College, climate change, and preparing our kids for the worst case scenario

Is there any point in going to an elite college if climate change alters everything we know about life in 30 years?

Published March 30, 2019 10:00AM (EDT)


Numbers have a way of dragging even modest college dreams down to earth. The six figures required for four-years of tuition. Bracingly high median SATs. Interest rates for federal loans. But there's a new number that could prove to be a far more potent dream-crusher for future collegians: 1.5.

That's the increase in Celsius degrees scientists now believe will warm the planet enough to cause "catastrophic global effects," bringing drought, food shortages, and massive refugee crises that dramatically alter life on earth. (That sort of puts ACT scores in perspective.)

Here's a little more math: that catastrophic situation most scientists say would require warming of two degrees and take decades to reach, could well begin wreaking global havoc at 1.5 degrees, which could arrive as soon as 2030. Meaning, an 11th grader, like my daughter and her cohorts in the college Class of 2024, could be entering adulthood in the last days of global normalcy. Should we stop pretending otherwise?

If you had 10 or even 20 years before everything changed in an unknowable but existentially disruptive way, would you — should you — spend a chunk of that time on campus? And if yes, would you then want to spend another ten years paying for it? Anyone who believes in the validity of science — and let's hope our college-bound students do—understands that the catastrophic results of our warming planet will create world-wide food shortages, a refugee crisis of a scale unknown in modern history, and global unrest, all of which will play out in ways that make a mockery of whether you minor in marketing or Mandarin, a new future is coming and it's indifferent to whether you superscore the ACT.

Sorry. Didn't mean to be a buzzkill. Should we go back to talking about homecoming weekend?

This was supposed to be fun. Visits to leafy New England campuses, poring over thick college guidebooks, dreamy, bright-side talks about majors and dorm life and parents' weekends. Talking to your kid about college is an act of stubborn optimism. It supposes a rosy forecast of not just the next five years, but beyond (It's also a privilege that remains too far out of reach for too many people, but that's another story). College is a downpayment on a fulfilling and promising life. But it supposes a measure of consistency — that the fundamentals of your student's life and yours will not be altered too drastically. But it assumes a certain resilience of the status quo: going to college assumes some relative peace and global stability. Are we naive in pretending we can still make that assumption?

At the very least, we should start asking ourselves what kind of college graduates this changed world is going to need. Maybe there is an educational panic button, or to put in terms that high school students know most intimately, a Low Power mode, where students take a lot less art history and semiotics and lot more EMT training or forestry or ecology. What good is unpacking Derrida or Virginia Woolf , when the sea levels are overtaking the coasts, most of the Western states are on fire, and a billion starving people are roaming the globe in search of sustenance? Why study Shakespeare when you can learn to grow drought-resistant crops or manage a trauma center or teach transcendental meditation as pain management. Anything to counter the stresses that are certainly on the way.

Or do we just forge on and visit the colleges and take the tests and buy sweatshirts at the college bookstore and carry on in the face of these planet altering changes?

And don't we have an obligation to warn our students about the potential folly of pursuing a four-year bachelor's degree? College can offer the richest, most carefree, happiest times of a person's life and there's value in that alone. Maybe enough value to ignore the cost and obvious short-sightedness of going ahead and pursuing a degree when everything you know about the future is likely to be upended.

The debt alone is prohibitive enough. A student graduating from a university in 2024 and borrowing just half of tuition at an out-of-state public school rate would be $100,000 or more. Plus interest. Should her last decade on pre-climate changed earth be spent paying off student loans? On the upside, after a total collapse of the global banking system, maybe she won't need to pay them back. And even if the banks persist, roach-like until the bitter end, what's a lousy credit score matter when there's nothing to buy, no apartments to rent, no cars to finance?

And if she does go to college what then? If she's lucky, she'll have a decade or two as a gainfully employed adult. But those are dues-paying years, a decade of more learning, essentially an apprenticeship with benefits. It's simplistic, but the first third of your American life is a downpayment on the two-thirds to come. Until your 20s, if you're lucky, your existence is structured around earning the tools to contribute something useful, bettering yourself at something so you can be trusted with responsibilities and resources and some measure of agency. And only then, are you offered the chance to prove yourself: as an intern or assistant or a resident or the line cook, until you eventually take your place at the table. By then that table may have been broken down and used for firewood or as a barricade or an ad hoc floatation device. Wouldn't she be better off bumming around a surf town or on a hedonistic, decades-long Coachella, or volunteering to make others lives' more livable?  

Whatever the prescription it'll require the one thing parents are deeply, innately unprepared for: delivering bad news to their kids. It's almost an affront to the hopeful boosterism of parenting. "I love you. Have fun! And don't forget about the impending doom!"

Diminished futures aren't ever inspiring, but news of them can be crippling when your just striking out on your own. Just when your child begins drafting a roadmap of his or her life, you'll be the one to tell them the map will soon be worthless, that it's a map to a place that's soon to be unrecognizable. You get to tell them that the timeline shifted and that the bad news future just got a lot closer. Or maybe, more likely, they know this better than we do.

"Good morning, Class of 2024, the world as you know may be over soon…."

The future got closer recently. The forecast of climate change got pushed up.

If the 1.5 degrees planetary temperature increase wreaks the havoc and disorder that climate scientists predict it will and not the two degrees that was the previous and terrifying benchmark then the monumental shifts and global ruination will begin in 2030 and not 2050 as previously predicted. Given all this, should a decade between college and this terrifying unknown shift be spent putting that shiny new bachelor's degree in grad school or as someone's assistant or grinding it out in some start up? Maybe. Because work even at the bottom of the ladder is its own reward and the friendships you make there will likely end up being the deepest, most simpatico, and hilarious bonds of your life. But who knows what that life will be like? There's an unknown coming and it's unlike any we've ever seen and all we know is it's not gonna be good.

So kid, the good news is you may not have to bother going through childbirth or the hassles of home ownership or even mowing the lawn, but you should go learn to grow drought resistant crops or just spend a few years lying on the beach or going to every music festival she can? Seeing every Broadway show or working at a relief organization?

And if college is preparing students for intellectual and professional fulfillment on this still mostly functioning planet, how do we adjust to knowing that world and that functionality, is certain to be upended?

Where your kid might want to go to college, the academic, social, and academic possibilities spread ahead like planning a once in a lifetime vacation or looking for a home.

ACT vs. SAT. Public vs. Private. In-state vs. Out-of-State. On campus or off.  These are the things we talk about when we talk to kids abouts about going to college.

The prevailing idea in choosing a college (or in even choosing to go to college at all) has been that you don't go to college to get a job but you go to learn, to expand your world, and take some important steps, and messy missteps, toward figuring out what kind of life you want to pursue — doing what and with whom and where. All that seems a little naive, even precious, given all we know and don't about what's to come. The future is a lot less uncertain than we would all like to think.

By Mark Healy

Mark Healy is a sometime writer and former magazine editor (GQ, Men's Journal, Rolling Stone, et al). He is now the Editor-in-Chief at Ceros, a creative software company. @markhealy22

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