Comprehensive Perspective

Innovative climate studies major launched


In March 2022, the College of Arts and Science launched a new climate studies major that integrates the natural sciences, social sciences and humanities to give students a comprehensive perspective on climate change, its challenges and its possible solutions. It is an innovative approach to studying the climate, as existing climate majors at leading U.S. universities generally focus on climate science.

From its conception, the major has been built with a trans-institutional approach. David J. Hess, professor of sociology, James Thornton Fant Chair in Sustainability Studies and director of the newly named Climate and Environmental Studies program; Jonathan Gilligan, associate professor of Earth and environmental sciences and civil and environmental engineering and associate director for research at the Vanderbilt Climate Change Research Network; and Betsey A. Robinson, associate professor of history of art and architecture, all were co-chairs of the faculty committee that developed the major.

“We built this major at a time of growing recognition among the highest levels of scholarship and research that climate change is fundamentally an interdisciplinary problem that requires research and synthesis of knowledge across many disciplines,” Hess said. “Part of the motivation for creating this major is to address the global need to train the world’s future leaders in interdisciplinary approaches to climate change and other great challenges facing society.”

“There is no other program in the country approaching climate in this way."

Climate studies students gain a solid foundation through an interdisciplinary team-taught introduction to the field, a focused climate science course, and at least one course on climate and environmental studies in the social sciences, natural sciences and humanities. All students take two courses in methods and practices, such as statistics, GIS, 3D imaging/virtual reality, communications and technical writing.

The new climate studies major emerged out of the College of Arts and Science’s Grand Challenge Initiative, which began in 2020 and includes a Climate and Society project. “There has been great interest from students and faculty in establishing an interdisciplinary major that crosses all divisions of A&S, studies climate change from a variety of perspectives and encourages conversations and teamwork across disciplines,” Gilligan said.

“There is no other program in the country approaching climate in this way,” Robinson said. “Many address the sciences, but we are also emphasizing the value of the humanities. We need to look at history, culture, religion and ethics, art and design and many other areas to truly understand the impact we have had and are having on our planet. We also need to be able to look ahead to where we are going. It’s impossible to do this without the humanities.”

Learn more about Vanderbilt’s new climate studies major here.

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