Climate Change in the University of Oxford Curricula
In March 2018, we published an open letter explaining that climate change is often neglected and not taught in many undergraduate degrees. The University of Oxford is arguably one of the largest institutions of climate research globally, and so we feel that its students should be given the tools and information we need to tackle and understand climate change and to prepare us for the world we will live in.
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Get the discussion going! Academic progress relies on academics willing to take the necessary steps. Discuss our call with your tutors and ask them whether they would want to support the letter. If any academics have further questions or suggestions for these changes, please get in touch!
Read this Cherwell article to hear from some of our own committee members and senior member, Professor Myles Allen, talking about why we need the campaign.
Read our opinion piece to hear more about why these changes are necessary - and why we, and the University, are ready for them.
our open letter: climate change in the curriculum
The growing impacts of climate change are of paramount concern to today’s generation of students. Climate change is the defining issue of our time, posing new and growing challenges with which we will be faced throughout our lives. In coming decades, we will see large changes to human societies, both as a result of increasingly dramatic changes to the Earth’s climate, and efforts to mitigate climate change.
Understanding and taking action to minimise the impacts of climate change is of the utmost importance and requires highly skilled and knowledgeable politicians, scientists, teachers, engineers and professionals. The University of Oxford is a world leader on climate change research and is well positioned to spread this expertise among its students. Yet current students may study politics, economics, law or natural sciences with limited engagement with climate change, the defining issue of our time. It is the University’s responsibility to futureproof its curricula and we expect the University to enable us to deal with changing environments and societies, in the UK and around the world. Climate change belongs on the curriculum!
Climate change and current University curricula We appreciate that the University of Oxford offers a number of postgraduate courses with an emphasis on climate change. However, the undergraduate curricula of degree courses at the University of Oxford largely neglect the issue of climate change, which we contend should be integrated within broader subject areas, particularly within undergraduate courses. For instance, despite the reasonable expectations employers might hold of Oxford Geography graduates in having at least a basic grounding in climate change issues, the core of this course touches only very briefly on this. The majority of Geography undergraduates may only ever have had two lectures on anthropogenic climate change. In Chemistry, the compulsory syllabus excludes climate change, and none of the third year optional subjects specifically address climate science. The Politics component of PPE and of History and Politics neglect discussions of climate change. While optional subjects do tackle climate change on a policy and normative level, core papers do not address environmental issues at all, meaning there is no compulsory exposure to one of the most pressing global political, economic and ethical issues of our time.
These examples are not exhaustive, but they illustrate the lack of consideration of the intersection of climate change science, impacts, and policy within core Oxford curricula. This is despite the large number of leading researchers and expertise on climate change issues at departments across the University, and the high level of interest among the student body. For example, the Oxford Climate Society’s student-run eight-week seminar series, the Oxford School of Climate Change, covers a wide range of topics on climate change. The inaugural edition of this course received four times as many applications as there were places on the programme.
Educating climate leaders
Climate change is a complex and multifaceted problem, the different components of which need to be addressed in a wide range of courses. In the natural sciences, the foundations and implications of climate science need to feature more prominently. For students of social sciences, the relevance of knowledge about climate policy and economics cannot be overstated. Equally, environmental law should be given greater focus within the jurisprudence course.
Certain elements of the study of climate change will be particularly relevant for specific departments. Nonetheless, we believe that there are some key topics that are relevant regardless of academic alignment, such as the globally differentiated impacts of climate change, their mitigation and possible adaptation measures. Case studies on topics like transport, food and energy can serve as windows into the broader study of climate change.
As a forward-thinking 21st Century institution, the University of Oxford is rightly concerned with the employability of its graduates and strives to enhance their personal and professional development. The inclusion of climate change into a variety of curricula would provide an opportunity for students to acquire the necessary problem solving skills and develop the leaders to take on this defining challenge of our generation.
Oxford's Subjects and Climate Change
Have your say about the importance of your discipline for for climate change by emailing us - we'll include it here!
Wait, how is something as unscientific as politics related to climate change?
For starters it was thanks to politics that things like the Paris Agreement and the EU ban on single-use plastic were passed. Unfortunately, political leaders are also part of the team that produced the Dakota Access pipeline and legalise mining in indigenous territories in the Amazon (thanks Bolsanaro).
The COP24 Summit in Poland, that will be ending tomorrow, drew attention to the need for global political leaders to take climate action. There is an imbalance between those countries that have the research, determination, resources, to act, and those that do not. Climate change poses a threat that could be tackled only with stronger political cooperation, across local communities as well as nations.
How can we redistribute the financial pressure between affluent countries and those that are still developing? Will there be a green cultural, and then political, revolution? Is there a chance of military conflicts based on water scarcity or search for unpolluted territories?
These are some of the questions that arise when discussing climate change through a political lens. Whether you are a political theorist or scientist, the next generations will be enormously affected by the consequences arising from political decisions *now*. To competently address and evaluate the dangers ahead we, as future leaders, need the right tools. At OCS we strongly believe that those tools can be discovered through education– specifically, an up to date curriculum.
“You can’t put nature within the bounds of a legal framework.” Pff, well John “picking-the-apple-equals-making-it-mine"Locke would disagree with that one… We as a human species have used law as a means to exploit nature; now we have a chance to use jurisprudence to protect it. Creation of wholesome international law to protect and oversee the actions of governments and corporations towards the environment is indispensable. Non-profits such as ClientEarth recognize role of legal and regulatory change as imperative in our fight against climate change. Human rights law is very tightly intertwined with environmental law. Sweatshops cater to the increasing demand for “quick fashion” that is used for three months and thrown away to the landfill. Industries that sell the ‘desirable’ single-use lifestyle deteriorate the climate and resources in the global South, unfortunately with the worst impact on their most vulnerable. Even corporate law has a big impact on the environment. All oil companies have legal advice – how else would they be able to persuade governments that fracking is definitely safe and will not harm the environment? We can turn the tide, and ‘MAKE GREENLAW LUCRATIVE AGAIN’. All strands of law link to climate change, well almost all (sorry, divorce lawyers), and so it is pertinent to reflect that in the curriculum.
