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Class explores impact of climate change

Christian Myers | Tuesday, December 4, 2012

As the semester draws to a close, the professor and students of a new interdisciplinary course, the Politics of Adapting to Climate Change, are able to reflect on the course’s first semester.

The course, offered by the political science department, was taught by political science professor Debra Javeline. Javeline said the course is open to students in any major and will be offered again in the fall semester of 2013.

Javeline said the class focuses on adaptation to climate change and its political implications. Most classes dealing with climate change expose students to the concept of climate change mitigation, she said.

“Most students who study climate change study ways to slow, stop or reverse climate change; that’s mitigation,” she said. “But the fact is that we’ve reached a point where even our best mitigation efforts can’t prevent some climate change. Adaptation refers to the measures taken to prepare for and protect ourselves from the inevitable climate change. The question is how to adapt to this new climate reality.”

The topic of adapting to climate change is primarily the concern of environmental scientists, which makes the class thoroughly interdisciplinary, Javeline said. She said students do not, however, need a background in environmental science.

“It is a science topic, but we have to make political decisions about it,” Javeline said. “I make sure that students have enough science to get at the politics.”

Javeline said they examine current issues of climate change adaptation as a class and discuss the political questions raised by these issues.

“The questions we look at are questions for urban planners and engineers. For example, in addition to preparing for future Hurricane Sandy’s, what should our major coastal cities be doing to prepare for rising seas? This class talks about the politics of it all,” Javeline said.

Sophomore Christina Gutierrez, a political science, French and Italian major, was a member of the course’s first class this semester. She said she enjoys the relevance the course has to current events worldwide.

“It’s about everything our country, and others, do to mitigate and adapt to climate change,” she said. “I like being in a class where all of the material is really relevant, and it’s great to have an idea of the changes going on in the world.”

Sophomore Arthur Laciak, a political science and math major with a minor in German, also took the course this semester. Laciak said the course also looks at impediments to adapting to climate change and that he enjoyed the opportunity to engage in research based on primary sources.

“The class looks at the strategies to adapt and factors that get in the way – politics, economics and public opinion. We also cover the basic background of what climate change is,” Laciak said. “I like that the class provides the opportunity to do our own research and to look at primary sources,” he said.

Javeline said an important part of the course is learning how to make decisions with incomplete information.

“Adapting to climate change is urgent; we can’t keep waiting around. The changing climate is already having an impact,” she said. “Policy makers have to make decisions about climate change before they have all of the information. It’s called decision making under conditions of uncertainty, and it’s what makes [climate change adaptation] a political science topic.”

Javeline said one of the major areas of concern in the politics of climate change is the idea that economic and environmental interests are at odds.

“One thing we talk about is that politicians often present the economy and the environment as competing interests,” she said. “The truth is, adapting to climate could be one of the most economically efficient things we can do.”

She said one of her goals in developing this new course is to show students the economic benefits of adapting to climate change.

“I hope that students leave this class knowing that protecting the environment is good economics [and] is in everyone’s interest,” Javeline said.

Javeline said she is excited about the diversity of majors among the students in the class.

“Most students are political science majors, and the second most common major is Environmental Sciences. There are also quite a few business majors and a sprinkling of architecture, math, economics, history, sociology, Russian, and Italian majors and philosophy, language, energy studies and sustainability minors,” she said.

Javeline said almost all course readings were written within the last 10 years. She also said the course is essentially paperless with all readings available online.

“It is a paperless class. I tried to be true to the nature of the class, so everything is online and the links are in the syllabus,” Javeline said.

She said the conspicuous lack of textbooks for the course was not the result of a deliberate decision.

“No textbooks on this topic exist, so it isn’t even a choice,” she said.

Javeline said her students benefit from being exposed to recently published and even incomplete research.

“Students can learn a lot from seeing ongoing research. They can see how policy makers make decisions even as the science is developing,” she said. “Some of the assignments are even drafts of policy statements. These allow students to see the thought process of policy makers.”

Lociak said it is difficult to work with these drafts and other incomplete materials, but he values the insight they provide into governmental processes.

“Sometimes the research we read is incomplete, and that can be difficult. But it shows us the stages of the government’s response,” he said.

Javeline said she has spent the past four years working on issues related to climate change. Initially, she began by helping biology professors Jessica Hellmann and Jason McLachlan with their work related to species extinction due to climate change as survey research specialist. She said the experience sparked her interest in the subject, to which she now devotes most of her research efforts.

“It was my side-project, but it’s grown to be all-consuming,” Javeline said.

Javeline said she created the course as a way to inform students who go on to work in the government or private industry about the pressing issue of adapting to climate change.

“One of the things I’ve learned is that communicating about climate change is important; people recognize it but don’t appreciate the urgency,” she said. “By teaching about it, I’m doing my part. I’m conveying to talented undergraduates the need for their contributions.”

Gutierrez said she registered for the course because of her past experiences with Javeline.

“I had Professor Javeline last semester for a class we created together called Food Politics, so I wanted to take another class with her,” she said.

Laciak said his previous interest in the subject of climate change led him to take the course.

“When I was searching for classes, this one seemed the most interesting. I have an interest in climate change and the debate about what should be done,” he said.