The Unexpected Ways Climate Change Is Reshaping College Education

12 minute read

In 2018, Scott McAulay had a “Wizard of Oz moment.” He was a final-year architecture student at the University of Strathclyde in Scotland when the U.N. published a report warning that the world had 12 years to transform society to avoid catastrophic, irreversible climate change. Buildings, the report said, account for 20% of energy-related global greenhouse-gas emissions, and the architecture and construction sectors needed to rapidly overhaul their practices. Sitting in classes, McAulay had a sinking feeling: his professors, the wizards behind the curtain, had no magical solution.

“We’re talking about an unprecedented societal transformation, but sustainability was treated like an optional extra in my degree,” says the soft-spoken 25-year-old. “I realized that the people who were teaching me just didn’t get the urgency.”

After graduating in 2019, McAulay formally launched an educational initiative on architecture’s role in stopping climate change: the Anthropocene Architecture School, which takes its name from the geological age scientists say we entered when humans became the dominant force impacting earth. So far McAulay has delivered lectures to staff and students at 15 universities in Britain, Canada and the Netherlands. He is far from alone in his concern. In March, the U.K.’s Architects Climate Action Network launched a campaign to help students across the country mobilize for changes to their courses. Almost 80% of the 110 students who responded to the network’s survey felt their courses were not preparing them for future work in a world of climate breakdown.

Read More: States Must Help Schools Tackle the Climate Crisis—Beyond What’s On the Curriculum

The British educational establishment is finally taking steps forward. In September, the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA) published a new Climate Framework, which will for the first time make climate-literacy components mandatory across its 109 accredited schools and course providers in 23 countries (including 58 of the 61 in the U.K.), while the Architects Registration Board, the regulator, is preparing guidelines on how universities should teach climate.

The debates playing out in British architecture schools reflect a wider reckoning unfolding across higher education globally. “Studying climate change was for decades a matter for natural sciences, and then later, engineering and other science-based design subjects,” says Walter Leal, head of the Climate Change Management department at the Hamburg University of Applied Sciences in Germany and author of books on climate change and global education. Until very recently, if climate appeared at all in humanities, social sciences and the arts, it was as a concentration or postgrad degree. But as the effects of climate change have become more visible in recent years, and the breadth of the transformation needed to fight it has become clear, law schools, med schools, literature programs, economics departments and more are incorporating climate into their undergraduate curriculums, grappling with how climate will transform their fields and attempting to prepare students to face those transformations in the labor market.

Many students still don’t learn about climate in their degree programs, and hurdles remain to deliver the kind of universal climate requirements that activists like McAulay demand. Leal cites a lack of expertise and confidence among teaching staff unaccustomed to teaching climate change, as well as the time pressure within already crowded curriculums. Without mandatory requirements, he says, many university departments won’t feel comfortable adding climate to the curriculum. “There are few programs which train university staff, and people will think, Maybe I’ll have a question I’m not able to answer.”

But climate education is still expanding rapidly, Leal says, noting that political scientists should look at climate migration and poverty, ethicists should examine rising inequality because of climate change, and economists should discuss the impact of extreme weather events on national economies. “It is inevitably becoming mainstream, no matter what field, because the connections are so clear now: climate change permeates everything.”

If you are in Ada Smailbegovic’s English-lit class at Brown, you get some unusual assignments. For Earth Poetics: Literature and Climate Change, students spend time following squirrels and sparrows around. They sit and observe seasonal changes and record their thoughts in blogs. They also watch films and read poems about fishing communities in the U.S. and Canada, comparing patterns of human migration to the life cycle of salmon and the movements of the tides.

Smailbegovic herself studied biology and zoology before moving into literature, and started teaching the course this year, drawing students from English and other majors, some of whom “have clearly structured their education to find these kinds of courses,” which tackle climate from a new perspective. She says human-triggered climate change is dissolving a barrier between the human and the earth built up in Western culture over the past 150 years. “I think we’re shifting to models in which we’re maybe less interested in the idea of nature as a space of fixity, or something that can be set apart from human culture and humanity.”

That renewed understanding of human life as inextricable from the environment is reshaping education across the arts and humanities. Economics students in Buenos Aires are studying the financial cost of environmental degradation. Philosophy students in London are debating individual responsibility and the debts owed to future generations around climate. Media-studies students in Boston are analyzing climate narratives. Law schools have introduced climate electives for undergraduates, and Bond University in Queensland, Australia, has gone even further, launching what it believes to be the country’s first undergraduate law degree entirely built around climate law—likely to be an increasingly important area.

Studying a topic as large as climate change in one module, when it’s not ingrained in traditional understandings of a discipline, can be challenging, says Johannes Stripple, a politics professor at Sweden’s Lund University, who has co-led a course on climate change for politics undergraduates since 2015. “It’s quite demanding compared to other kinds of courses that we teach, because we’re looking at how climate appears at all levels of politics, so we’re constantly changing the point of departure,” Stripple says. Students study how politicians and governments frame their response to climate and its future impacts, local initiatives and the politics of climate refugees, and read works of climate fiction. Despite the demanding program, Stripple says, “our course is always oversubscribed. It has really seemed to resonate with what students are concerned with.”

