Let’s require Stanford students to study climate change

Opinion by Neelay Trivedi
Feb. 26, 2020, 7:32 p.m.

Climate change is an existential crisis that threatens life as we know it. Yet as governments and policymakers around the world continue to contemplate possible solutions, they are ignoring a key piece of the puzzle: climate education. 

Given its self-stated mission of “solving real-world problems” and “benefiting the region, nation and world,” Stanford has a moral responsibility to endow its students with a basic sense of climate literacy. To accomplish this goal, Stanford should establish the nation’s first comprehensive climate change academic requirement. Under this requirement, every Stanford student would have to take at least one course addressing the climate crisis during their undergraduate career. 

A climate literacy requirement would go a long way toward making climate change a nonpartisan reality accepted across the aisle. Obviously, politically motivated differences are to be expected when discussing various solutions for tackling the climate crisis. But right now, we are wasting precious time debating the mere existence of the problem instead of focusing on solving it. Rampant misinformation is also paralyzing the climate movement and undermining the establishment of a global climate consensus. A Yale study found that only 57% of Americans know what the greenhouse effect is and only 50% understand that global warming is a man-made phenomenon. 

These percentages are far too low, but if you think that college students fare better than the general population, get ready for a surprise. A Vanderbilt study found that of the top 100 American universities and liberal arts colleges, only one (Columbia) has a climate science class in the core curriculum. The same study calculated that the average American college student has only a 17% chance of learning about climate change throughout their undergrad career. 

That’s why a climate education requirement is indispensable. A curriculum rooted in scientific rigor and based on case studies would give students a shared set of facts about the climate crisis aimed at closing this climate awareness gap. The knowledge gained from such a class would help all students, irrespective of their political leanings. Climate policy must be addressed from the political center in order to build the widest coalition possible and have the largest impact. 

Moreover, the requirement doesn’t have to take the form of a single class that every student takes. Such a unified approach would be ineffective and uninteresting. Instead, the requirement should be flexible in order to accommodate the diverse interests of Stanford’s student body. One option is to create a WAYS-style climate requirement, which multiple courses could be used to fulfill. Another is to incorporate climate education into a standalone requirement, similar to Writing and Rhetoric, within the general education requirements. This would signal that climate literacy is just as important as the ability to communicate effectively. Once again, a variety of courses could be designed to fulfill this kind of requirement. 

Now is also a particularly good time to propose a climate change requirement. Traditionally, modifying Stanford’s core curriculum would be a long and arduous process requiring jumping through bureaucratic hoops and gaining approval from key stakeholders and academic departments. But luckily, Stanford is in the midst of making the most consequential changes to its academic core in decades. A recent Daily open letter from the history department stressed the need for more student input in this process, and I couldn’t agree more. With a deliberative session scheduled for March 5 and a formal vote on April 16, there is plenty of time for Stanford students to make their voices heard and advocate for a climate change requirement to be added to the new proposed core. 

Ultimately, I don’t view a climate change requirement as some kind of panacea that will immediately fix the climate crisis and lead to universal acceptance of humanity’s role in creating it. Rather, I view it as an important institutional step that Stanford can take in order to better prepare its students for the future. As a key influencer within the higher education universe, Stanford’s action on this issue can inspire other colleges to take similar steps, making climate literacy a nationwide policy initiative. 

If we are to have any chance of coming to a global climate consensus, we need to prioritize educating citizens about what climate change is, its causes and why the problem is so serious. Nothing has stymied climate policy more than individuals who mindlessly embrace the climate denier movement without understanding the science behind emissions and the greenhouse effect. To convert these deniers and prevent future generations of students from falling victim to the misinformation tactics of big corporations and oblivious governments, we need to make climate education a permanent fixture in classrooms.

Contact Neelay Trivedi at ntrivedi ‘at’ stanford.edu.

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