Environmental Studies Major

Environmental Studies at Amherst College explores the complex interactions between humans and nature, requiring grounding in the natural sciences, humanities and social sciences. Courses examine climate change, loss of biodiversity and the depletion of natural resources worldwide. We study the physical and biological processes involved, as well as the complex ways these processes interact with cultural, political and economic forces.

Learn more about the Environmental Studies major and explore the program in the gallery below.

What a Climate Conference Looks Like

By Brian Beaty '17

People speaking at the U.S. Center 2015 Paris Climate Change conference Where I am:

Blogger’s Area (“Espace blogueurs”), Hall 4 of the Blue Zone within the COP21 convention center in Le Bourget, just north of Paris.

What the space is like: A series of giant warehouses filled with small booths representing countries and NGOs, and house-sized plywood cubicles enclosing rooms for briefings with the media. These rooms are filled with cameras and seats for audience members, but most are empty right now.

How I fit in:

I have “Observer-NGO” status at COP21, which allows me to enter a somewhat restricted “blue zone” not open to the general public. From what I understand at the moment I can go anywhere and see anyone I want except the official delegates, who meet privately among themselves to develop the agreement. I haven’t run into many other student observers like myself yet, but I’m keeping my eyes peeled.

A young man standing outside the U.S. Center 2015 Paris Climate Change conference How I got here:

I took the metro from the center of Paris to Le Bourget, and then took a free shuttle to the convention center. In front of the entrance is a courtyard of pillars displaying the flag of each nation. I went through a swift airport-style security-check, presented some forms to an official, got a badge labelling me as an “Observer”, and used it to get into the semi-restricted Blue Zone where I am now.

Where I’m off to today:

I’m going to meet with the head of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) at the U.S. Delegation Meeting Room, where she’ll talk with U.S. student observers about what it’s like to work at the intersection of science and policy.

What I’m thinking right now:

Too many people to meet, too little time!

  The interior of a large airport terminal

SIDS and their Climate Counterbids

By: Andrew Orozco

This week, it was my turn to lead the class discussion leading up to Paris, and I chose to talk about SIDS. No, SID is not a person, and SIDS is not some kind of crazy disease no has ever heard of. In fact SIDS stands for Small Island Developing States.

In recent decades, these small island nations have experienced deeply intensified effects of climate change due to their extreme vulnerability. Located basically at sea level, these islands have felt the sting of rising oceans, severe weather events (tornadoes), and warming temperatures and levels of CO2, which has played a key role in decimating coral reefs.

Coral Bleaching

This photo, taken from an article about the impending coral bleaching crisis in Hawaii, shows the immense damage warmer temperatures and heightened pH levels can cause to coral reefs, one of the world’s greatest supporters of biodiversity and ecotourism.

One example discussed in class surrounded the struggle of the Maldives, a chain of about 1200 small islands in the Indian Ocean, of which about 200 are inhabited. On average, the entirety of the Maldives lays 4ft and 11 inches above sea level. In recent years, the Maldivian dry season has increased from a regular 3-month period to an astounding 5-month span. In response to this, many of the inhabited islands have experienced severe shortages of freshwater and the President has been forced to rent a cargo ship to transport emergency freshwater to the inhabitants of these islands.

Looking forward to Paris, the Maldives and 43 other small island nations have banded together in a group called AOSIS (Alliance of Small Island States) and hope to urge the world’s developed countries to set a common warming goal at below 1.5 degrees Celsius (that’s like 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit). In order to achieve this ambitious goal, they have coined the popular phrase “1.5 to stay alive”. However, despite considerable backing by major leaders of the Buddhist faith, certain developing states, as well as many of the world’s civil society and environmental organizations, achieving this goal seems increasingly daunting due to the firm commitment to a minimum warming of 2 degrees Celsius made by the massively influential developed states such as the US, China, the UK, Russia, and more.

I encourage everyone reading this to follow the SIDS in the weeks leading up to the Conference, as they are going to be a huge part of this potential agreement. They may not have caused climate change, but they sure do have the most to lose.

If you are interested in learning more about the impending coral bleaching event or other events like it, feel free to follow this link:


Green Climate Fund: The Difficulties of Defining Vulnerability

By: Kayla Collado

Have you ever wondered about where the money to fight climate change comes from? What about whose responsibility it should be to provide this money? Perhaps even consider who actually receives the money? These questions are necessary to consider for COP21 to make a difference.

