“You have stolen my dreams and my childhood with your empty words. And yet I’m one of the lucky ones. People are suffering. People are dying. Entire ecosystems are collapsing. We are in the beginning of a mass extinction, and all you can talk about is money and fairy tales of eternal economic growth. How dare you!”
This grief-stricken rebuke earned 16-year-old climate activist Greta Thunberg a hearty round of applause at the United Nations’ Climate Action Summit on Monday. For younger viewers who feel Thunberg’s anger, the audience’s enthusiastic response appeared both out of place and fitting. It is the kind of reaction we are used to seeing from our elders: empathy and words of encouragement unaccompanied by any meaningful action. This attitude was reflected in the cheers and proclamations U.N. diplomats gave after each of the toothless climate change agreements introduced over the past 30 years. All the while, the prospect of a dying world has become ever more real, and hope for the future has receded.
And this attitude can also be seen across Brown’s academic departments.
From political science to international relations, to computer science, to economics, to Africana studies, curricula that otherwise engage deeply with global problems seem to nervously skirt around the biggest of them all. A search through Courses@Brown reveals about 10 courses directly related to climate change throughout the entire University for the 2019-20 academic year (excluding courses in geology and environmental studies). The few courses on climate change that there are, such as ECON 1340: “Economics of Global Warming,” generally cater to higher-level students.
We can interpret this conspicuous scarcity in multiple ways. Maybe departments actively suppress professors from teaching accessible courses on climate change. Maybe people are just ignorant of the importance of climate change and the ways in which it already disrupts and destabilizes human society. But neither of these explanations seems plausible. It seems more likely that this reticence stems from multiple sources. There is trepidation about tackling a subject traditionally confined to the environmental sciences; moreover, a “soft denial” about the horrible scale of climate change persists. Both factors lead professors and people across the University to treat this problem of fundamental importance as more of a specialty issue, to be taught and debated among experts or especially interested students — not to be given a place of prominence in the academic mainstream.
This interpretation of climate change — as a niche “issue” to be confined to conversation among climate scientists, a smattering of other experts and activists — recurs throughout the upper echelons of liberal American society. It is evident in the rationale of the Democratic National Committee — as stated by its chair, Brown’s own Tom Perez ’83 — for denying a climate debate, which equated climate change with a host of other narrow political issues. If climate change merits a debate, Perez wondered, “how does (the DNC) say no to the numerous other requests we’ve had?”
Academic departments at Brown seem to silently echo such questions: Why should we give climate change special attention? What more is there to do than dedicate a lecture or two to this issue?
Let’s answer the why first. The central fallacy here assumes climate change to be an issue like any other — something to be weighed against energy security, gender and human rights, immigrants’ rights, etc. This is wrong. Never mind that climate change will result in exponentially more death and injustice than any of these problems — more importantly, it is reductive to treat climate change as an isolated issue in the first place. The ultimate causes of climate change are bound up in the structure of the global economy, the history of colonial expansion and multiple enduring injustices. Therefore, to mitigate and adapt will require changes across all of society. We cannot effectively respond to climate change without treating it as what it is: a basic constraint on the material economy of our country and the world, and a shift in circumstances that will destabilize most systems of production on which we depend. From agriculture to manufacturing, to the service industry, to tech, every part of our society requires fuel and infrastructure which must be replaced in the next few decades, lest we risk large parts of the world becoming uninhabitable.
With this in mind, we can start to answer the second question: what more can Brown do? Specifically, how can different departments actually prepare students for the fundamental changes they will witness and deal with in the next decades of their lives? Here are some suggestions:
First, Brown must aggressively expand the number of lower-level courses dealing with climate change, outside of the Environmental Studies and Geology departments. The Open Curriculum means that anyone can take courses in these departments, but that freedom is no longer enough: not only are there too few of these classes to accommodate everyone, but many students will not go looking for courses on climate change that do not relate directly to their interests. Departments need to try much harder to make such information evident and accessible. Further, concentration requirements must include courses on climate change. It is negligent that concentrations like political science, international relations and economics do not require students to expose themselves at all to what will be the defining problem in their disciplines. The climate crisis should feature early and often in each of these concentrations and others. Finally, the University should incentivize interdisciplinary research and teaching that relates to climate change. By incorporating these changes, Brown can begin to develop an academic culture that sees climate change as a vital problem in all fields.
Galen Hall ’20 can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Please send responses to this opinion to email@example.com and op-eds to firstname.lastname@example.org.