How can universities teach more students more about climate change?

Research and blog by Hollie Ryan, Isadora Ferreira and Kate Raworth

Many universities recognise the crucial role that they can play in raising awareness and understanding of climate change amongst their students. We wanted to learn about the different ways in which this is being done so in late October we crowdsourced examples, via Twitter, of different approaches being taken.

Based on the many examples shared with us, we have drawn up five broad approaches, ranging from narrow to broad in scope.

    1. Focused Degree Programmes: degrees focused specifically on teaching the complex problems and solutions to climate change.
    2. Focused Researched Centres: research centres dedicated to understanding and solving the complex problems the world faces as a result of climate change.
    3. Optional Modules and Extra Qualifications: additional learning which can be undertaken by both students and staff to understand climate change.
    4. University-wide Integrated Initiatives: integrating climate-change awareness in teaching across the whole higher-education institute, reaching various disciplines and departments.
    5. Trans-university Integrated Initiatives: externally led integration of climate-change awareness into university teaching, and collaboration between universities.

What follows below – and in our more detailed report and database – is a listing, not a ranking: we have not assessed the efficacy of the individual initiatives, nor of the different approaches. It is also illustrative, not exhaustive, including only those initiatives that we were made aware of during our phase of Twitter crowdsourcing. And it focuses only on ways of addressing climate change through teaching, not across all university operations, such as divestment and energy efficiency measures (for this wider assessment in the UK, see the People and Planet University League Tables).

1. Focused Degree Programmes: various universities have created dedicated degree programmes focused on the importance of sustainable development and tackling climate change, focusing on the key issues, potential changes and solutions.

The University of Warwick is a key example of this, offering a BASc Global Sustainable Development, both as a single honours and joint degree. The Joint Honours stream offers the chance to combine the unique interdisciplinary approach of GSD with a growing amount of conventional degree programmes including Politics, Economics, Biology, Psychology and History. The department employ a problem-based learning approach, introducing students to critical issues such as climate change and social justice, asking them to propose innovative solutions to these complex problems.

The University of Groningen, in the Netherlands, designed a BSc programmed based on the UN Sustainable Development Goals, with a focus on the ethical and philosophical context of global and climate change issues. The MSc in Disaster Risk Management and Climate Change Adaptation from Lund University, in Sweden, offers a mix of practical and theoretical learning on climate change, with a strong focus on adaptation. The programme has an unique opportunity to conduct research for their Master’s thesis with public, NGO and private organisations in various parts of the world.

2. Focused Research Centres: universities have also set up dedicated institutes to research climate change and its impacts.

The Environmental Change Institute at the University of Oxford was established to organise and promote interdisciplinary research on the nature, causes and impact of environmental change and to contribute to the development of management strategies for coping with future environmental change.

Similarly, the TERI School of Advanced Studies in New Delhi, was the first school in India to dedicate itself to the study of the environment, energy, natural sciences and sustainable development.

The Centre for Sustainable Fashion is a research centre of the University of the Arts London, based at London College of Fashion. Research focuses on human and ecological resilience as a lens for design in fashion’s artistic and business practices.

3. Optional Modules and Extra Qualifications: offering extra qualifications and optional modules is another way universities are incorporating climate change into teaching, free and open to students of all disciplines.

Several universities in the UK have created optional models. University of Surrey designed a free course open to all its students based on the three pillars of sustainability (economic, social and environmental). Students can apply this learning to solve real-life case studies on climate change issues. On the other hand, Bristol University offers “Bristol Futures Optional Units” for under undergraduates. In 2018/19, the units available on climate change focused on the interlink between climate change and cities, sustainable development and sustainability and inequality.

In the Netherlands, the Hanze University of Applied Sciences developed the Futures Literacy, within UNESCO, to address future societal challenges. Their approach is through learning by doing and enable participants to reveal, reframe and rethink their assumptions about the future and climate change.

4. University-wide Integrated Initiatives: integrating climate change teaching and initiatives into broader university initiatives, aimed not only to teaching students, but also staff has also been carried by institutions across the globe.

In the UK, Manchester Metropolitan University has created several initiatives, from the Big Impact programme – a series of events, activities, learning on climate change, available to their staff, students and local community members –  to the Education for Sustainable Development (ESD) Group, consisting of staff and students who work to embed and communicate ESD activities and projects on climate change and other sustainability issues. Academics and students can undertake projects with the Environment Team and the Estates Directorate linking these to their coursework, placements and research activities.

In the Netherlands, Maastricht University created a Green Office to develop  bottom-up initiatives and facilitates cooperation between departments to achieve its sustainability goals and raise awareness/collaborative thinking about sustainability challenges, including climate change. This model has now spread to 27 higher education institutions across six countries. The University for Peace, is particularly interesting as it focuses its teaching of climate change from  both an ecological and social perspectives.

5. Trans-University Integrated Initiatives: universities working in alliances to integrate and foster climate teaching across the education system.

