‘Not Just a Science’ Vanderbilt University’s New Major Offers a New Way to Study Climate Change

Vanderbilt University
Vanderbilt University

When most people think about a degree in climate studies, they often picture something in the STEM field. And rightfully so, as most universities offer climate science majors that typically lead to degrees in engineering or economics.

But Vanderbilt University is changing that starting in Fall 2022 with the launch of its new interdisciplinary climate and environmental studies major.

“Climate change is really something that’s not just a science topic, it’s something that invokes,” said Jonathan Gilligan, associate professor of earth and environmental sciences.

“Science can tell us what’s happening, but to understand what people can do, people need to be talking about values and ethics. People need to be talking about how society works and how the political process works. It’s really important to have all these different perspectives coming into it.”

The topic of climate change continues to be controversial. Some people doubt its severity, while even the loudest climate activists have different perspectives on how to address it —  including the Vanderbilt professors who will be teaching this course. But as Gilligan told EcoWatch, providing a space for conflicting perspectives is kind of the point of these classes.

“We’re really hoping that we expose students to a lot of different ideas and the students will be able to then decide which ones they find more persuasive. And also they’ll be able to develop their own ideas,” Gilligan said. “I think one of the things we’re hoping is that we teach them to argue with us better.”

Gilligan said while Vanderbilt isn’t the first university to study climate change with an interdisciplinary approach, this program is unique because the humanities are not just a part of the program — they are the program.

“Studying literature, studying values and ethics is just as important,” Gilligan said. “When we were designing this, we really didn’t find any other programs that had that integration of bringing together all three parts of what a traditional liberal arts college has.”

While climate studies will be available as a major, its classes will be open to any student. Gilligan said that includes many introductory courses available for people who may be interested in learning more about climate studies and how it could play into their desired career path.

“We thought this would be really useful to have a major that students can take or get a solid introduction into the way that people with different kinds of training think about this. How does somebody in religious studies think about climate change? How does somebody in the History of Art think about climate change? How does somebody in sociology or economics or political science think about it, as well as how do scientists and engineers think about it,” Gilligan said.

Students in the new climate studies major can still expect to take a climate science course, as well as courses on climate and environmental studies in the social sciences, natural sciences, and humanities. According to Vanderbilt News, students will also get to take courses like 3D imaging and virtual reality communications and technical writing. Plus, there will be opportunities for students to engage in a “living laboratory” within Nashville.

“Science can tell us what’s happening. But to understand what people can do, people need to be talking about values and ethics. People need to be talking about how society works and how the political process works. It’s really important to have all these different perspectives coming into it.”

Gilligan will be teaching courses for the new major alongside sociology Professor David J. Hess (director of the new program) and art history Professor Betsey A. Robinson. To create the climate studies major, Gilligan said all three professors sought opinions from students and faculty members to “make sure that all the different academic perspectives were properly represented.”

“We did a lot of listening, a lot of talking among ourselves. And we produced something that really got accepted and embraced by the college and by the students in the faculty without any real pushback. And we’re very happy that we were able to do that,” Gilligan said.

According to Gilligan, there’s a lot of interest and excitement from students about the new major, which isn’t much of a surprise considering how much youth climate activism has taken off in recent years.

“Students are really interested in this for very practical reasons. Climate change is going to affect their lives and ‘snowball effect’ their children and future generations. A lot of people want to know, ‘What can I do about this?” Gilligan said.

While many are ready to take action, research also shows that many young people suffer from climate anxiety and feel “powerless” about climate change. A recent survey of 10,000 young adults came back with 60% reporting feeling “very worried” or “extremely worried” about climate change.”

Gilligan said he hopes this new program can teach the next generation they are far from powerless. Actually, he thinks quite the opposite.

“I really think that for young people to find their own voices and learn their own ways to talk about climate change and why it matters is powerful. Probably the most powerful source of change that we have,” Gilligan said.

“It’s one of the things that really saves me from despair, when I read about so much bad news, and I get discouraged, I feel that young people are my greatest source of hope right now. And I think that young people really should learn that they can make a big difference.”

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