Climate Affairs Program: A Notion Whose Time Has Come?

April 14, 1999
By Michael Glantz

Fragilecologies By Michael GlantzI have been wondering this past year if there might be a need for the development of a Climate Affairs Program at universities and colleges. I think the notion is a good one, but whether that notion can be realized in a university setting is an unaddressed question. I was able to receive some 'seed' funding from NSF's Atmospheric Science Division to assess the feasibility of developing a "model" or template for such an academic program. There is an email advisory group, which has been discussing whether and how to go about developing such an activity (in theory) and what kinds of courses might be included.

The idea for a climate affairs activity in an academic setting was inspired by the University of Washington's School of Marine Affairs. Invited to its 25th anniversary celebration in Spring, 1998, I became acquainted with many of its graduates, now ecologists, political scientists, legal scholars and practitioners, engineers, sociologists, fisheries experts, urban planners, coastal zone developers, among others. They all came out of the same program over the years and were thriving in their chosen careers...and, they were getting along in spite of their different political and ideological persuasions about human interactions with the marine environment. So, I thought, could this program serve as a model for those of us focused on climate and climate-related issues? Is the development of a "School of Climate Affairs" too far-fetched for consideration?

As of the mid-1960s there was not one formally established academic marine affairs program. Today there are more than 50 of them. The first ones emerged in the late 1960s and I suspect that their development had a lot to do with the on-going discussions to develop a "Law of the Sea". In those discussions, a need was recognized for expertise in many aspects of the marine environment deliberations within and among countries. Academics with some degree of foresight realized that this area was fertile for research, application of research findings and therefore employment opportunities.

Today, one could argue that governments are in the midst of creating a "Law of the Atmosphere". Concern about greenhouse gas emissions and global warming of the atmosphere, stratospheric ozone depletion, tropical deforestation, El Niño forecasting and impacts, and extreme climate-related events (droughts, floods, fires, infectious disease outbreaks, severe storms) have been added to the traditional concerns about the atmospheric environment: air pollution, transboundary atmospheric pollution, acid rain.

The IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel for Climate Change) focuses scientific research on climate science, climate impacts and climate policy needs. The Conference of Parties (COP) has met on several occasions over the years to discuss the Protocols to the FCCC (Framework Convention for Climate Change). As a result of concern about global warming, there has been a sharp increase in attention to the human aspects of climate variability and climate change. Aside from the climate change issue, concern has recently grown — thanks in part to El Niño and La Niña — about how well societies cope with interannual climate variability. The point is that there is now, and will continue to be, a growing "thirst" by societies worldwide for information about the physical, biological and societal aspects of the climate system. Industries as well as governments will need expertise that may not now exist.

The question then is as follows: Is it time for the academic community to consider whether students would benefit from an academic program that focuses on "climate affairs", a program, like marine affairs, that encourages scientific study and the application of that science to address societal needs. I think so. Do You?

I would appreciate receiving your thoughts on this issue. Email:

Fragilecologies Home Page | Full List of Articles