In the UK, more than 20 universities have taken part in the NUS Responsible Futures, which created an accreditation mark and framework to assist these institutions in helping students to gain knowledge regarding climate change and broader sustainability issues. Another British example is the The Carbon Literacy Project, originating in, offers everyone who works, lives or studies in the Manchester and wider area, a day’s of teaching about climate change and carbon emissions. Its differential is that it highlights the role of individual in fostering change while supporting individuals to cascade effect on a much wider audience.

Forty-eight low-income countries across Africa and Asia have developed the The Least Developed Countries (LDC) Universities Consortium on Climate Change (LUCC). This is an unique network of Southern universities to develop common research projects and implement teaching and training programs in different climate change topics.

*

Surveying these five diverse approaches, it is clear that universities can raise awareness of sustainability and climate change in many different ways, and that every university can find an approach that fits its circumstances.

The examples prompt many questions. Can and should universities integrate climate change into all their subjects teaching? Should more focused courses, or wider education campaigns, be pursued? Should universities work in strategic networks or work on developing their own initiatives? Which approaches have the greatest lasting impact with students? And which universities are doing the best job in each of the five approaches? These are just a few questions that the findings prompt.

We hope that this crowd-sourced survey will serve to inform and inspire – please share this blog summary, and the far more detailed report and database that we have created widely. We will not be adding further examples or categories to this set, but anyone is welcome to use both the report and the database as the basis for further research.

20 thoughts on “How can universities teach more students more about climate change?

  1. Chris Jansen
    7 December 2018 at 11:14

    Yet in the Economist : The World in 2019 page 118 : Matters of currency , it is argued ( predicted?) that research will definitely not focus on climate and sustainability in this context.

  2. 7 December 2018 at 11:23

    Hi Kate,
    I am 44 and have just returned to university to a fabulous course at Radboud University in the Netherlands. It is a one year Masters course in Environment and Society including governance, environmental economics, bio-economy and a whole load of electives that you can take. Plus a thesis and work placement. The great thing is that the course is now in English and is three times popular this year than last year. Interest is growing!

    Radboud is in an eastern city called Nijmegen, the city itself is also very active on environmental issues. 65% of workers cycle to work!!

    We are learning about Rotmans, Loorbach – Shove, wonderful wonderful work about transitions and changing habits.

  3. 7 December 2018 at 11:40

    University is where everyone becomes the same. Where everybody gets the same thinking borders programmed. Where everyone gets shaped into the same puzzle pieces. The same problem solving thinking patterns.

    These pieces will NEVER fit the big puzzle of the Universe.

    In order to complete the process of becoming whole again, we need UNIQUE pieces. Everybody who is their own.

    Create your own curriculum, with the internet we have this beautiful opportunity. Now is the time. Listen to your heart, it will show you the way. Use you mind, it will give you new ideas.

  4. Paul Havemann
    7 December 2018 at 11:45

    Kate thanks for this as always.

    Is it not time to talk about Planetary Crisis Studies – and focus on all the planetary boundaries that we are trespassing over into unsafe / ecocidal operating spaces?

    Climate change per se, like ‘global warming’ are phrases that conceal more than they reveal about what turbo capitalism is doing to the planet….

    One wonders where the critique of the global food system is being taught with curriculum at agricultural colleges and in commerce schools geared to the growth paradigm and industrial-chemical agriculture. One hopes university curriculum and research includes the epistemicide of traditional knowledge about agroecology, the relentless homicide of environmental defenders fighting to sustain peasant agriculture, etc etc.. and de-growth and the destruction of the commons everywhere.

  5. 7 December 2018 at 14:07

    Please see the amazing work of the Sustainaibilitj Institute at the University of New Hampshire (USA), and how it has helped launch new majors, integrate sustainability into course content, launch networks for sustainable food systems, etc. https://sustainableunh.unh.edu

  6. Dichasium
    7 December 2018 at 14:10

    Yes, education on what is wrong is essential if there is a future, but action now is paramount. Leaders are not doing it fast enough. We have little way to force it. Extinction Rebellion is trying hard and going global. Let’s protest when/where we can with Kate’s Doughnut diagram very visible and a 12 years countdown diagram of some sort eh?

  7. 7 December 2018 at 14:20

    Here is a link to Boston College’s Environmental Studies Major:
    https://www.bc.edu/bc-web/schools/mcas/sites/envstudies.html/.

    Hope this helps.

  8. 7 December 2018 at 14:42

    I’m surprised there were no entries for any Western Hemisphere countries, from Canada to Argentina. I’ve not conducted a survey, but a quick Google search came up with a number of initiatives, including http://www.climateaction.org/news/13-top-universities-form-climate-change-coalition — the universities involved are: Arizona State University, California Institute of Technology, Tecnológico de Monterrey, La Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México, Ohio State University, State University of New York, University of British Columbia, University of California, University of Colorado, University of Maryland, University of New Mexico, University of Toronto, and University of Washington. This list is just a starter. Perhaps worth more research given your important interest in this and other doughnut-economics related issues.

  9. Peter M
    7 December 2018 at 15:30

    I would have thought climate change/sustainability/global boundaries are reasonably understood ;surely the big problem [the road block]is getting politicians to take real action which goes beyond their period in office . In economic terms and concerns for the result of the next election who wants to be advocating a no growth but quality of life message?
    We all want to hang onto our current way of life and living standard regardless [for most people] despite our understanding of the impact of climate change.

