Teaching the Ethics of Climate Change

Jonathan Brockopp
Professor, History and Religious Studies, College of the Liberal Arts, Penn State

This article is a part of Climate Action at Penn State, a blog highlighting climate solutions, research, and other efforts at Penn State. 

Ask students about their emotional response to climate change and they often describe fear and anger. Dig a little deeper and you find that fear arises out of a sense of powerlessness and a tendency toward nihilism: “by 2050, we’re all going to die” one student told me.

Anger is probably healthier, but harder for me to face. After all, we’ve known for decades that burning fossil fuels could lead to dangerous warming, and in 1992 President George H.W. Bush promised “an action plan on climate change.” Yet my generation has shirked its duty, and atmospheric CO2 levels continue to rise. Students have every right to be angry with the world we’ve left them.

Penn State has been working for years, successfully, to reduce its carbon footprint. But recently, the University has embraced a larger role. Its new strategic plan specifically challenges the University to “be a leader in creating comprehensive solutions to mitigate the dangers of climate change.”

Students visit a solar array near the Penn State University Park campus.

One way to fulfill this lofty goal is to ensure that no student graduates without a basic knowledge of the science of climate change. It is a bit shocking to me, that so few Penn State students come into my classroom able to write out the basic chemical equation for photosynthesis or to explain the difference between coal and charcoal.

Science opens the door to understanding our world. Knowledge of basic climate science gives students the ability to understand the causes of global warming and which mitigation strategies will work, but it’s only the beginning. The question of what to do with that knowledge, of how to make a difference in the world, is much more complex.

For these reasons, I and several colleagues have developed a general education course on the Ethics of Climate Change. This course combines an overview of the science along with training in some basic ethical perspectives. It seeks to move students toward a sense that they can play a positive role in making their world a better place.

There are, of course, many ethical topics that could be addressed. Mitigation strategies, alternative energy choices, income inequality, climate migrations – all these are in need of ethical inquiry. But in this class, we focus on two key strategies: learning to listen and learning to negotiate.

Our conviction is that ethical insights must arise from experience, and so we train students to run a 90-minute conversation on climate change with a diverse group. We also form country teams and conduct a mock Paris negotiation. The first exercise helps them to realize the role of values and emotions in finding common ground on difficult issues. The second helps them to see climate change as a truly global issue.

Students have responded very positively to the course, with some calling it their favorite class, and others noting that it was an “eye-opening course on the role of ethics.” I’m working now to bring this class to other colleges and universities, so please contact me if you have any interest. I honestly believe that classes like these are the very best of what a university is supposed to do: prepare students for making a difference.

Related Conference Themes
Built Environment
Electricity Generation
Land Use
Women & Girls