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Oxford needs an education fit for the times

Climate change is shaping today’s world. Oxford’s curricula can ignore it no longer.

Climate change will determine the future of humanity. It is the most pressing political, economic, ethical, and scientific challenge we face today. Yet many of Oxford’s subject curricula make only cursory mentions of a crisis which will define our personal and professional lives.

Oxford Climate Society’s open letter to University departments targets climate change’s absence from most subjects’ core curricula. This is the case even for some of the most obviously relevant courses, such as politics and economics.

We increasingly live in the inescapable shadow of a climate crisis, affecting and affected by our economic and political systems. As an all-encompassing issue, it is vital that the solutions to climate change come from all disciplines, and the arts, physical, natural and social sciences, psychology, law and more all have a vital role to play.

Climate change is not a niche area of study. It should not be limited to a small number of courses, nor is it a tangential issue which should be restricted to optional modules.

Rather, it is in the context of climate change and efforts to minimise its damages that political decisions must be made, business plans devised, and infrastructure designed. It is an unavoidable reality of our lives and the disciplines we study. Understanding its consequences is increasingly an expectation of employers.

If we are to avoid the humanitarian, economic, and natural crises promised by continued greenhouse gas emissions, the next generation of politicians, scientists, campaigners, and professionals must be equipped to manage a rapid decarbonisation of the global economy and the impacts of climate change. The Paris Climate Agreement sets out a task for our generation: reduce global emissions to net-zero in just four decades. This requires action from every industry, every level of government, and every individual.

As we move away from fossil fuels in coming decades, universities must ensure that their graduates have the knowledge to be at the forefront of this transition. This is why we are calling on Oxford’s departments to ensure that all relevant undergraduate courses cover climate change and its significance for their discipline.

If Oxford’s students are to lead efforts to tackle climate change and adapt to its impacts, it is essential that courses evolve with the times and equip the students of today to do so. The University is a world leader on climate change research, including in climate economics, policy and science, and is home to respected institutions such as the Environmental Change Institute and Oxford Martin School. As such, Oxford is well positioned to spread this expertise among its students.

None of this, of course, is to belittle the many other important issues which rightly feature on curricula, and should continue to do so. But for curricula to neglect climate change is of great disservice to today’s students and hampers efforts to limit climate change and prevent the injustices it otherwise threatens to deliver.

The Oxford Climate Society has sought to address the lack of climate education at the University through our weekly events, the heavily oversubscribed Oxford School of Climate Change, our publications, Anthroposphere, rise, two degrees, and a blog.

But if we are to effectively address climate change, we must also move on from anachronistic curricula which fuel a crisis advanced by inaction and ignorance. Oxford’s students can be leaders of the future, if only we’re given the tools to do so

Rupert Stuart-Smith was President of the Oxford Climate Society from April 2017 – March 2018. To read and sign their open letter, please click here.

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