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Graduating seniors seek degrees in climate change and more US universities deliver

By ALEXA ST. JOHN, Associated Press
Published: May 22, 2024, 2:16pm
2 Photos
Climate Data Analyst Casey Olson, left, of Utah State University, conducts a tour during a visit to the Utah Climate Center&rsquo;s climate reference station on April 1, 2024, in Logan, Utah. Increasingly, U.S. universities are creating climate change programs to meet demand from students who want to apply their firsthand experience to what they do after high school.
Climate Data Analyst Casey Olson, left, of Utah State University, conducts a tour during a visit to the Utah Climate Center’s climate reference station on April 1, 2024, in Logan, Utah. Increasingly, U.S. universities are creating climate change programs to meet demand from students who want to apply their firsthand experience to what they do after high school. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer) Photo Gallery

At 16, Katya Kondragunta has already lived through two disasters amped by climate change. First came wildfires in California in 2020. Ash and smoke forced her family to stay inside their home in the Bay Area city of Fremont, for weeks.

Then they moved to Prosper, Texas, where she dealt with record-setting heat last summer.

“We’ve had horrible heat waves and they’ve impacted my everyday life,” the high school junior said. “I’m in cross country … I’m supposed to go outside and run every single day to get my mileage in.”

Kondragunta says in school she hasn’t learned about how climate change is intensifying these events, and she hopes that will change when she gets to college.

Increasingly, U.S. colleges are creating climate change programs to meet demand from students who want to apply their firsthand experience to what they do after high school, and help find solutions.

“Lots of centers and departments have renamed themselves or been created around these climate issues, in part because they think it will attract students and faculty,” said Kathy Jacobs, director of the University of Arizona Center for Climate Adaptation Science and Solutions. It launched a decade ago and connects several climate programs at the school in Tucson.

Other early movers that created programs, majors, minors and certificates dedicated to climate change include the University of WashingtonYale UniversityUtah State University, the University of Montana,Northern Vermont University and the University of California, Los Angeles. Columbia, the private university in New York City, opened its Climate School in 2020 with a graduate degree in climate and society, and has related undergraduate programs in the works.

Just in the past 4 years, the public Plymouth State University in New HampshireIowa State, Nashville private university VanderbiltStanford University, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and others have started climate-related studies. Hampton University, a private, historically Black university in Virginia, is building one now, and the University of Texas at Austin will offer theirs this fall.

The fact that climate change is affecting more people is one factor. The Biden administration’s Inflation Reduction Act, the largest climate investment in U.S. history, plus growth in climate-focused jobs, are also increasing interest, experts say.

In these programs, students learn how the atmosphere is changing as a result of burning coal, oil and gas, along with the way crops will shift with the warming planet and the role of renewable energy in cutting use of fossil fuels.

They dive into how to communicate about climate with the public, ethical and environmental justice aspects of climate solutions and the roles lawmakers and businesses play in cutting greenhouse gases.

Students also cover disaster response and ways communities can prepare and adapt before climate change worsens. The offerings require biology, chemistry, physics, and social sciences faculty, among others.

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“It’s not just ‘oh, yeah, climate, global warming, environmental stuff,’” said Lydia Conger, a senior who enrolled at Utah State specifically for its climate science studies.

“It has these interesting technical parts in math and physics, but then also has this element of geology,” she said, “and oceanography and ecology.”

When higher ed institutions put their programs together, they often draw on existing meteorology and atmospheric sciences studies. Some house climate under sustainability or environmental science departments. But climate tracks need to go beyond those to satisfy some incoming students.

In Kennebunk, Maine, high school junior Will Eagleson has lived through storms that caused coastal destruction. The sea level is rising in his hometown. As the 17-year-old considers college, he said to get his attention, schools must “narrow it down from environmental and Earth science as a whole, to more climate change-focused programs.”

For Lucia Everist, a senior at Edina High School in Minnesota who is frustrated at her own lack of climate education so far, schools need to go deeper on the human impact of climate change. She cited disproportionate impact on Black, Latino, Indigenous and low-income neighborhoods.

“I looked a lot into the curriculum itself,” the 18-year-old said of her college search. Everywhere she applied, “I made sure had the social aspect just as much as the science aspect.”

Climate students need to learn everything from healthcare to how to store clean solar and wind energy, said Megan Latshaw, who runs Johns Hopkins University’s master’s programs in its Environmental Health and Engineering department. The school has a graduate degree in energy policy and climate, and also offers two certificates that include the term climate change.

“It’s the flooding. It’s the heat waves. It’s the wildfires. It’s the air pollution that’s generated when we’re burning fossil fuels. It’s allergies. It’s water scarcity, and people who may have to flee where they’ve lived for their entire life,” Latshaw said. She noted the university looks into weaving climate change into its schools of public health, engineering, education, medicine, nursing and more.

Another factor may be that many colleges around the country face declining enrollment and less public funding, pushing them to market new degrees to stay relevant.

Many small, private colleges have had to shut down over the last decade with fewer students graduating from high school and more opting for career-oriented training. The same pressures are affecting large public universities systems, which have cut academic programs and faculty to close gaps in budgets.

“There is definitely some part of academia that just simply responds to consumer demand,” said John Knox, undergraduate coordinator for the University of Georgia’s Atmospheric Sciences program, who is considering whether the school should offer a climate certificate. “In the end, I’m worried more about our students succeeding than marketing something to somebody.”

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