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Rethinking the Social Role of Universities in Response to the Climate Emergency

Dr. Richard W. Miller, Creighton University

The human community is, according to a synthesis paper of leading climate scientists, in an absolutely unprecedented emergency. This situation raises serious questions for the mission of Catholic universities, in particular Catholic universities in the United States, which has the largest number of Catholic universities of any country in the world and which is responsible for 2.5 times the greenhouse gases of any country in the world.

Influenced by Vatican II‘s Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, the mission statements of contemporary Catholic universities in the US give weight not only to the pursuit of truth but also the promotion of justice. The latter is often seen as being realized through the education of students, not through directly challenging prevailing structures of evil and social agents that promote such structures. While universities have historically been concerned primarily with the pursuit of truth and the education of students the University of Central America [UCA] in the later part of the 20th century developed a model of a university, in the context of the great injustices of El Salvador, that emphasized the university as an agent of social outreach and social transformation.

This paper will argue that in light of the climate crisis contemporary Catholic universities in the US should look to the UCA as a model for rethinking their place and importance in society in an effort to be true to their two fold missions of the search for truth and the promotion of justice. I will then argue that secular universities can also draw upon the UCA as a model, albeit in a more limited way, because they play an important role in society and as large emitters of GHG emissions they have ethical duties to reduce emissions and to leverage their power in society to create social and political change.