action to tackle the climate crisis, mobilizing all their components rather than just environmentally focused schools or institutes [Kopp, 2021]. They should reform tenure criteria to ensure that all faculty have incentives to work with stakeholders in linking science to action. They should also integrate into their curricula university-wide initiatives that bring undergraduate and graduate students into real-world climate problem-solving, as the NJ CCRC is doing on a small scale with its Climate Resilience Corps.
Two years ago, AGU called upon academic institutions and the government to “expand and prioritize their support for research, application, and knowledge dissemination to address the climate crisis.” A climate grant university network will do this equitably, at scale, and across the entire country. In a time of crisis comparable to that facing President Lincoln when he helped put in place the first building block of the land grant system, federal, state, philanthropic, and institutional investments in climate grant universities could help catalyze a more just, democratic, and sustainable future for decades to come.