In an ever-evolving effort to ensure academic opportunities remain at the cutting edge of issues and careers of importance well into the 21st century, the faculty and boards of the College of Saint Benedict and Saint John’s University recently approved a new minor to be offered in climate studies, beginning in fall 2023.
With climate change looming as perhaps the biggest crisis of the foreseeable future, it is likely to require multiple solutions and complex thinking to find ways to reverse its effects and live with its reality. To address this need within a liberal arts education, Saint Ben’s and Saint John’s will incorporate many fields from the academic catalog into the new minor.
And, while climate science programs are offered at many research universities, few schools in the United States currently have a climate studies program of any kind – and even fewer among them are liberal arts colleges. The challenge of seeking to understand and craft solutions to the global climate crisis are quintessentially liberal arts endeavors, complementing CSB and SJU’s existing environmental studies major.
“The great thing about our climate studies minor is that it is truly interdisciplinary,” said Corrie Grosse, who has a doctorate in sociology and is an assistant professor of environmental studies at CSB and SJU. “Climate crisis requires all hands on deck to research, innovate and craft sustainable and just solutions. Our program builds on our existing liberal arts strengths in cultivating diverse skills and perspectives among our students – the leaders of the future.”
The drive to add a climate studies minor came primarily from the students. They have lived their entire lives in a world of changing climate and seek greater understanding for it and a way to be part of the solutions to the crisis.
“I was really excited to hear about the climate studies minor because it gives more of a focused and expansive curriculum – in terms of environmental studies – about a topic that is going to become more and more pressing over time,” said Jalayna Smith-Moore ’24, a CSB senior from Richfield, Minnesota. “It is a really important minor to have for prospective students to be able to prepare for making solutions to climate change.”
Saint Ben’s and Saint John’s have long been active both locally and globally in climate education. Students first attended the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) annual Conference of the Parties (COP) in 2009. In 2015, CSB and SJU were granted formal observer status, which has enabled student participation since. In the five-state region, the only other schools with such access include Macalester College and the University of Minnesota, and the latter restricts participation to graduate students. At CSB and SJU, Bennies and Johnnies learn about COP negotiations, draft research projects and then travel to the conferences. There they conduct primary research through observations and interviews with attendees from around the globe. The latest, COP 27, is from Nov. 6-18 in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt. The UNFCCC originated in 1992 and now includes more than 190 nations.
“The Benedictines who founded CSB and SJU have a history of being at the forefront of the study of conservation and stewarding resources to sustain both the human and non-human world,” said Derek Larson, professor and chair of the environmental studies department at CSB and SJU. “We looked at the urgency and demand for action on the climate crisis and saw that we not only have the existing faculty expertise but coursework across departments was already being developed and taught with climate change in mind. The creation of the minor in climate studies provides a scaffold for students to adopt a deeper knowledge of the climate crisis that can be integrated into the pursuit of any major or career.”
The climate studies minor requires 20 credits and can be paired with any existing major. Classes are offered in environmental studies, art, nutrition, chemistry, political science, sociology, business, communication, biology and other departments. The curriculum includes 14 foundational credits, four credits from upper-division electives in diverse fields, and two credits from integrating and deepening knowledge – either through a capstone project or attending the UN climate conference. No more than four of the 20 credits can count for another major or minor.
According to an Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report in 2018, human activities have caused a 1.0-degree Celsius increase in global temperatures above pre-industrial levels. That increase is expected to reach 1.5 degrees between 2030 and 2052 and facilitate the rise of sea levels and its associated impacts. If the rise in temperature is not checked and continues to 2 degrees, results will include extreme heat in most inhabited regions of the world and the greater chance of excessive precipitation in some regions and probability of drought in others. Limiting the increase to 1.5 degrees is crucial to ocean temperature, acidity and oxygen levels, and the survival of small island nations and coastal populations. Answers will require “rapid and far-reaching” transitions in energy, land use, infrastructure and industrial systems.
“We have to decrease our emissions by half by 2030 in order to keep temperatures below 1.5 degrees (increase),” Grosse said. “We’ve got a narrow time window. These next 10 years are critical. We need students and graduates who are prepared to lead creatively, courageously and with justice at the center of their work.”