‘It’s an exciting time for students' why it's important to have a generation of climate leaders

I teach a unit called climate change science and impacts, which is part of the MSc in climate change science and policy and the MSc in environmental policy and management. The idea of this unit is to give an overview of the key things we want students to know about climate science.

So, for example, we look at the greenhouse effect and the influence of human emissions. We consider what climate changes have happened in the past and how recent change compares with long-term changes over thousands of years. We explore what’s happening now and the extent to which that can be attributed to human action. Then we also look at what we expect to happen in the future, and talk about how we can respond to this, in terms of both adaptation and mitigation.

Recently, I’ve been doing polls in our online lectures to liven things up. I’ve also encouraged students to have personal discussions. For example, I’ll ask whether they think they have personally experienced climate change impacts. There’s a focus on methods and evidence, so I ask them what scientific data and methods they could use to predict how climate change might affect their own future. On top of teaching, I research climate change. Specifically, I’m trying to understand how global heating might affect rainfall systems in Africa. Over the last few years, I’ve noticed an increase in interest in tackling the climate crisis, with action like the Fridays for Future movement led by Greta Thunberg, along with Extinction Rebellion. I’ve seen this among my own social circle, as well, and I see that interest and passion in my students. In my previous role, as a researcher and tutor at the University of Oxford, I was involved in admissions for the geography undergraduate programme. Doing that, I also saw a growing emphasis on climate change in applications from young people.

We need a lot more experts in the environment [to address] the climate crisis. There are new jobs opening up and important roles focusing on climate change in the civil service, NGOs and businesses. It’s an exciting time for students to study these topics, and it’s so important for society. We really need this generation of climate leaders.

As told to Abby Young-Powell

Rachel James is director of the MSc in climate change science and policy at the School of Geographical Sciences, and Cabot Institute for the Environment, at the University of Bristol


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