Vanderbilt offers new climate studies major


The Vanderbilt College of Arts and Science has launched a new climate studies major. The major integrates the natural sciences, social sciences and humanities to give students a comprehensive perspective on climate change, its challenges and its possible solutions. Students can declare the major now and choose from an exciting slate of new courses in the fall 2022 semester. This is an innovative approach to studying the climate, as existing climate majors at leading U.S. universities generally focus on climate science.

David Hess (Vanderbilt University)

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.”

Jonathan M. Gilligan (Vanderbilt University)

Climate studies students will 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 will take two courses in methods and practices, such as statistics, GIS, 3D imaging/virtual reality, communications and technical writing. At first, most courses will be offered by the College of Arts and Science, the School of Engineering and Peabody College. Elective courses and immersion opportunities will let students develop mastery in one discipline or gain additional research or practical experience. In the coming years, the major is likely to be expanded with course offerings within other colleges and the additions of a senior thesis and internship component. There are also many opportunities for students to engage in a “living laboratory” within Nashville and the surrounding region. “The climate studies major will provide highly visible points of connection to make it easier for students and faculty to connect with communities and government agencies to work together on these important issues,” Hess said.

Betsey Robinson
Betsey Robinson

“This major is both powerful and unique because it employs a multifaceted, problem-based approach,” said John Geer, Ginny and Conner Searcy Dean of the College of Arts and Science. “Climate change is perhaps the most pressing issue of our time. Part of the college’s mission is to address critical problems and explore effective solutions to them. I am thrilled that we are launching this new major in such a creative interdisciplinary way—the Vanderbilt way.”

A number of Vanderbilt departments already contribute to the environmental curriculum across campus, including the ecology, evolution and organismal biology major; an environmental science track within biological sciences; an environmental sociology major; an environmental and sustainability studies minor; a cluster of courses in environmental anthropology; and a regular rotation of classes in environmental humanities. There is also an environmental public policy track within the public policy program, an environmental engineering discipline within civil engineering and related courses at Peabody.   

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.  

Geer asked interested faculty to develop a proposal for the new major. Led by Hess, Gilligan and Robinson, and including A&S colleagues from the humanities, social sciences and natural sciences, as well as Peabody and engineering faculty, the group fleshed out the structure and requirements for the major. Joe Bandy, assistant director of the Center for Teaching and senior lecturer in sociology, led the group in developing goals for the program in four areas: knowledge, skills, attitudes, and ethics and values.  

“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.” 

The program is designed to be flexible and can be combined with any other major. A double major with natural or social sciences could prepare students for academic graduate studies in climate science, environmental policy and justice and many other fields. The major should appeal to students interested in law, business, public health, medicine, design and urban studies. It will equip graduates to pursue almost infinite opportunities in entrepreneurship and green finance, consulting, human services, energy and transportation, food and products, waste and recycling, conservation and heritage management, education, technical writing and journalism. In short, it is a major for the 21st century. 

“We look forward to welcoming students of all backgrounds and interests to learn about climate and society—past, present and future,” Robinson said. “Wherever their careers take them, climate studies students will understand climate change and gain the knowledge and skills to be thoughtful, responsible members and leaders of society going forward.” 

In addition to Gilligan, Hess and Robinson, the governing faculty committee for the Program in Climate and Environmental Studies includes faculty members Mark Abkowitz, Brooke Ackerly, Joe Bandy, Beth Conklin, Larisa DeSantis, Teresa Goddu, Patrick Greiner, Amanda Little, Yolanda McDonald, Ole Molvig, Dan Morgan, Jessica Oster, Paul Stob, Anand Taneja, Lori Troxel and Matthew Zaragoza-Watkins.