Professor Simon Richter is the Class of 1942 Endowed Term Professor of German — he is also one of the most vocal faculty members on climate change that I have ever met. Richter is a key founder of Climate Week at Penn and its signature 1.5* Minute Climate Lectures as well as an instructor for "Water Worlds" and "Forest Worlds," two courses heavily focused on examining the environment through a humanities lens.
According to Richter, Penn administration has been talking about introducing a climate education requirement at the university for a good four years now, but it is not yet concrete. “I found that all along the way … almost everybody I asked in the administration, it doesn’t matter [at] what level, it almost feels like they were waiting to be nudged,” Richter recounted. “Like they knew that they could and should be doing this, but the opportunity hadn’t seemed to present itself.”
The best time for students to call on Penn to incorporate discussions of climate change, sustainability, and the energy transition into the undergraduate curriculum was decades ago. The second best time is right now. Much like we cannot delay action on mankind’s greatest challenge of the 21st century, we cannot delay an educational requirement on the many, many ways we can combat it.
Despite the myriad ways we can address the climate crisis, there is a prevailing notion that jobs and coursework focused on it need to have "Climate" or "Sustainability" in their name. I applaud efforts by Columbia and Stanford to start separate schools dedicated to a better, net-zero carbon future, but these feel like glorified versions of existing departments of earth and environmental science. They add publicity to the climate crisis, but they are not the best these universities can be doing. Do we want PR moves, or deliberate, thoughtful action?
At present, Penn is taking a closer look at climate, though you’d be forgiven for not noticing. The University has hired Michael Mann, a leading climate scientist and skilled communicator between the policy and technical arms of climate, as well as one of the originators of the Hockey Stick climate diagram. He is also the director of Penn’s new Center for the Science, Sustainability, & the Media, jointly run by the College and the Annenberg School for Communication. Penn also runs the Environmental Innovations Initiative, which aims to develop interdisciplinary solutions to critical environmental challenges we face today.
But interdisciplinary solutions to climate change cannot be encouraged in academia without students being aware of how their unique interests can intersect with the climate emergency.
Identifying this intersection is easier said than done. If we are to implement a requirement to take a course centered around climate change, we cannot limit the development of such courses to the Department of Earth and Environmental Science. The good news is that at Penn, there are already many academic offerings that connect to climate from external departments.
In my own experience, two years and 30-something CUs into Penn, conversations around the climate emergency have popped up in unexpected places. Additional reading for “Accounting and Financial Reporting” touched on regulation from the Securities and Exchange Commission that requires companies to disclose carbon emissions and climate risks. Lectures for “Introduction to Human Evolution” covered how humans have adapted in the past to changes in climate, and how they may adapt in the future. These readings and lectures could be extended into courses of their own with ambition and dedication.
In Wharton, you can take BEPP 2630, an energy and environmental economics course, or LGST 299, a climate action and leadership course. There are engineering and science courses focused on specific climate solutions across a myriad of disciplines: Just look at VIPER’s energy course requirement. There’s also a minor at Penn specifically dedicated to environmental humanities, with a wide array of courses you can take.
All of these offerings are admirable, but they will only have a fraction of their potential impact if they are limited to self-selecting students that are already studying the climate in depth.
The climate crisis is not self-selecting — it can and will affect all of us. Granted, many of Penn’s students are in the upper echelons of society and have the means to avoid its worst effects, especially compared to impoverished communities worldwide that already face devastating flooding, wildfires, and heat waves today. But these effects will nonetheless reverberate globally — dealing economic damage, as well as political violence and social unrest. No one is truly spared from climate change, and so all of us have both a moral and practical obligation to learn about it and act on it, however we are best suited to do so.
I don’t mean to be all doom and gloom. In fact, a major justification for a far-reaching, all-encompassing climate education is to avoid climate fatalism, and to empower students to leverage what they are most passionate about as a means for taking action. The desire for this climate education is clearly there: Qe are just lacking in momentum. To any faculty or students who want to generate this momentum, I strongly urge you to speak to Penn’s administration about a robust climate education across all of Penn’s schools and programs. The time to act is now.
CAROLINE MAGDOLEN is a College and Engineering junior studying environmental science and systems engineering from New York City. Her email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.