The climate for teaching climate change heats up in academia

NEW YORK -- A few years back, administrators at Montclair State University in northeast New Jersey noticed that environmental issues, particularly climate change, were increasingly matters for public policy. The trouble with this, they felt, was that chief decision-makers were often clueless on environmental science, while scientists usually didn't understand or appreciate the political and economic environment they were operating in.

So the school decided to design its environment management program in a way that bridges this gap. The unique degree program still offers the traditional training for more science-minded or policy-minded students, but also requires that they step out of their narrow scope to learn the other side of the equation.

"What we are trying to generate are people who are environmental scientists but who know what the policies are, what the regulations are, so they are more down-to-earth in their approach," said Dibyendu Sarkar, an earth and environmental studies professor at MSU and head of the program.

The popularity of the MSU program has since encouraged the school to take things one step further. Now the college boasts one of the few doctorate programs in environmental management in the Northeast, and is expanding course offerings to focus more on climate change.

Mainstreaming environmental science in public policy is an ongoing challenge for academia, and the evolving climate change issue only makes the task more difficult. Colleges and universities everywhere report that they are struggling with adapting the world's leading environmental issue into their curricula.

Law schools are struggling to adapt

That's especially true for the nation's law schools. Future lawyers are taught through the existing body of laws, past court decisions and judicial interpretations of them, and changes or updates to legislation as they arise. Competent environmental law programs usually offer a series of courses devoted entirely to the complexities of the Clean Air Act and Clean Water Act, for example, so professionals can correctly determine how the legislation applies in certain situations.

But as yet, there exists no permanent body of law, in the United States or abroad, governing society's long-term responses to climate change. So even though interest in climate law is growing by leaps and bounds, law professors say they find it a particularly difficult subject to teach.


"We're all struggling with it," said Oliver Houck, a professor at Tulane University Law School.

Patrick Parenteau, an environmental law professor at Vermont Law School, says that although he entered the field without any prior expertise in climate change, he has since shifted most of his teaching to an almost exclusive focus on climate.

He also teaches about the Clean Air Act and how it could be used to regulate carbon emissions, mindful of the growing pressure from courts for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to issue regulations or guidance on greenhouse gas emissions. But the changing reality on the ground requires that he and others be careful not to rely too much on existing regulations, even though that's how most environmental law subjects are taught.

"One of the challenges with climate change is that the law of today is not the law of the future," said Parenteau. "We have to be honest with ourselves in academia and say we don't really know where the law is going."

For the most part, law schools are managing to adapt climate change into their coursework to some degree. But the lack of both an existing solid base of climate law to start from and a standardized teaching methodology has resulted in a wide variety of approaches.

"A lot of us teach the Clean Air Act as a tool for climate change because there isn't anything else," said Parenteau. "That leaves a lot of open questions, but you have to give students something to sink their teeth into."

Which comes first: the laws or the lawyers?

Other schools are incorporating climate law into energy law studies, an increasingly common approach. That strategy makes sense, experts say, because energy law courses already delve deeply into how utilities are regulated on the state and federal level, and electricity generators are already considered the principal target of regulations aimed at reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

But even a focus on energy law leaves huge gaps, law professors warn. Emissions trading systems for energy providers in Europe and the Northeastern states' Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative offer some lessons, but most advocates of carbon cap-and-trade systems envision economywide systems that would include manufacturing, transportation and a variety of other sectors not directly regulated by energy law.

As classes resume this month, Columbia University's law school is launching its Center for Climate Change Law. Headed by environmental lawyer Michael Gerrard, the new center hopes to develop an overarching framework for how climate law should be taught, closely watching how regulations are shaped in government and the private sector.

Columbia Law School administrators already anticipate that research and scholarship within their center will have to rely on a broad array of legal disciplines, as varied as energy law, taxes, real estate, intellectual property, contract law and even international trade law.

"Very complicated legal regulations are going to be established, and the center will provide a framework in which these regulations can be examined and future leaders in climate change law can be trained," said Gerrard. "The Center for Climate Change Law intends to influence the decisions that are made, now and into the future."

The new Columbia University initiative could serve as a model for similar programs at other schools, depending on how successful it is in grasping, or even influencing, climate policy in the United States. But Professor Houck at Tulane says he doubts that such bold moves by law schools represent a coming homogenization in teaching climate change to future lawyers.

"You have to teach them what exists now, but also make them understand that existing tools are not adequate," said Houck. "There is no general approach. My guess is that climate change is taught differently in every law school."

Outside of law school, other large academic institutions report facing the same problems that Montclair State University struggled with -- bridging the gap between environmental science and environmental policy, an imperative in the field of climate change adaptation and mitigation.

New York University has just started graduating the first class of students from its year-old Environmental Studies program, an undergraduate track aimed at training policymakers competent in science, as well as scientists who understand what is feasible in certain social, economic and political realities.

'We can't keep students away'

Chris Schlottmann, the coordinator of NYU's environmental studies program, admits that at first it was a challenge to bring the two sides of the discipline together. But the faculty have met the challenge, he said, and today, the young program is one of the more popular majors at that university.

"In the classroom, I think it's challenging for most students because they are out of their element," said Schlottmann. "But basically, we can't keep students away at this point."

The approach appears to be winning over students, and experts say such integrated programs at NYU, MSU and other schools could be key to establishing a whole new generation of regulators and scientists at home on both sides of the aisle. That's important when one considers the debate over climate change that raged for about two decades, made more difficult by politicians' skepticism about science and scientists' distaste for politics.

While there are relatively few examples today, very soon the United States will likely see the emergence of concentrations or degree programs devoted entirely to climate change, whether in law, science or public administration.

Universities in Europe seem to be ahead of the curve, as students there already have the option to major in a variety of climate change disciplines.

Central European University in Budapest, Hungary, for instance, offers a Ph.D. concentration in climate change and sustainable energy. Lancaster University in the United Kingdom offers a master of science degree in low-carbon energy.

Not to be outdone, Australian universities are following suit. The University of the Sunshine Coast in Queensland offers a graduate degree in climate change adaptation. The Australian National University has a competing master of climate change degree program with a heavy focus on economics.

U.S. business schools are also moving quickly to include sustainability and climate change topics into their lessons, responding to high demand from incoming students. Environmental master of business administration programs are increasingly popular, and high school students who are now putting their college applications together enjoy a greater variety of sustainability-minded program options than ever before.

But students hoping to specialize in climate change, either at their law schools or in graduate business programs, should expect to encounter a wide array of coursework and teaching methods. And university professors say incoming students shouldn't be surprised to encounter instructors who are struggling with the topic just as much as they are.

"I've been reinvented," said professor Parenteau at Vermont Law School. "We've got to learn new tricks, now matter how old of dogs we may be."

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