how a new master’s degree aims to tackle the climate crisis

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<p><figcaption class=The problem of plastics in the ocean is an example of an issue that has gone from scientific discovery to widespread public awareness in a short period of time.Photo: mattpaul/Getty Images/RooM RF

When the Paris agreement was signed in 2015, it included a commitment to limit long-term global temperature rise to 1.5C, and was seen as a significant milestone in the fight against the climate crisis. But since then, progress has been slow and humanity has no time to waste. The frequency and severity of natural disasters such as drought, hurricanes and floods continue to increase – 95% of the oldest and thickest ice in the Arctic has already disappeared and wildlife populations have declined by 69% since 1970.

In its latest report, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) said that “fundamental societal and systemic transformation” is needed to tackle the coming climate emergency.

Part of the problem is a lack of attention to the importance of social change, says Daniel Welch, program director of the new master’s degree in social change, environment and sustainability at the University of Manchester. “Author Amitav Ghosh claims [in his book The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable]the climate crisis is a crisis of culture and, therefore, of the imagination’. What we have found is that people can imagine a society of sustainable consumption. But they find it very difficult to imagine the social processes to get us there.”

There is broad and deep community support for living in a more sustainable way. One recent study by the global social purpose organisation, the Behavioral Insights Team, found that 88% of Britons would like to make more sustainable choices if they could, and 86% would like the government and businesses to do more more to help others make more sustainable choices. Another report, from Deloitte – which surveyed 23,000 people across 44 countries – found that 55% of gen Z and 54% of millennial respondents research a brand’s environmental impact and policies before taking a job. Among gen Alpha (those born since 2010), the interest is even higher – almost seven in 10 (67%) say they want to save the planet as a focus of their career.

While job opportunities in this field are growing, there is a skills gap that needs to be addressed, says Welch. “There is great demand from organisations, non-governmental organisations, governments and think tanks. There are psychologists, there are behavioral economists, but there is a very limited supply from social science [perspective]. And there is a deep irony in this because this is what social science does. People who specialize in understanding these processes of social change and how to help shape them have a big contribution to make.”

The launch of the new master’s degree at the University of Manchester is an attempt to fill that gap. Students will cover a range of relevant topics including theories of social and behavioral change, the politics of global climate change, understanding big data for social research, and key issues of sustainable consumption and environmental sustainability. Although some students may come from social science backgrounds, offers have also been extended to individuals with various undergraduate degrees in the humanities such as history, English, marketing and other related fields, provided they demonstrate a strong interest in the social sciences.

The University itself is the Institute for Sustainable Consumption (SCI), which focuses on understanding and mitigating the negative impacts of consumerism on the environment, society and economy, and also tries to foster positive changes towards living more sustainable.

The University of Manchester ranks first in the UK and Europe (and second globally) for impact against the UN’s 17 sustainable development goals, and is the only university consistently in the top 10 for ten last year. As an institution, the university aims to achieve net zero carbon emissions by 2038 and is the only one in the UK to have social responsibility as one of its three key strategic goals.

Kevin Gillan, one of the university’s senior lecturers in sociology and researcher at the SCI, will be teaching a new module on environmental activism and advocacy as part of the master’s degree, which will cover the history of environmental movements since the 1960s. He says the climate emergency is now at an inflection point, but the increased level of awareness the students are showing gives him hope for progress.

“The speed at which we inform about new issues has increased. Plastics in the ocean, for example – the time period from scientific discovery and measurement of the problem to widespread social awareness of it was very short. If you compare that to something like how long it took us to get good at recycling…it took years to embed.

“There is clearly a lot of scientific knowledge involved in tackling the various environmental challenges,” he says. “It involves technological development and innovation … but that doesn’t mean change is going to happen. People don’t necessarily adopt [those measures]. Governments do not follow through. So that’s where we see the sociological angle come in…how do we embed these changes? In 2016, when I started teaching an undergraduate course called global social challenges, students knew about climate change but didn’t know much. Now they’re coming in with the motivation to do something and the recognition that it might be their job to do something, not something they do on the other side.”

Welch agrees: “Humans have an amazing imaginative capacity for cultural change. The lessons of history show that radical social and cultural change happens, and that it can happen in the space of a generation. But we need to understand those processes so we can help shape them.”

Find out more about studying at the University of Manchester and its new master’s degree in social change, environment and sustainability

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