At This University, Studying Climate Change Is Now a Graduation Requirement
Last month, the University of California at San Diego announced a new graduation requirement: a climate-change course.
Climate change describes the human-caused shifts in the earth’s global temperatures. As concern over the climate crisis has ramped up, many colleges have created majors in climate-change studies and incorporated more climate content into the curriculum. Columbia University created a dedicated climate school, which the institution bills as the first of its kind, in 2021. But UC-San Diego is among the first colleges to make climate studies compulsory for completing a degree.
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Last month the University of California at San Diego announced a new graduation requirement: a climate-change course.
Climate change encompasses the human-caused shift in the earth’s temperature, which has contributed to rising sea levels, an increase in extreme weather events, and worsening wildfires.
As concern over the climate crisis has ramped up, many colleges have created majors in climate-change studies and incorporated more climate content into the curriculum. Columbia University created a dedicated climate school, which the institution bills as the first of its kind, in 2021.
But UC-San Diego is among the first colleges to make climate studies compulsory for completing a degree.
The new requirement is “designed to empower our students with the knowledge and skills needed to confront the urgent global challenge of climate change,” according to a news release from UC-San Diego. The university did not respond to a request for comment.
It will take effect for students who start at the university next fall; transfer students are exempt. Over the next few months, faculty members from an array of disciplines can submit courses as candidates to fulfill the new requirement.
The requirement does not increase the number of credit hours required for graduation, as the approved courses will overlap with other general-education and major requirements.
Research suggests that making climate change a required subject for everyone could soften the skepticism of doubters. A 2016 analysis of Gallup polls found that a college education tends to strengthen liberal students’ belief in the causes and consequences of rising temperatures, yet conservative students leave college with the same or decreased belief in climate change.
Those attitudes could stem from the fact that conservative students are less likely to take courses about climate change, according to a survey from a 2018 study. The study also found that a third of conservative students who did take a climate-change class left the course with a stronger belief in climate change.
“That indicates that it’s really important to have some kind of climate education required in the curriculum, because students who are not really open to the science on this may avoid taking the courses,” said David J. Hess, professor of sociology at Vanderbilt Universityand lead author of the study.
Dickinson College, in Pennsylvania, has required a sustainability course as a graduation requirement since 2015. There isn’t one specific sustainability course that everyone takes. Instead, faculty members can propose courses within their department that incorporate sustainability into the curriculum. There’s a class in such disparate fields as economics, biology, and gender studies.
Dickinson opted for this route instead of creating a separate sustainability department and major because it wanted every student to benefit from learning more about sustainability across the curriculum, said Lindsey Lyons, director of sustainability learning at Dickinson’s Center for Sustainability Education.
What to Watch For
Instead of creating a list of course options across departments to satisfy a graduation requirement, colleges could also develop a multidisciplinary, entry-level course on climate change.
But this can be a “really heavy lift” for colleges, Hess said, especially if it’s required for every student to take. Ideally, the faculty who teach it would need to “have knowledge not only of the science, but of the policy, and then the historical and cultural variation in this. And that’s really hard to get together,” he added.
Lyons also serves as a consultant for other colleges that want to add a sustainability or climate-change requirement. She’s noticed that it becomes more challenging for a college when the required climate classes are all housed within an environmental-studies department.
“It puts pressure on that department to perform, to be able to accommodate everyone,” she said, and can cause tension if students pursuing a major get priority over nonmajor students trying to satisfy a graduation requirement.
Hess hopes more colleges will start adding climate-change requirements to some aspect of the curriculum. But this is more likely to happen at small liberal-arts colleges and public universities in blue states. “If you’re at a red-state public university, that gets a little harder to do,” he said. “Maybe a lot harder.”