Plymouth State takes new approach to climate change

  • A flood during a high tide, reflecting damage done by rising sea levels from climate change, is shown on the Marsh Side of Hampton Beach on November 16, 2020. This was the winning picture in this year’s King Tide Contest by the New Hampshire Coastal Adaptation Workgroup. Marie Sapienza / Courtesy

Granite Geek
Published: 2/14/2021 6:04:50 PM

If youngsters are going to fix the world they need to understand what has to be fixed – and nothing needs more fixing than the way we are altering the climate.

That’s roughly the thinking behind Plymouth State University’s newest bachelor degree, an unusual program that focuses not only on the scientific realities of climate change but also on possible responses to the ongoing disaster.

“It’s climate studies instead of climate science,” said Lourdes B. Avilés, Ph.D., a meteorology professor who shepherded the creation of the new degree.  This emphasis is deliberate, she said: “High school and college students are much more interested in being involved and doing something with the climate crisis than are the older generation.”

The four-year program, which launches in the fall, will produce a bachelor of science rather than bachelor of arts degree. It will include required courses in meaty topics like atmospheric science and environmental science, including such things as statistics, GIS and computer programing, and energy. That’s important even though its students may not end up working in research or technical fields.

“A strong science foundation is necessary regardless of how far from a scientist they want to be – a politician, or a community organizer, starting a business. If they care about the climate issues, they need to understand the science,” said Avilés, who has been at PSU for 17 years and mostly teaches upper-level courses about physics applied to the atmosphere.

But the essence of the new degree will be be the non-science aspects of the curriculum, which can go almost anywhere and will end in a research or capstone project.

“There will be optional low- and upper-level courses in one or more possible focus areas,” she said, ticking off possibilities: “Business, if you want to have a climate-related business you need to learn the basics of how to run a business; communication; art; policy and society; sociology. The idea is to be as flexible as possible.”

Plymouth State is an obvious place to launch this program because it well known for its meteorology program. This provided a basis of labs, expertise, staff and professors to build on. And, like many universities in the Northeast, it has been rethinking its majors and programs in the face of a looming shortage in new students, with the pandemic only making the situation tougher.

“It was the right time to take advantage. The university is looking for new exciting interdisciplinary degrees. We already have all those courses here; all we needed to do was package them in a way that made sense,” Avilés said. “If it had to be a newly created program, with new faculty, new courses, it would be a lot harder.”

Avilés said this degree is unique in the state and may be unique in the country, although there are plenty of degrees built around sustainability, which is also a minor at Plymouth State.  She’s beating the bushes for students; for information, check the PSU Climate studies website.

I see the climate studies degree as reflective of our overdue acknowledgment that climate change – or global warming or the climate crisis or whatever we call it – is the over-arching issue of our times. It’s the root cause of many of the world’s problems, from forced migration to pandemics to poison ivy appearing everywhere, and it’s getting worse more quickly than was predicted by even the gloomiest of forecasters.

If we don’t factor in climate change when we’re making plans or trying to solve a problem, we’re not really making plans or trying to solve a problem. We’re just sidestepping the underlying issues, avoiding the hard choices, and we’ll fail in whatever we try to do.

So get to work, youngsters. We’ve got a lot of fixing to do!

(David Brooks can be reached at 369-3313 or dbrooks@cmonitor.com or on Twitter @GraniteGeek.)

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