LAWRENCE — Last year, the University of Kansas approved a Climate Change Certificate that aims to inform students about the physical and human aspects of climate change. These days, as the nation – and much of the world – is in lockdown due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the certificate has gained even greater relevance as there are many analogies between both threats to humans and their economic well-being.
“Climate change is more than the physical science,” said Shannon O’Lear, professor of geography at KU, who helped create the program. “While there’s a lot of physical science to understand, there’s also social science. We put a certificate program together so students could get the fuller picture of what we’re looking at with climate change. We realize it’s not comprehensive — it doesn’t reflect everything happening at KU. But it’s a good overview from geography and atmospheric science.”
In addition to two core courses — “Climate and Climate Change” and “Environmental Geopolitics” — students will choose from several electives such as “Introduction to Environmental Hydrology and Water Resources” or “Geography of the Energy Crisis.” After compiling 12-14 credit hours in the curriculum, students will be awarded the Climate Change Certificate.
“The science is settled, and we teach the science in the physical side of the climate change curriculum,” said Cornelis Van Der Veen, professor of geography at KU. “What we now need is an adequate human response to these challenges. We also look at policy, geopolitics and consumption practices and the meaning of energy.”
Van Der Veen, who helped design the certificate program, said he hoped the climate change certificate could help create scientists and thought leaders in environmental policy and politics by teaching key concepts.
“Perhaps the most important point I want students to understand is the ‘Power of Two,’ or exponential growth,” he said. “The current spread of the virus illustrates this point, albeit at an accelerated pace. Until people become thoroughly aware of this type of growth, which virtually every environmental index shows over the last few hundred years, it’s doubtful that much, if anything, will happen. Sustainable economic growth is an oxymoron, and the sooner we realize that, the better.”
According to O’Lear, the climate change certificate will serve to bolster students' credentials in a vital area of scientific and societal importance as they look to find employment or continue their academic careers after graduation.
“The phrase we hear from professionals is ‘stackable credentials,’ meaning they want students to show multiple things on their transcript when they graduate,” she said. “A major is your devoted field of study, and you can have double majors — a lot of students do. But the certificate is something you add on top of that. It’s fewer classes than a major, but often you have coursework that overlaps. A certificate demonstrates on students’ transcripts they’ve specialized and done a little extra work to add this special component to their learning.”
Both O’Lear and Ven Der Veen said the societal and economic disruptions caused by the coronavirus pandemic could be a mere coming attraction for the larger issue of climate chaos.
“With the coronavirus, back in January and February when people were becoming aware of this seemingly far-away process, we missed opportunities for early intervention,” O’Lear said. “With climate change, it also seems far away much of the time. We don’t directly perceive carbon and methane emissions. We read about melting ice sheets and bleached coral in distant places. But climate scientists have been measuring atmospheric CO2 at the Mauna Loa Observatory in Hawaii since 1960, and those emissions have been increasing and increasingly steeply. The evidence and not-so-early warning signs are already here.”
Many of the societal weaknesses revealed by coronavirus — mass unemployment, disruptions to supply chains, wild swings in commodity and stock values — will be tested more severely by the changing climate.
“How will society prepare, adapt and adjust to new realities of an altered climate? Climate is where we all live: short and long-term weather patterns, storms and disasters, food and water supply – the very basis of our economic systems,” O’Lear said.
According to Van Der Veen, the COVID-19 emergency points the way to changes society can make to mitigate climate change and prepare for consequences that already are inevitable.
“The current pandemic has taught us a few things, but relating to climate change — and environmental destruction in general — the lockdown of most of the world has shown us that humans can survive a much-reduced economic activity, that there are more important things than the almighty economy,” he said. “Even on the short time scale, we can see considerable improvements in the environment, such as less pollution in India – allowing folks to see the Himalayas for hundreds of miles – or the lagoon of Venice. With clear-eyed planning, we might develop a greener economy that is also just in the distribution of benefits. So perhaps we should grab the opportunity to move towards a greener economy, and preferably a much scaled-down economy, thereby combating climate change, or at least lessening the impacts somewhat.”
Students interested in finding out more about the climate change certificate should visit the certificate information page at the Department of Geography & Atmospheric Science website or contact Lisa Hamblen, undergraduate academic adviser for the department.