The latest Green Climate Fund (GCF) report, sent to COP21 members and available to the public, compiles ideas  to address these questions. The GCF report also addresses how they will follow COP’s suggestions to do so. These suggestions included:

  • To confirm monetary pledges from different countries with binding agreements, so as to actually collect the money promised
  • To begin approving project proposals submitted by countries in need of aid
  • Increase the transparency of its proceedings (which is why the report is so thorough)
  • Facilitate the ability of developing countries to engage with the Fund
  • Ensure that the staff selection is based on merit without discrimination
  • Accelerate the work done to address all of these suggestions

Despite the strides GCF and COP are making toward a more efficient system for climate change monetary aid, it is difficult to decide who gets the money. As Richard Klein and Annett Möhner discussed in Political Dimensions of Vulnerability: Implications for the Green Climate Fund, the difficulty in allocating money is in answering seemingly straightforward questions: What does vulnerability mean? Whose decision is it to choose to mitigate negative climate-related impacts in one vulnerable location over another? How would you choose?

According to the New Oxford American Dictionary, “vulnerability” is defined as “in need of special care, support, or protection.” In the Klein and Möhner piece, vulnerability is defined as “the degree to which a system is susceptible to, and unable to cope with, adverse effects.” The dictionary definition gives a broad definition that can apply to many places around the world, which can be an issue. The Klein and Möhner definition gets more detailed and relates better to climate change; it brings up a level of degree to which the definition can be applied to different areas. As a class, we decided that the Klein and Mohner definition, also the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) definition, is well-written and a great starting point for further discussion. As much as climate leaders avoid it, they need to view countries along a scale of vulnerability since the GCF does not have enough money to help everyone. It is also important to point out that this definition includes the idea of coping, because although certain areas may be susceptible to adverse effects, they may already have systems in place that allow them to cope with those effects.

One potential design for financial support to areas chosen by the GCF includes a committee that sends money to a small selection of the most vulnerable areas in the world. With similar committes, there have been too many variables for everyone to agree. Another design allows countries to send in their proposals for funding, but it can be difficult for financially unstable countries to create a committee informed enough to adequately pull this off. Our class agreed that a mix of designs would be best.

In significant ways, Amherst College provides us with an opportunity to understand the complexity of allocating monetary aid. The situation is comparable to financial aid policies at Amherst; Amherst students with financial need all have different levels of need and potential contribution. The system we use relates to the design where students send in proposals for funding since students can fill out financial aid applications. If it works for Amherst, it might have potential to work on a larger scale.

The US has pledged $3 billion to the GCF cause this summer. However, pledging is not signing, and the GCF needs to reach their initial goal of $10 billion to make a difference. There are areas of the world that need extra help in the effort to fight the climate changes we all face. As you hear and read about GCF in the weeks leading up to COP21, these readings and this discussion should help you reflect on the political and economic dimensions of climate change and possible solutions for those most in need. We’d love to hear your thoughts on possible distributions of aid and how you think vulnerable areas should be decided upon.

COP21 and Climate Politics

The following blog was created by members of the Fall 2015 course, “COP21 and Climate Politics.” The goal of this class, and in turn the blog, is to spread awareness about COP21, the upcoming international climate negotiations that will be taking place in Paris early December, to Amherst and the surrounding community. With this special topics course, we hope that by raising awareness about COP21, we will inspire students to not only consider the issues of climate change at hand, but also affect change on an individual level. We hope you enjoy our blog!

October 6, 2015

Over the past week, we interviewed a handful of Amherst students about their awareness of climate change and COP21. Resulting from these conversations, we have concluded that most Amherst students know a good deal about climate change but not about COP21. Many of the results were a mix of optimism and pessimism from these students. We wanted to share some of these conversations in an effort to spark dialogue:

