It’s the first week of term here in Toronto, and I’m busy launching a new course. It’s a small-seminar, first-year undergraduate course, open to any student in the Faculty of Arts and Science, called Confronting the Climate Crisis. I’m launching it as a small seminar course this year as a pilot project, with the aim that we go big next year, turning it into a much larger lecture course, open to hundreds (and maybe thousands) of students. I’ll have to think about how to make it scale.

The idea for this course arose in response to an initiative at the University of Barcelona to create a mandatory course on the climate crisis for all undergraduate students, to meet one of the demands of a large-scale student protest in the fall of 2022. The University of Barcelona expects to launch such a course later this year. Increasingly, our students are demanding that Universities respond to declarations of a climate emergency (e.g. by the Federal Government and the City of Toronto) by re-thinking how our programs are preparing them with the resilience and skills needed in a world that will be radically re-shaped by climate change in the coming decades.

The design of this course responds directly to the challenge posed at U Barcelona: If every student were required to take (at least!) one course on the climate crisis, what would such a course look like? Climate change is a complex, trans-disciplinary problem, and needs to be viewed through multiple lenses to create an integrated understanding of how we arrived at this moment in history, and what paths we now face as a society to stabilize the climate system and create a just transition to a sustainable society. The course needs to give the students a clear-eyed understanding of how serious and urgent the crisis is, but also needs to give them the tools to deal with that understanding, psychologically, politically, and sociologically. So it needs to balance the big picture view, and a very personal response: what do you do to avoid falling into despair, once you understand.

It’s not clear to me that in any reasonable amount of time we could get the University of Toronto to agree to make such a course mandatory for every student, given the complex and devolved governance structure of the second largest university in North America. But we can make a lot of progress by starting bottom up: by launching the course now, we intend to provoke a much wider response across the University: How are we preparing all of our students for a climate changed world? What do different departments and programs need to do in response? If other departments want to add this course to their undergrad programs, I’ll be delighted. Or if they want to create versions of the course that are more specifically tailored to their own students’ needs, I’ll be equally delighted.

Alright, enough pre-amble. Here’s the syllabus entry:

This course is a comprehensive, interdisciplinary introduction to the climate crisis, suitable for any undergraduate student at U of T. The course examines the climate crisis from scientific, social, economic, political, and cultural perspectives, from the physical science basis through to the choices we now face to stabilize the climate system. The course uses a mixture of lectures, hands-on activities, group projects, online discussion, and guest speakers to give students a deeper understanding of climate change as a complex, interconnected set of problems, while equipping them with a framework to evaluate the choices we face as a society, and to cultivate a culture of hope in the face of a challenging future.

And here’s the outline I’ve developed for a 12-week course:

  1. How long have we known?
    • Course intro and brief overview of the history of climate science
  2. What causes climate change?
    • Greenhouse gases – where they come from and what they do
    • Sources of data about climate change
    • How scientists use models to assess climate sensitivity
  3. How bad is it?
    • Future projections of climate change
    • Understanding targets: 350ppm, 1.5°C & 2°C; Net Zero
    • Irreversibility, overshoot, long-term implications, and emergency measures (geoengineering)
  4. Who does it affect?
    • Key impacts: extreme weather, sea level rise, ocean acidification, ecosystem collapse, etc
    • Regional disparities in climate impacts and adaptation, and the rise of climate migrants
    • Inequities in responsibility and impacts – the role of climate justice.
  5. Do we have the technology to fix it?
    • Decarbonization pathways
    • Sectoral analysis: energy, buildings, transport, food systems, waste, etc
    • Interaction effects among climate solutions
  6. Can we agree to fix it?
    • International policymaking: UNFCC, IPCC, Kyoto, Paris, etc.
    • Policy tools: carbon taxes, carbon trading, subsidies, direct investment, etc.
    • Barriers to political action
  7. What will it cost to fix it?
    • Intro to climate economics
    • Costs and benefits of adaptation and mitigation
    • Ecomodernism vs. Degrowth
  8. What’s stopping us?
    • Climate communication and climate disinformation
    • The role of political lobbying
    • How we talk about climate change and the role of framing
  9. What are we afraid of?
    • The psychology of climate change
    • Affective responses to climate change: ecoanxiety, doomerism, denial, etc.
    • Maintaining mental health in the climate crisis
  10. How can we make our voices heard?
    • Protest movements and climate activism
    • Theories of Change
    • Modes of activism and the ethics of disruptive protest
  11. What gives us hope?
    • Constructive hope as a response to eco-anxiety
    • The role of worldviews, culture, and language
    • Reconnecting with nature
  12. Where do we go from here?
    • Importance of systems thinking and multisolving.
    • The role of storytelling in creating a narrative of hope
    • Making your studies count: the role of universities in a climate emergency.


  1. Hi Steve,
    This is Deenu. I am a student from York University. Is it possible for outsiders to enrol in this course? This course needs much wider accessibility for many to understand the problem and complexity. I would very much be interested to enrol the course.

  2. What a well designed and thoughtful agenda!

    Thank you Steven for publishing this outline. We have a similar initiative, though it is not a mandatory course, and it is on the M.Sc. level. I will pass the link on to our course responsibles.

    What size is the course in terms of ECTS? and how do the students’ tasks and the examination look like?

  3. Great initiative. For item 11.1, you might be interested in a project from the Netherlands where they envision what the country could look like 100 years from now. It was born out of a desire to get over eco-anxiety by a professor from Wageningen U. There is a nice TED talk by Tim van Hattum and more info here: if you are interested. Best of luck with the course.

  4. @Deenu: Sorry, I can’t accommodate anyone else in this term’s course, because it’s a small seminar and I don’t have room. Next year, when we relaunch as a larger course, it should be possible.

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