What relevance does physics have for climate change, the structure of society, and your life within it?
Physics has a track record of radically changing our understanding of our place in the cosmos - from reasoning that the Earth is round, to the discovery of DNA. 50 years ago, Apollo’s Earth-rise photograph revealed the planet as a fragile anomaly, seeding the modern environmental movement. Now, physics has shown us that the climate is changing, that we are changing it, and that there might not be any more ‘we’ if we keep doing so.
The climate system is an invisible substrate within which society operates, forming complex feedbacks with everything from personal wellbeing to the economy and food security to inequality. Consequently, it is critically important that we develop physical models of the climate that allow us to (i) understand the causes and drivers of climate change, (ii) identify which events in the environment are significantly coupled to climate change, (iii) accurately project the future changes and properties of the climate, and (iv) predict how the climate responds to our decisions, so that the global community can navigate through these crises. Physics doesn’t tell us whether we should save the world’s vulnerable people and ecosystems, but it does help people develop the technology and policies that we’ll need, should we choose an equitable future for all.
Science requires humility: it fundamentally isn’t about proving yourself right, but constantly trying find where you might be wrong. Conclusions are based on evidence, rather than what you want to be true – a mindset that could provide an antidote to political inaction. The physicist’s tools of first-principles-thinking and constantly questioning biases and assumptions are widely appreciated as powerful methods - methods that might just help us design a world where homes are free from pollution, low-lying nations are secure, marginalised communities are empowered, and when it’s over, everyone can party guilt-free, powered by the sweet silence of renewable energy. Climate change urgently needs to be on curricula in Oxford. We need research from all fields, and opportunities for interdisciplinary learning, so that future leaders understand, by listening to those from other backgrounds, how their actions impact society.
Do rivers have rights? Do you?
Philosophy undoubtedly ought to question every part of our world and its normative assumptions, including how and what we understand as nature, our place in the world, and our relation to everything around us. Philosophy fundamentally links environmental to other ethics through examining our systems of categorization and action. What we understand something to be shapes any feeling of responsibility towards it.
So is this all a little abstract? Head in the clouds? Not at all. Wilderness may merely be a construct with colonial implications. ‘Nature’ may be framed as the same sort of fundamental ‘other’ used to perpetuate, among others, racial and nationalist injustice. Environmental philosophy and ethics examine our assumed criteria of justification and explanation.
Is the environment inherently valuable –is only life valuable? Or is any object or idea qua being valuable? Or are things only instrumentally valuable – to humans, as in strong anthropocentrism, or to God, as in environmental theology? Such differences affect our action. Where does a river end, and do we care about the plants’ and animals’ quality of lives or their populations for consumption or for global balance, or do we also care about the aesthetic value of the river? Do we understand everything the river is and does? And if we do not, how do we decide to act?
What about future generations? Do they deserve to make decisions any more than we do? Do we only wait until human-designated valuable ecosystems are ‘scarce’ to save them? Do humans have some cosmological purpose as life or do humans have a duty to extinguish themselves in a gesture towards other beings? Is it possible to have a stance from our limited knowledge? Environmental philosophy addresses how do we act from our limited viewpoint. Kyoto and Rio acted based upon conservation ethics –that the environment is valuable only as a means to human ends. Yet for what ends explicitly? Who gets to decide these? Might we have different aims between cultures or at different levels in society? Philosophy asks these pressing questions to shape the meaning of our interpretation then actions. It develops the lens through which we understand facts. It shapes the conversation. We create a framework of places. With real tangible effects and fundamental ethical questions, from hermeneutics to ecofeminism: climate change needs to be urgently included in the philosophy curriculum at Oxford.
We all know the chemical offenders of climate change. Carbon dioxide. Methane. CFCs. But understanding them? That’s a different matter. Climate change is an incredibly multifarious and complex issue with many social, political and economic facets which need addressing for effective mitigation and prevention. However, at the heart of this impending global catastrophe lies a purely chemical issue: our planet’s atmosphere is filling with greenhouse gases. Since the late 19th century, the concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere has almost doubled and it is thought that around 80% off this increase is a direct consequence of human activity. Our rapid and reckless expansion is exemplified by our dependency on fossil fuel combustion, a process rooted in chemistry where knowledge of energy is fundamental.
As our energy demands show no sign of slowing, it is up to chemists to find innovative solutions for producing clean energy and retaining harmful chemicals before they are released into the atmosphere. Improvements, refinements and conception of sustainable processes in the lab could ultimately translate to weakening the influence of industries driving climate change. Photovoltaic cells, biofuels and carbon capture are just three avenues being comprehensively explored, with potentially profound impacts to come within our lifetimes.
The question not only is how we must modify our reliance on unsustainable processes, but how much time we have to make these transitions. We are kept abreast of forecasts by sophisticated climate models which are underpinned by an extensive knowledge of the earth’s physical and chemical dynamics. As humans continue to disrupt the natural order, our understanding of these dynamics need constantly evolve. With the clock ticking away, it is vital that we usher in a new generation of clued-up, passionate climate scientists. In the race against climate change, many important changes hinge upon intelligent, pioneering chemistry. Scientists around the world have realised this and more time and money than ever is being funnelled into research and efforts to turn the tide. At OCS, we believe this shifting focus needs to be reflected in the university curriculum."