By: Brian

In interviewing students about climate change and COP21, I chose five friends I knew had varying degrees of knowledge on the subject. They could all tell me what climate change was – no surprise there. One of them, a geology major, took particular relish in distinguishing between climate change in its specific sense as anthropogenic or human-induced warming and its broader sense as a dynamic process over Earth history. As I expected, all but one of my friends hadn’t heard of COP21; one even jokingly guessed it had something to do with 21 Jump Street. Things got interesting when I asked my friends’ opinion on what Amherst students should do about climate change. Two said flat-out that there’s little to nothing we can do to bring about real progress, while the remaining three said students should raise awareness of the issue. Two of these three – the ones I consider most knowledgeable about climate change – noted that many students go on to pursue business careers after Amherst without realizing that the companies recruiting them are often directly responsible for the problems they stand against, such as environmental degradation and economic inequality. When I asked what the U.S. should do to address climate change, I got a variety of responses ranging from cutting coal and switching to nuclear energy, removing politicians who deny climate change from office, and making legally binding commitments to reduce CO2 emissions. Despite the lack of awareness about COP21 and occasional pessimism about their personal roles in addressing climate change, overall I was impressed by how knowledgeable my friends were on the issue.

By: Andrew

During the course of my interviews for COP21 and Climate Politics, I received a remarkably wide range of responses. Climate change is a very salient and volatile issue in our time, and the extent to which people of different backgrounds engage and conceptualize this issue is, in itself, a topic of much debate. Despite the fact that many of the answers I received were fairly off-based in terms of what climate change is and how it actually affects us, I found it much more worrisome that a vast majority of the responses were littered with uncertainty and insecurity as a result. Unfortunately, it seems to me that the degree of intensity and polarization this global discourse has brought upon us has actually acted to deter many people from fully voicing their opinions and critically engaging with the information at hand. Much like the current political climate, the global climate crisis has forced many demographics to claim apathy when, in reality, the answer to this complex issue likely lies within the crowds of voices too intimidated to simply step forward and say, ‘Hey everybody, I have an idea’.

By: Kayla

I went into this project knowing that the Amherst students I would interview have thought-provoking ideas and opinions on climate change, because climate change is such a big topic in this day and age. Some students definitely seemed more informed than others, but the call for more political response was abundant. My favorite interview happened to be the last one I conducted. After generally explaining what climate change is, the interviewee gave a really personal view on how climate change matters to him. He explained that we are not coexisting with our planet, and we are seeing the early consequences (some more so than others), so it is our job to be more responsible to the planet we all live on. As for what we can do as Amherst students, the interviewee brought up awareness as the biggest issue, which came up often in my conversations. Of these interviews, no one knew what COP21 was, so I believe awareness is a really important idea. When we moved on to the successful outcomes of COP21, he brought up were stricter limits on corporations and incentives for those who act environmentally minded, which also sums up the ideas in my other interviews. Overall, it was great to see how the students of Amherst view climate change, and I am excited to report that students here are open to learning more.

By: Anna

It would be nearly impossible to be ignorant of climate change on a campus like Amherst College. With two of the previous three incoming first-year classes required to read books dealing with climate change and the growing popularity of the Environmental Studies major, it is clear that awareness of the issue is on the rise. When I sat down to engage in conversations about climate change, the students universally agreed that it was a problem that needed to be addressed for the sake of our planet and future generations. One student noted that a big concern for him when thinking about environmental problems was that he didn’t want his “future children to live in a world that’s dying.” Despite a general awareness of climate change as a challenge, many of the people I talked to suggested that environmental education would be one of the most significant things we could do to combat climate change. Amherst College has the opportunity to shape the education of some of the individuals who will later holds positions of power in society and could directly influence a national response to climate change. Beyond the boundaries of Amherst, my interviewees agreed, environmental education and awareness must become a larger part of our national discourse. This education should begin in our elementary schools so that even young children can develop an environmental consciousness that transcends into action. It is not enough to just know that climate change is a threat, a more comprehensive and interactive knowledge of the issue is necessary to create significant and societal change.

By: Karlea

Whenever I’m in need for information about something Amherst related, I always search for answers from the same friend. I remember the moment when I was first struck by his knowledge of the inner working of campus and the minutia behind utilizing Amherst’s many resources; I wanted to form a new club as a first semester freshman, but didn't know how. My friend, let’s call him Mr. Information, connected me with a multitude of individuals that worked in the residential life department whom he knew personally, nudging me closer to my goal which I had previously assumed impossible.

