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Illustration by Dhabia Al Mansoori

We Need Environmental and Climate Justice Education

For NYUAD students to be ready for present reality and to remain relevant in the job market, the university needs to make climate education a core component of its curriculum.

Last week, I wrote about the institutional responsibility of NYU Abu Dhabi in addressing the climate crisis. NYUAD, however, is not any institution — it aims to be “one of the world's great research universities.” Hence, in addition to the crucial operational changes reducing the carbon footprint of the campus, it is imperative that the university embraces the highest standards of educating students about the climate crisis, its complex causes, intersectional impacts and necessary systemic solutions.
At its origin, global heating is a physical phenomenon based on the trapping of solar radiation by the Earth’s atmosphere. This effect has been well understood since the 19th century, and a clear picture of potential anthropogenic impact on the atmosphere’s temperature started to emerge in the 1950s. By bringing this knowledge to the public and sounding an alarm about the threat stemming from human made greenhouse gas emissions, academics gave birth to what we today call the “Climate Movement”. This contribution would not be possible without the passion of thousands of scientists, who have sought to better understand the world around us, and we need to nurture these attitudes among today’s students to prevent the disasters of tomorrow.
Over the last few decades, climate issues spilled well beyond the natural sciences and are now widely recognized as an intersectional challenge. The climate crisis with its impacts and causes can be analyzed through the lens of economics, literature, sociology and so on. For example, rising sea levels and extreme weather phenomena are going to disproportionately impact people in the Global South. Given that their contribution to greenhouse gas emissions is negligible, this topic should concern anyone studying ethics or international relations. Moreover, global heating processes affect construction and city planning, so they are critical to understand for anyone envisioning to work in urban planning or engineering but also the financial sector.
The responsibility to educate students to understand and act upon the climate crisis is particularly relevant at NYUAD. Although the university is only ten years old, it has alumni who serve in decision-making positions in governments, private companies and other institutions around the world. With more generations graduating in the upcoming years, the impact of NYUAD — what it teaches and how it teaches — is going to increase exponentially. If NYUAD is to realize its vision to prepare students “for the challenges and opportunities of our interconnected world,” it is about time to holistically include climate education in the university’s curriculum.
As of now, NYUAD has the Environmental Studies minor but the course offerings are unsatisfactory. This fall, there is only one course available for the minor. And while there were five courses last semester, for an interdisciplinary minor that relies on courses cross listed with other majors or minors, this is insufficient. Perhaps the small size of our campus is a reason for the limited availability of courses. Yet, this reasoning does not hold when comparing similarly sized private liberal arts colleges in the U.S. Bates College, Pomona and Amherst all have Environmental Studies majors. Arguably, with the intersectional character of the climate crisis that I have been emphasizing on so extensively, it is precisely liberal arts colleges like NYUAD that are best suited for learning about this issue thanks to the potential of a multidisciplinary approach.
Adding more environmental studies courses, especially ones focused specifically on climate issues, is a first, relatively easy step to improve the curriculum at NYUAD. However, to show true commitment to climate action, NYUAD should go a step further. There are exciting and important practices from other universities that could be implemented, not only to appeal to students already interested in environmental issues, but to make environmental sustainability an integral component of the academic atmosphere on campus.
The University of Toronto is a trailblazer in this regard. They offer a three-tier sustainability pathways framework in which students can earn the titles of “Sustainability Citizen”, “Sustainability Scholar” or “Sustainability Leader”, which are based on one’s co-curricular activities, course selections and capstone project topics, and it gets recorded on the transcript. Additionally, the university administration created incentives to use the campus as a living lab for student and faculty projects, and for research that may enhance environmental sustainability of the institution. To deliver on this goal, the administration and faculty prioritize the development of courses and initiatives that equip students with skills that help them become effective agents of change in the field of sustainability. Outcomes of these efforts can be seen in U of T’s Sustainability Course Inventory.
NYUAD already has many of the necessary resources for transformative education about environmental issues and climate justice. We have a world class faculty, cutting-edge research and passionate students. We also have a well structured core curriculum that provides space to meaningfully incorporate education about these new topics, in addition to dedicated space within majors and minors. Now, there is a need for academic leadership to put these pieces together. Both the private and public sectors are on a trajectory to increasingly account for climate issues, and for NYUAD students to remain relevant in the job market, it is about time to make this shift.
Beniamin Strzelecki is a columnist. Email him at
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