Climate change education: filling the gaps

Open book

Grantham Institute Education Manager Sophie Smith explains why we need to nurture postgraduates with a broad perspective and a solid skills base.

“Climate change education, training and public awareness are essential to achieving the Global Goals.” [targets to tackle poverty and climate change]

This quote from the Director-General of UNESCO at COP21 last week sums up my thoughts exactly.

Solving any of the major challenges of the twenty first century requires multidisciplinary research, and nowhere is this more important than with regards to climate change – a challenge unique in scope and complexity.

It’s something I say quietly around Imperial, but I have a background in social science. But perhaps I shouldn’t be so shy. Changes to our climate and environment are increasingly central to areas outside of science.They affect development, migration, gender politics, conflict and social policy, raising a number of difficult socio-ethical questions: How do we encourage behavioural change? Should there be a price on carbon? Can we support a growing population without negative impacts to the environment?

More than ever, employers are looking for individuals with the skills and knowledge to fill these gaps in our understanding. More than just challenges, these questions offer unique opportunities for individuals to make a difference.

To reshape our relationship with our planet, the next generation of business and public sector leaders will be required to factor climate and environmental considerations into decisions at multiple levels. And whilst discussions at COP21 around climate education have focussed mainly on schools, it’s in higher education that students will take their understanding to the next level, getting to the heart of issues such as infectious diseases, Arctic glacial melt, and energy storage.

We need to nurture postgraduates who have broad perspective and a solid skills base, and build a collaborative community of researchers, addressing the challenges from different angles: earth systems, chemical engineering, plant science policy or business to name but a few.

The Grantham Institute has been actively working with those in the climate and environment area at Imperial (and beyond) since its establishment in 2007 and I was excited to be involved with this thriving community when I joined the Institute in the summer.

DTP students
Some of our SSCP-DTP students

I have the pleasure of working with two cohorts of PhD students within the Science and Solutions for a Changing Planet DTP and a small number of other PhD students based in the Institute. Together they make up a group of extremely talented students studying a huge range of topics sheltering beneath the climate and environment umbrella.  (Cake isn’t always guaranteed at coffee mornings, but great conversation is.)

It is especially exciting that there are more people in the postgraduate community at Grantham than ever before – and it’s growing. Building on Imperial’s excellence in research we must foster a collaborative, communicative community that will shape individuals who are not only experts in their field, but, crucially, understand its wider context.

Those involved in our education programmes benefit from a range of opportunities, from learning how to influence policymakers to dealing with and communicating scientific uncertainty or taking part in a mock COP21. The world-class research that’s conducted during a PhD at Imperial is just the foundation, what these future leaders get with us is the intellectually stimulating environment that you only find in an interdisciplinary centre like the Grantham Institute.

There’s also growing anticipation amongst the Institute and our business partners for the new MSc in Climate Change Management and Finance. Talking to our Co-director, Martin Siegert, it’s clear that industry demands new initiatives that train people who can apply the principles of management and finance in a climate change context.

By creating the opportunities for our students to gain real-world experience through placements we are addressing the need for mutual understanding.

As we eagerly await the outcome of the negotiations at COP21 in Paris, I’m glad to be working alongside talented academics, and the next generation of academic and business leaders who have the skills and knowhow to secure a better future for our planet.

Applications are now open for 15 fully-funded PhD positions on the Science and Solutions for a Changing Planet DTP, and for the MSc in climate change, management and finance.

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