MISSOULA – Amidst a record-setting drought across the Pacific Northwest and fires raging in the West, students enrolled in the University of Montana’s Climate Change Studies program have a front-row seat to address the effects of a changing climate.
The UM Climate Change Studies program was established in 2009, becoming the first interdisciplinary undergraduate degree program in the nation aimed at educating students to solve one of the world’s grand challenges.
While based in the Davidson Honor’s College, UM’s Climate Change Studies program incorporates economics, geography, political science, business, ecology, ethics, philosophy, geoengineering and more into a degree program popular to students in all majors.
“If we don’t act on climate change, our only options are going to be responding and reacting,” said Peter McDonough, director of the UM program, who teaches classes ranging from Biomimicry to Human Health and Climate Change to Climate Solutions.
McDonough said he fosters an environment in the program where students identify creative and practical solutions for reducing carbon emissions – the primary driver of climate change. And, with a new generation of students who view climate change as one of the worlds’ most pressing problems, they are energized to solve it.
Students from 23 different majors in the Climate Change Studies program bring differing views and ideas to the multilayered challenge that deserves creative and vast solutions. There are now 52 students enrolled in the program, making it one of UM’s fastest-growing academic options.
“There really isn’t a career in climate change,” McDonough said. “Climate change doesn’t have experts. What happens is people in their field become experts in climate change through the lens of their field. The important thing is for students to do whatever they are passionate about with a climate change lens.”
Elani Borhegyi, from a town outside of Boston, learned about the Climate Change Studies program at UM while researching the Davidson Honors College.
“Now climate change is basically my life,” Borhegyi said.
A third-year student, Borhegyi has taken a variety of climate courses, such as Global Cycles and Climate and Soils, Water and Climate, as an environmental science and sustainability major concentrating on resource conservation. But Borhegyi’s favorite class by far has been Climate and Society.
“I think we really need to work together as a planet to solve climate change,” Borhegyi said.
On campus, Borhegyi works in UM Professor Art Wood’s lab, simulating climate change’s effects on stoneflies. Over three months, Borhegyi and a grad student are monitoring how the populations grow, develop and respond to climate change by measuring the oxygen and temperature levels in tanks and observing changing feeding rates.
“Stoneflies are an indicator species. We can predict what climate change will affect based on what happens to stoneflies,” Borhegyi said.
Students in the program can become involved locally through an array of learning opportunities in urban agriculture on campus, at the University’s PEAS Farm or the MPG Ranch. They have collected climate stories for a documentary, covered the state Legislature and developed curriculum for a kayaking adventure company.
Students also can visit the Mekong Delta in Vietnam, Asia’s breadbasket, for three and a half weeks to connect with farmers affected by the river changing and flooding rice patty fields.
Borhegyi, who just started an internship with campus sustainability coordinator Eva Rocke on how UM can reach zero carbon emissions, is especially interested in international cooperation and how people can create healthier ecosystems for the sake of the planet.
But Borhegyi said any research on climate change – from its science to its effects on animal species – will not necessarily change people’s attitudes or inspire action. Through education and talking about climate change, even out of curiosity, people can become more prepared for the impacts – especially those who will be most affected.
“Climate change doesn’t discriminate,” Borhegyi said. “No matter what you believe in, you will be affected by it. You can turn that into action and hope for a better world.”
McDonough said acknowledging and talking about climate change is important, as well as taking small, everyday actions that add up.
A sense of patience will be needed too, McDonough said, as the solutions won’t take effect for decades.
“We won’t live to see climate change solved,” he said. “No one alive today will, but we can do it anyway for the next generation. That’s the whole point. That’s why we’re here.”
Learn more about UM’s Climate Change Studies Program at https://www.cfc.umt.edu/ccs/.
Contact: Peter McDonough, UM Climate Change Studies program coordinator, email@example.com.