Yale's New Climate Change Center in Context

Between daily reports of climate change disasters and high-profile student divestment activism, the climate emergency has become impossible to ignore on campus. Yale’s new Center on Climate Change and Health (CCCH) has emerged as a leader in climate change research, but environmental activists believe Yale itself has not yet caught up. 

In January, the Yale School of Public Health (SPH) launched the CCCH as an expansion of the Yale Climate Change and Health Initiative, founded in 2015 to research and address climate change as a public health challenge. The Center will create a climate change and health concentration for Master of Public Health students and continue to offer its online certificate program and corresponding specialization on Coursera, an education site that offers open online courses.

“The main goal of CCCH’s educational program is to train future leaders in real world efforts to address the adverse health effects of climate change,” said Robert Dubrow, the CCCH Faculty Director. “Hopefully, through these efforts, CCCH is doing its part to help meet Yale’s responsibility to address climate change.”

Martin Klein, CCCH Executive Director, emphasized the Center’s focus on health and climate justice, following the SPH’s mission to improve health and prevent disease. Though overshadowed by recent coronavirus panic, persistent diseases like malaria spread faster and further due to global warming, posing a far larger threat to global health. Climate justice is concerned with these environmental phenomena as sociopolitical issues, acknowledging that those who are least responsible for climate change often suffer the most. “Climate change constitutes the gravest threat to the health of all people and the planet. These effects will be disproportionately felt by low-income communities and low-resource countries, yet these are the groups that contributed least to the climate emergency,” Klein said. “No discussion of climate change and health is complete without an understanding of how it impacts health equity.”

Katie Schlick, SM ’21, and Alexander De Jesus, BK ’21, co-presidents of the Yale Student Environmental Coalition, see the Center as a promising initiative. According to Schlick, the intersection of public health and the environment is a critical but under-discussed piece of the climate crisis. “Oftentimes I fear that a general belief around Environmental Studies majors centers on us just ‘saving the trees.’ In reality, the field is so much more complex, nuanced, and interdisciplinary,” Schlick said. “The creation of CCCH institutionalizes a prioritization and commitment to linking these two areas through research, education, and outreach.”

The CCCH online certificate—the first of its kind offered by a school of public health in the US—targets professionals, but “we all have a stake in the game” when it comes to climate change, said Kathryn Conlon, CCCH certificate lecturer. To extend access to the CCCH’s material, Lauren Babcock-Dunning, Director of Online and Certificate Education, spearheaded the “Climate Change and Health: From Science to Action” Coursera specialization. A series of three online courses, the specialization teaches the science of climate change, climate adaptation for health, and communicating the climate crisis, all in an accessible format for a public audience. “Climate change is the most important public health crisis we currently face, and we have a responsibility to equip as many people as possible to address it,” Babcock-Dunning said. 

These courses join the ranks of Laurie Santos’s “The Science of Well-Being” and Akhil Reed Amar’s “America’s Written Constitution,” which are Coursera adaptations of the two most popular Yale courses of all time—a sign of increasing demand for climate change education. The specialization is well-rated—4.8 stars out of 5. Past Coursera students have reviewed the specialization as the “best course for beginners to learn about climate change,” offering a “deeper understanding of climate change impacts.” Conlon, who leads the specialization’s climate adaptation course, described how Coursera eliminates traditional barriers to education, including the cost and inaccessibility of academic papers to the public. “There’s no reason why any person in any part of the world shouldn’t be able to access the same information that [Yale students] are in New Haven,” she said. 

The CCCH has bolstered Yale’s public position on climate change, but Yale remains under fire from the national divestment movement. In September, a coalition of Yale’s environmentalist groups staged a college-wide walkout to protest the Yale Investments Office’s holdings in fossil fuel companies and Puerto Rican debt. Two months later, Yale’s divestment activists made national news when they interrupted the annual Harvard-Yale football game, storming the field at halftime to demand university action in the climate emergency. While Schlick appreciates the CCCH’s mission, she recognizes that Yale, through certain investments, risks undermining the mission of its own climate research.

“Education and research opportunities like those now offered by the CCCH are important pillars of climate action, but if Yale is not listening to its own educators, scientists, and research—which clearly state the need to transition out of fossil fuel dependence and toward climate resilience—then Yale is not acting in good faith and Yale is not doing enough,” Schlick said. The divestment movement is largely student-led, and often detached from the university’s academic sphere. But student activist organizations Fossil Free Yale and the Yale Endowment Justice Coalition believe divestment is a political statement inseparable from Yale itself—“Yale’s investments as an institution should align with the values that they claim, which will never be the case as long as they are invested in fossil fuels,” they said in a statement circulated before the September climate walkout. Yale’s educational values, such as the SPH’s goal to improve global health, should drive its support of Yale’s students and larger community beyond academics, De Jesus explained. 

“I would urge the administration to constantly recalibrate its plans to act bolder and bolder in addressing the threats of climate change that are already impacting vulnerable communities, and recognize the well-researched and powerfully articulated policy agendas of student and local New Haven social movements,” he said. 

CCCH Executive Director Klein hoped that launching the CCCH would be the next step in the SPH’s plan to lead the field of climate change and health. While the Center alone does not fulfill Yale’s responsibility in addressing climate change, Schlick recognizes its value as a welcome step in the right direction. 

“So much needs to be done in the face of the climate crisis that I refuse to turn my nose up at ideas or solutions that move us in the right direction but are possibly critiqued as not going all the way,” Schlick said. “We have way too much to do, and way too little time, to turn down ideas that address the climate crisis and climate justice.”  

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