For decades at most universities, science, design and technology-based courses, which deal directly with the physical environment, have included information on sustainability and the environment. But in these fields, which stand to have a big impact on efforts to lower emission and adapt to climate change, climate advocates are pushing for more than extra modules. In chemistry, for example, over 70 higher-education institutions, from São Paulo to Minnesota to Bangkok, have signed up to a Green Chemistry Commitment since 2013, to overhaul curricula.

“Earth’s life-support systems are changing at an exponential rate, but education is changing at the rate at which a glacier moves. We teach much the same content that we did 50 years ago,” says Peter Mahaffy, a professor of chemistry at King’s University in Edmonton, Alberta, and a member of the education committee at the International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry (IUPAC), which sets standards for primary, secondary and higher education around the world. In late 2020, IUPAC launched a three-year project to reorient chemistry education globally toward “systems thinking for sustainability,” to help the world reach environmental and development goals. Mahaffy is co-chairing a task force on standardizing sustainability literacy, creating guidelines for how all students should learn to understand their fields as part of a much wider environmental challenge. “Part of the issue is we’ve become so good at specialization in STEM education, that we divide knowledge into smaller and smaller pieces, and we understand those little pieces exceptionally well,” he says. “But it’s not enough. We need to equip citizens and scientists to think bigger, to think outside and across the boundaries of their disciplines.”

In the U.K., engineering and architecture industry bodies are working with the Climate Framework initiative to develop climate requirements for their schools. Mina Hasman, the initiative’s leader, helped RIBA to set its new rules. “These make at least a base level of knowledge around sustainability mainstream, mandatory. At the moment, sustainability and climate focus are still treated as a specialism, an optional sort of added-on element.”

That also tends to be the case in U.S. architecture schools, according to Jesse Keenan, a professor of real estate in the architecture department of Tulane University. He says that while some schools have a special focus on climate and an abundance of electives, there is no core curriculum that ensures all students get the knowledge and skills needed to lower emissions and keep buildings standing in an increasingly unstable climate. He has proposed a new “climate core” covering a range of subjects—including climate change’s impact on material degradation, life-cycle analysis, carbon analysis, more sophisticated risk assessments, critical skills for dealing with uncertainty—that he considers “the minimal standards of what we should be teaching students when they learn how to design and build buildings.”

As British architects are learning, though, new requirements won’t transform education overnight. It will be a challenge for the U.K.’s architecture schools to meet the RIBA’s new framework for climate, says Lorraine Farrelly, head of architecture at the University of Reading and chair of a body representing heads of schools of architecture across the country. “We’re being asked to look at a very broad set of issues, some of which have never been addressed by architectural education before,” she says, citing the circular economy and water pollution, as well as dramatically expanded engagement with concepts like sustainable sourcing, energy efficiency and protecting biodiversity.

But the challenge has to be met if students are to be prepared for careers in an era of climate change and action, says Peter Exley, president of the American Institute of Architects. “I am admitting that we are not quite ready in our schools. We’re not producing students that have all of the skills [to build in the climate crisis] when they graduate. Students want more.”

Exley says a wave of youth activism around climate since 2018, as well as the past year’s global reckonings on racial justice, health and inequality, have made the current generation of students increasingly insistent that their curriculums confront a fast-changing world. “You can see their singular commitment to justice through climate and equity. They won’t kick the can down the road on these things,” Exley says. “Universities have to adapt faster.”

Governments should be helping, education advocates say, and recent months have brought a flurry of activity. On March 27, Argentina’s lower house voted overwhelmingly to approve a law creating a national strategy on environmental education “at all levels and in all educational forms.” In France, Parliament is debating a climate law that includes a plan to modify the education code to feature requirements on the environment “throughout school training, in a manner adapted to each level and each specialization,” while a separate law on higher education will include a new duty for institutions to “raise awareness and train [students] to deal with the problems of the ecological transition and sustainable development,” according to the higher-education minister. It comes after pressure from French student unions, which found in a March survey that 69% of students in courses not traditionally linked to the environment have heard very little or nothing about climate issues during their studies.

In Spain, lawmakers have amended a climate law moving through congress to mandate a “cross-cutting” approach to climate education, meaning all subjects should incorporate climate from their perspectives, rather than having a separate climate-change subject. The latter is the approach in Italian high schools, which since September have been obliged to teach one hour a week on environmental issues in every grade. Though Spain’s law is still months from a final vote, Serafín Huertas, an educator at Valencia’s Center for Environmental Education, says advocates are thrilled that the cross-cutting approach is winning out. “If climate change is presented as a separate subject, we run the risk that students won’t relate climate change to their daily lives and their professional fields,” he says. “Right now we’re in a situation where natural scientists are learning the science of climate change, but engineering students in Spain are still learning about the internal-combustion engine as if it were still viable in a few years. If we’re not all focused on this, our economies won’t change.”

—With reporting by Madeline Roache/London

More Must-Reads from TIME

Write to Ciara Nugent at