Liberal Arts Curriculum Must Address Climate Change

America’s leading environmental journalist, Bill McKibben, will visit the 5Cs next week. McKibben is the author of numerous books on environmentalism and the founder of 350.org, an international grassroots organization aimed at confronting climate change denial and cutting emissions of carbon dioxide.

In his speech Thursday at Pomona’s Bridges Auditorium, McKibben will have some bad news. He will tell his audience that climate change is not just an issue for our grandkids—this was a problem for our parents. To sustain some semblance of the planet humans have inhabited for the last 10,000 years, leading climatologist James Hansen has said we must keep the concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere below 350 parts per million. As of September, we were at 389.

McKibben will tell his audience all of this, and he may even pull out his Doomsday card and say that it’s too late—it’s too late to save the Earth our great-grandparents knew, the world as it was before industry and the burning of fossil fuels caused a roughly 1.4°F increase in temperature over the last 100 years, an increase that has been tied to a rise in sea level, instability in the world’s ecological systems, and a jump in extreme weather activity.

Judging from the content of his books, we expect McKibben’s message to be quite grim, to say the least. And it should be: the world—which we sometimes forget includes the Claremont Colleges—is not acting fast enough to avert a global climate disaster. Oceans are becoming more acidic. Severe flooding is becoming more frequent. Crop yields are dropping because of unpredictable weather. And it’s all because we’re burning lots of black stuff we found in the ground so we can drive to In-N-Out and keep our beer cold in the fridge. It’s that simple.

Don’t be disheartened—the 5Cs are certainly taking steps in the right direction. Pomona’s new North Campus dorms just earned the maximum LEED Platinum certification for energy and resource-use efficiency from the U.S. Green Building Council (see story in News), and Claremont McKenna’s new Kravis Center is LEED Gold.

Furthermore, students at the 5Cs are active in the struggle for a sustainable planet—with student-run organizations like Green Bikes opening up or expanding at multiple colleges, more students maintaining plots at Pomona’s Organic Farm and CMC’s Community Garden and sharing their produce with the community, and an increased general awareness (we hope) of the need to reduce our personal energy use. Turn the lights off when you leave a room, disconnect your power cord when it’s not in use, if it’s yellow let it mellow—you get the idea.

This Editorial Board applauds the recent steps of 5C administrators, sustainability offices, and students toward minimizing their carbon footprint. But we also acknowledge that it’s not enough.

It’s not enough because it ignores one of the pillars of McKibben’s proposed solution to our current predicament: local, community-inspired action. At the Claremont Colleges, our biggest asset is our intellectual community. Students, faculty, and staff come here from around the world to learn, to share ideas, to ask questions and offer solutions to global problems.

And yet, sometimes it seems that one of Earth’s biggest problems—human-induced climate change—is lacking a space in our intellectual community. It’s a hobby, an extracurricular.

That is why this Editorial Board would propose a rethinking of the place of climate change—its causes, effects, and our responses to it—in our education system. If we believe what McKibben and Hansen have said, then continuing business as usual with an out-of-touch, single-discipline system of higher education ignores reality and diminishes the potential of a liberal arts education.

We don't claim to have the solution. But the Claremont Colleges could incorporate the study of climate change and its effects into multiple aspects of our community, including orientation programming, residential life, various class curricula, breadth of study requirements, or an increased emphasis on interdisciplinary studies. The possibilities are endless if we are serious about pursuing change.

When McKibben stands before the audience at Bridges on Thursday, he will speak with authority—he’s been writing about climate change for over 20 years. This Editorial Board can’t say what his speech will entail, and we expect to be surprised. But we implore our readers to listen to what he has to say, and to consider, as a liberal arts student living in a rapidly changing 21st century world, what it really means to bear your added riches in trust for mankind.