    Okay businesses will change if it gives them longer term market advantage. It would be ideal if the articles of association for company included “sustainability” as one of their primary goals.

  10. 7 December 2018 at 18:01

    This is interesting but I don’t think it is enough to get this thinking to students (of economics or otherwise) though that is of course essential. But in order to get new ideas like Doughnut Economics to be accepted by the public (and that is necessary too), it would be good to know about open access courses that ordinary folk could follow. I’m thinking Open University at the highest level and maybe some less expensive options for others.
    Maybe creating such a course to be followed on an internet-based platform would be a good start. I wonder whether there is anyone (or any institution) out there that would take that on.
    I’d be up for following such a course.

  11. 7 December 2018 at 20:45

    Good to have dedicated degrees but the ingrained accepted wisdom of traditional economics and the golden goose of GDP is so pervasive. Cross/disciplinary education – if it can be pulled off – may be the only way to build a critical mass of the people that will be building the future.
    That’s a simpler message and maybe should be a school PHSE subject.

  12. David Garlick
    7 December 2018 at 21:50

    There needs to be a financial reward for doing so. Sadly

  13. 8 December 2018 at 04:12

    Thank you, very useful. We have an approach that could qualify as a 6th category. Happy to share and would love comments, if the research is still open.

    1. Neil Lanham
      8 December 2018 at 11:11

      Kate
      My book on practicable Football performance economics should be published in the New Year. It will be entitled Football: the shortcut to winning. It concerns the patterns (as Einstein said) of chance that occur again and again for all teams everywhere however they play. Every team that I worked for had success far beyond their expectations and the bookmakers paid for my Elizabethan home. I worked for the England team but the fun was in rising from the 4th Division which happened 3 times.
      The economics through statistics are exceedingly interesting for as Florence Nightingale said ‘the decision makers were statistically illiterate’. It changed my life and business. If I do not receive a reply from you please send no more to me as at 80 I now have no time to waste but would be delighted to discuss it with you as there are many lessons to be learned.

  14. Gordon Pearson
    8 December 2018 at 13:19

    Universities and business schools play a fundamental role in developing and promoting neoliberal economics which has come to dominate the various components of organised money including government itself. Teaching the doughnut rather than the neoliberal rubbish would also be a huge contributor

  15. 8 December 2018 at 20:22

    Kate,
    It is great that you are promoting those educational institutions that are ensuring that students and global citizens are well versed in the issues surrounding climate change and the many ecological and social systems that are being impacted.

    I met you in Boulder at the Regenerative Future Summit in 2017 and am still working at Viridis Graduate Institute. (We spoke about James Hillman and power of image).

    Viridis Graduate Institute offers degree programs (M.A. and D.A) in Ecopsychology and Environmental Humanities. Our mission is:
    Viridis Graduate Institute, a nonprofit distance-learning institution, offers a distinctive education in ecopsychology and environmental humanities designed to prepare graduates with the professional and collaborative competence needed to respond creatively to the challenging problems affecting our ecological and social systems.

    Our programs bridge the sciences and humanities and attend to the psychology and narratives that underpin human behaviors that persist in degrading and destructive actions. Our students are deeply concerned about the effects of climate change and our alumni are dedicated to fostering change in our social and cultural systems. By the way, “Doughnut Economics” is required reading in our course called “Business Ecologies” and would invite you to participate as a guest lecturer anytime!

    You can find more information about VGI at viridisinstitute.org or I am available to discuss our unique approach to supporting our species in reversing the effects of climate change and the practices that perpetuate it. Our president, Dr. Lori Pye would also be happy Viridis. We are enthusiastic about our work and our unique and timely programs.

    Wishing you a wonderful holiday and New Year!

  16. Suez Jacobson
    8 December 2018 at 22:34

    Some of your readers might be interested in a recently published article at http://jesuithighereducation.org/
    Look for
    Economics education
    Reimagining Econ. 101 – Indigenous, Buddhist, Jesuit, Secular Education
    Susan Jacobson

    And here’s a film that some might find valuable
    wildhopefilm.com

  17. R. Davids
    9 December 2018 at 21:21

    I am starting a Green Markeeters initiative in the Netherlands, by which we want to encourage markeeters and communication experts to address the importance of consuming on a sustainable way. And inspire students and professionals to incorporate sustainable goals in their marketing and communication campaigns. I am looking for benchmarks in other countries about “Green Marketing” initiatives and ways to encourage governments to change the way we teach marketing and communication. Who can give me any support?

  18. 10 December 2018 at 14:57

    Hi Kate,
    Check out the MSLS programme in Karlskrona, Sweden
    https://www.bth.se/eng/msls/
    Warmly,
    Roy

  19. Hans Eickhoff
    13 December 2018 at 15:54

    Shall we actually call it climate change? Or better global warming, climate crisis or climate catastrophe? It looks as if the term “climate change” has been created to induce us into the delusion that this is something physiological and natural, not menacing at all?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.