Another campus expands climate classes – this time, because the students made it happen

I’m catching up with writing, slowly.

Getting COVID knocked my schedule flat.  Ten days ago I keynoted a conference in Chicago, which went well, but exhausted me like a simple trip has never done before.  COVID recovery actually means a lot of this kind of strange fatigue.  Just making a big meal for everyone sends me to a sofa for rest.  And the health experts insist I refrain from exercising, so no biking, weightlifting, or hiking for weeks.

None of which stops me from researching and reflecting on the future of higher education!  I have a series of blog posts in the hopper. Today’s topic is how academia grapples with climate change, based on one new story.

“… for a few days the camp has become an open space for training and reflection, with many classes and workshops.”

Students at the University of Barcelona asked their administration to mandate a class on climate change.   Not make such a class available, but require it for all students.  They occupied administrative spaces until UB agreed to the curricular change, adding a professional development component for faculty and staff:

In a move thought to be a world first, all 14,000 undergraduate and postgraduate students will have to take the course from the 2024 academic year. It will also devise a training programme on climate issues for its 6,000 academic staff.

The announcement came after a seven-day occupation by a group from the anti-fossil fuel organisation End Fossil Barcelona.

Here’s an account of the protests by a graduate students:

So why does this matter?  It’s just one university out of 20,000 or so in the world.

Several reasons.  First, it’s another example of climate change’s potential expansion through the higher education curriculum.  Note that this is a general education class, not a specialty one.  And that it sounds quite interdisciplinary. (echoes of the Harvard proposal I mentioned last month)

Second, because student activism made it happen. This wasn’t a faculty initiative or an instance of administrative benevolence. It took students organizing, articulating demands, and then taking actions – including occupying admin space – for it to come about.  Climate activism is growing within higher ed, as I’ve been forecasting, and we need to bear this in mind as we look ahead and plan.

Here’s a related example of this trend.  A small number of scientists, including academics, is taking public actions to draw attention to the crisis.  A NASA climate scientist and 79 others were arrested, and not all for the first time:

Watch for more of this to come.  How many faculty may be involved in such movements?  How many staff and students may join them?  And might you be one of the participants?

Third: this mandated class is only one step a university can take. The climate change engages higher education on many levels beyond the classroom.  Donald Clark commented on this, skeptically:


He’s right.  There’s a *lot* more academics can do.  I’ve previously outlined the many ways we can engage, including but by no means limited to teaching: research, community relations, the physical campus environment, and actions on the world stage.

How higher education engages with the climate crisis_overall

To what extent do these actions represent adaptations to the new environment?  To what extent do they mitigate global warming?  How far might we transform the academy in the Anthropocene?

The Barcelona students took one energetic step.  How much farther along that path will they – and the rest of us – go?

(link thanks to Laura Nissen; protest photo via Lorenzo Velotti)

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