Mr. Information is a political science major, so he has always valued being knowledgeable about the facts that affect humanity (or as he puts it, the bodies being governed). When I asked him what climate change was, his response was pretty well informed. “Climate change,” he said, “is a deviance from the projected pattern in earth’s temperature. It effects the globe so it effects me”. He believes that we, as Amherst students, need to be conscious of our carbon footprint; however, he interestingly did not venture into any further measures he would like us to take after we are simply “conscious” of the impacts we are making.

This type of answer was very common among many of the students that I interviewed, and likely not comes not from a lack of desire to take action but rather an inability to conceptualize physical changes that would be able to chip the iceberg that is the issue of climate change. This type of paralyzation towards attempted solutions is common throughout the environmental movement because it’s effects are projected to be so universally catastrophic.

When I asked Mr. Information if he knew about COP 21, it was the first time that I was finally in a position to give him information rather than the other way around. When asked about what he thought our nation should do about climate change, he responded “Abide by international standards and law ‘sort of things’”. To me, this demonstrated that, although he did not know what type of law “sort of things” might lead towards a more sustainable future, he has faith in the law’s ability to address these issues and wants our government to be part of exploring a solution through legal tools. Because of this, I think that if individuals knew more about COP 21, they may feel less intimidated about our globes approach to addressing climate change. This would hopefully releasing them, at least to some extent, from the afore-mentioned paralyzation caused by lack of hope. After I discussed COP 21 with Mr. Information, he seemed to feel more optimistic in his role as a student to effect policy change on our campus and in our nation as a whole.

Hopefully now, if someone asks him about COP 21, my friend can continue to live up to his role as Mr. Information.

What is a Climate Refugee?

By: Brian Beaty

If you follow news on climate change closely, you may have encountered the term “climate refugee,” used to describe people displaced from their home countries by climate change. Often these people come from underdeveloped countries and island nations where droughts and rising sea levels pose immediate threats to their livelihoods. A quick search on Google Trends (which is now one of my favorite things on the internet) shows that the phrase first appeared around 2009 but only started taking off around the end of 2012. Why, you might ask? My theory is that the Arab Spring played an important role. The political upheavals across North Africa and the Middle East came so suddenly that reporters couldn’t help but consider the idea that climate change was a catalyzing factor. After all, within the past few years these desert regions have been facing extreme droughts, heat waves, and crop failures. The idea that climate change caused the Arab Spring even has a scientific basis: a study published earlier this year in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences found that a severe drought in the Fertile Crescent from 2007 to 2010 was very likely caused by human-induced climate change, and went on to argue that this drought helped trigger the Syrian uprising against Assad.

Still, the idea of climate refugees was a bit nebulous until the media started linking it with the current European migrant crisis. Earlier this September you may have seen reports of the drowning of a three-year-old Syrian refugee named Alan Kurdi along with the pictures of his body washed up on a beach in Turkey. Soon media articles were describing him as a climate refugee, his death a prelude to the countless more tragedies that are destined to occur because of climate change. This brought renewed attention to the idea that the Syrian civil war was caused by climate change, as epitomized by a recent article on the viral site Upworthy that promised to explain the crisis “in 5 minutes.”

Saying that climate change caused the current refugee crisis is obviously a gross oversimplification of the facts that downplays many other factors that brought Syria to where it is today. That said, while climate change isn’t a direct cause of civil unrest, it certainly is a stressor. As countries most at risk to climate change struggle to cope with the increasing severity of droughts, flooding, storms, and sea level rise, millions of people face displacement.

The United Nations now recognizes climate-induced migration as a major global issue and is currently working on means to address it. However, the biggest step taken so far came not from the UN but from the governments of Sweden and Norway, which in 2012 created something called the Nansen Initiative. According to its website, the Nansen Initiative tasks itself with the development of “a protection agenda” that policy makers can use in addressing the climate refugee crisis. Non-governmental organizations such as the International Organization for Migration (IOM) have also played leading roles, as have partnerships such as the Advisory Group on Climate Change and Human Mobility, which includes members of the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR), Refugees International, the International Displacement Monitoring Centre (IDMC), and the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP).

This parade of organizations and acronyms shows that however ambiguous the term may be, climate refugees are now a top concern on the global environmental stage. Although no legally binding resolutions on climate migration are likely to come out of the COP21 talks in Paris, it will certainly continue be a high-profile issue, and one that will continue to raise controversy.