How students are preparing for a climate-changed future

Feeling like the world has gone to pot in the run up to COP27? Why not take a climate class?

Photo Credit: Paul H. Joseph / UBC Brand & Marketing

Feeling like the world has gone to pot in the run up to COP27? Why not take a climate class?

From coping with climate anxiety to analyzing what coffee has the least harmful impact on the environment, UBC students are taking a variety of classes across faculties to get ready for a climate-changed future.

Working with the city to make change

The Certificate in Climate Studies and Action launched earlier this year in response to the climate emergency. Open to all undergraduate students, this certificate focuses on action; all students must participate in a “climate action lab,” where they work in groups on a real challenge posed by a community partner – this year, the City of Vancouver.

“There’s a need for these climate-related skills in the job market right now,” says instructor Dr. Tara Ivanochko, professor of teaching in the department of earth, ocean and atmospheric sciences. “We wanted the certificate to build community and support people working for climate action, across interdisciplinary teams and with real-world action – and helping them learn some of the roadblocks to be negotiated as part of that work.”

Students will tackle how to improve residents’ understanding of carbon pollution in the city and the actions people can take to have the biggest impact in reducing their carbon use. The best proposals will be developed by the capstone course in the future. This year, one proposal will be selected to be presented at City Hall.

Working directly with the City of Vancouver and learning from guest speakers involved with climate action has been an amazing opportunity, says undergraduate student Zhenyi Tsai, who is taking the course this term. “Often, people are aware of the climate crisis but not many know how to fix things, and that can make you feel helpless. This course teaches us how we can actively engage.”

Tackling climate anxiety

Helping people take action can lessen climate anxiety by combatting paralysis, says Raluca Radu, UBC school of nursing lecturer, who teaches Health Impacts of Climate Change. This second-year course explores how climate change affects peoples’ health, from infectious diseases, to the respiratory effects of air pollution, to eco-anxiety. “Even if it’s just one action, that has a ripple effect and can inspire others.”

The course, open to all undergraduates, encourages students to plan for a climate-changed future from a public health promotion and prevention lens. Health promotion strategies shared with students include checking up on elderly relatives during a heat wave, as well as avoiding strenuous exercise during air quality advisories, among others. “We have a responsibility to protect ourselves and others in our community. As a nursing professional, I am grateful to be able to ensure the next generation feels equipped with practical knowledge to safeguard their health while maintaining a harmonious relationship with their environment.”

The course also looks at the effects of climate change on mental health, including eco-anxiety and eco-paralysis. It even inspired a toolkit, developed by alumna Natania Abebe, which provides resources and ways of managing climate-related emotions.

Connecting climate change to health care helped demonstrate why climate change is an overarching issue, says Rayanna Shamji, a Bachelor + Master of Management student who took the course this year. “Someone who is precariously housed might be more vulnerable to a heat wave, somebody who is older might be more vulnerable to air pollution, someone who works in construction might be at risk of job insecurity due to extreme weather changes.”

Learning about the health effects of climate change has led Shamji to take more precautions, including wearing masks outside when the air quality is low, and she encourages those feeling overwhelmed to explore climate activism in a hobby or passion. “I’ve found taking little actions really helpful, just to feel like I’m doing something to protect my health.”

How Heavy Metal could help the green energy transition 

To meet climate goals, the world needs to transition to green energy sources, but these sources will require many minerals and metals. How to mine for these without further environmental degradation, and in fair and equitable ways, is a question Heavy Metal: Earth’s Minerals and the Future of Sustainable Societies aims to explore.

This new graduate course will be on offer in January 2023 and is a collaboration between the faculty of arts, science, applied science and the Peter A. Allard School of Law. This interdisciplinarity is key, says co-instructor Dr. Carol Liao, associate professor at the Peter A. Allard School of Law. “This is a challenge that requires cooperation across different fields of relevant scholarship, because they remain quite siloed. We need science students to be aware of the legal, policy and sociological issues of mineral exploration and we need humanities students to understand the science.”

Topics will include the social and environmental impacts across the mining life cycle, legal and policy frameworks for mineral governance, and metals recycling and recovery. Thanks to $25,000 in Killam Connection funding, the course will also offer a series of public lectures.

With hundreds of mining and exploration companies headquartered in Vancouver, the sector is a likely employer for many, says course lead Dr. Nadja Kunz, assistant professor in the school of public policy and global affairs and the Norman B Keevil Institute of Mining Engineering. “Mining is part of the solution to solving the climate crisis but it creates many new challenges in itself. It needs to be greener and I would love to see more students with a social and environmental background choosing mining because they want to make it better.”

Shop until the world drops

Just what does your cup of coffee say about you as a person? Shopping, Society, and Sustainability examines the impacts of shopping on environments, then dives into case studies to help students understand how consumerism plays a role throughout their lives.

“Often, we feel it’s up to us as individuals to change consumption habits to solve the climate crisis, which can be overwhelming and disheartening,” says instructor Dr. Emily Kennedy, associate professor in the department of sociology.  Rather, the course recognizes that consumption can foster connection, by a shared love of fashion or a favourite singer, for example, but that seeking one’s sense of worth from consumer goods is ephemeral. Students instead learn about making informed or meaningful choices without punishing themselves. “Students understand, okay, as an individual, I’m not going to stop fast fashion but by purchasing one quality item instead of six cheap ones, I feel proud of my purchase. It’s not a silver bullet but there’s meaning to be found.”

Case studies range from everyday purchases such as a cup of coffee to larger purchases including weddings, acknowledging the pros and cons of consumption in each case. For example, students learn about the expense and waste of weddings, while acknowledging it’s a significant day in many people’s lives.

Jessica Wei, an undergraduate student who took the course earlier this year, found the class changed how she thought about her purchases, feeling more liberated in making informed choices about what she was buying.

She took part in a clothing swap after considering the sustainability of her wardrobe and is more critical when buying coffee. “If I have a pair of jeans that are similar to trendy jeans, I now take a step back and consider if it would be a good decision to buy a new pair, or could I use what I have, or even borrow a pair?”

Interview language(s): English (all), Romanian (Radu)