Students at UCLA live their lives with a mild sense of existential panic.
And in recent years, it hasn’t just been about grades – eco-anxiety has also been thrown into the mix.
College students are constantly bombarded with signs that climate change threatens to dismantle the world, but continue to exacerbate the crisis because they’re unaware of its main causes.
The last decade has seen rising public concern about climate change and global resistance movements spearheaded by activists around the world. Combined with a scientific consensus that human activities over the past 50 years are responsible for global warming, it seems that environmental knowledge is at an all-time high.
But consciousness doesn’t necessarily imply understanding.
A recent Washington Post article found that although more than three in four U.S. teens and adults agree that humans are impacting the environment, most are misinformed about what exactly triggers climate change.
To make matters worse, most colleges continue to fall short in providing students with an understanding of the environmental crisis at hand.
UCLA could help to change that. The university should require all students to take a course about the origins and potential consequences of the looming climate emergency. Students are undoubtedly concerned about global warming, but often have to rely on the media for information because universities fail to educate them about the gravity of the situation. A GE focused on climate change would provide students with more than just academic experience – it would also supply them with the tools to survive the new world they’re about to step into.
At UCLA, student-led environmental organizations are stepping up where administrators have lagged behind.
But they shouldn’t have to when students are paying for a degree from a top-tier research university.
Sofia Monasterios, a fourth-year global studies student and the marketing director for Dig: the Campus Garden Coalition at UCLA, said U.S. colleges do not adequately educate students about climate change and that it deserves more attention in college curricula.
“This generation and any generation that comes after us is going to be insanely affected by (climate change),” Monasterios said. “It’s changing the way we live our lives; it’s changing the world.”
In so many other ways, UCLA is consistently on the front lines of the fight against climate change. From groundbreaking publications to environmental science panels, the research aspect of the university has been apparent.
Meanwhile, educating its own students about the issue has fallen by the wayside.
“Environmental courses should be included as one of the GE requirements at this college because global warming is becoming a serious problem and the only way to combat it is if everybody does their part,” said Lilia Diaz, a third-year human biology and society and physiological science student. “People won’t be as motivated to do their part if they are unaware of the situation.”
UCLA’s mission statement designates the “creation, dissemination, preservation and application of knowledge for the betterment of our global society” as its prime directive.
But it’s failing to deliver on that promise by keeping students in the dark about the existential threat that climate change poses to society.
And given the abundance of academic resources at the school’s disposal, UCLA has a responsibility to mandate an environmental course as part of the required curriculum.
Professor Ursula Heise, chair of the English department and a professor in the Institute of the Environment and Sustainability, pointed out that UCLA is making progress at educating the student body about climate change, but said more work needs to be done.
“UCLA has an incredible wealth of faculty who deal with these questions from very different disciplinary backgrounds and with different methods, and that’s super exciting,” she said. “We still have a ways to go in educating students about all aspects of these complex problems.”
Some within the university may object to an environmental GE on the basis of political bias – after all, requiring a specific course for all students implies that the subject takes precedence over others. Classes on slavery, systemic racism or feminism are surely integral to creating an informed student body, especially because these social issues may affect UCLA students more tangibly than climate change.
But the trajectory of climate change intersects with each of these subjects.
“Environmental crises are only in part scientific and technological crises,” Heise said. “They’re also, and perhaps even mainly, social and cultural crises – we can’t dissociate solutions to the climate change problem from solutions to global inequality, poverty and underdevelopment.”
Climate change is bound up with the history of environmental racism and colonialism. It touches on eco-feminist theory and is intrinsically connected to plantation economies predicated on slave labor. There are endless parallels between environmental and social justice movements – Greta Thunberg and her contemporaries are just the most recent embodiment of this phenomenon.
Of course, mandating students to take a climate change course can’t do justice to the nuances and multifaceted nature of these other concerns – but the environmental crisis should be studied and understood as an interdisciplinary subject.
UCLA markets itself as an opportunity machine – the school boasts nearly 150 departments and serves over 45,000 students. In short, it’s not lacking in resources but a sense of urgency.
And it can no longer justify leaving young people to face the climate crisis uninformed and unprepared – the stakes are too high, and too little time is left to settle for anything less.