WMU to Offer Climate Change Studies Minor

Feb 11, 2015

Solar panels and chargers at Western Michigan University.
Credit WMUK

From measuring glaciers to counting species, climate change has long been studied by scientists.

But a warming planet also raises questions for the humanities. How will people respond? How will art change? Those are some of the topics Western Michigan University hopes to consider in its new climate change studies minor, which will draw on the sciences as well as fields like English and history.

The program is set to launch this fall.

WMUK's Sehvilla Mann spoke with Denise Keele, who teaches environmental policy and law at Western, about the program’s curriculum.

SM: The vast majority of scientists accept that climate change is real and that it’s caused by people. So I imagine this isn’t something you’re going to be sitting around debating in this program.

DK: Correct. No, we start with that assumption. Again, the science is clear of what is happening. What exactly those consequences will be, of course, remain to be seen in many cases. But no we start with the premise that the science is clear. Again, that this is going to be a challenge that all of our students are going to live through, they will face in their lifetimes. And we thought, ‘they need to understand that basic science,’ but again also how to live in this new and different world and meet those challenges.

SM: Some of the predictions for the results of climate change are really catastrophic; some of them are just bad but not as terrible. And so how do you move forward this program with that amount of uncertainty in there?

DK: Yeah, that’s a really hard thing. I think part of the humanist side of it is just then, ‘how do we as humans deal with uncertainty’? Because that causes its own psychological stress and that’s a large part of some of the sociology that’s in the program is the sort of – that’s what leads people to deny climate change in the first place, because there’s so much uncertainty about ‘what will happen to me?’ And so we try to deal with that part of it. But you’re absolutely right, there are predictions and those predictions can go a long ways into pointing us in the directions of where we need to go.

But I think still even at the societal level we have a pretty good understanding of things like where farming changes are going to need to occur, where sea level is going to be hit hardest, where the most vulnerable populations in the world are going to be – Africa and Southeast Asia. So I think that we can do some things to prepare ourselves, and understand those populations a lot better right now, so that we can think up what kinds of things we’re going to do to handle this and live with our new world.

SM: I’m wondering if you have to reach through some despair to get to students who would get a lot out of this program, because – maybe you have some students who, they don’t believe in climate change – but the ones that do may have already reached the conclusion that it’s too late to do anything and the idea of actually sitting in class and having to think about all of this might just seem too painful.

DK: Yes, it can be an incredibly depressing subject to teach. I think we’ve started to learn – I piloted our first, what will be a general-education 1000-level interdisciplinary climate change, and we really learned in that pilot test that we can’t just present all these sobering challenges – that there needs to be some inclusion of, a lot of folks around the world are doing things right now and that can be very, very inspiring. And so to always leave a little room at the end of a class period and particularly of a course like, that are in this program – to kind of highlight things that people are doing – we’ve found to be really important because you’re absolutely right. Otherwise it is very overwhelming.

SM: There’s been sort of a, I don’t know what you would call it exactly – a trope, maybe, of politicians who might call themselves climate skeptics saying, ‘well, I’m not a scientist, and therefore I’m not qualified to make any kind of informed decision on climate change.' I guess in this case students could come out of this saying, ‘I’m not a scientist, but I still know what I’m talking about.’

DK: That’s exactly right. And that’s what we hope. Again, the basics of the science, everyone can grasp, is our belief. And not only that, but everyone should have that basic understanding of the science so that maybe we don’t end up in situations where politically we don’t accept that science.