Campus News

New Course: Social Dimensions of Climate Change in a Sustainable World

Bokie Muigai August 18, 2023
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This semester, Ans Irfan, MD, EdD, DrPH, ScD, MPH, MRPL, will be teaching Social Dimensions of Climate Change in a Sustainable World to students in the online Master of Public Health program. Learn more about Irfan and his vision for this course.

When did you first become interested in climate change and how did you decide it was going to be your area of focus?

I grew up in a small village in Pakistan in a family whose primary livelihood has been farming for many generations, so this is a deeply personal issue for me.  We experienced first-hand how emissions from industrialized countries trickled down to impact water scarcity in our communities. This in-turn affected our crop yield leading to economic anxiety and family dysfunction. As a result, I know many family and community members who have lost homes and land due to drought, flooding, and rising water tables.

From a scholarly perspective, I was working on a project thinking about brick factory workers and heat exposure. Initially, I began to think about the ways in which the pharmacology of the medications the workers were taking, were being impacted by the high temperatures they were working in. It also raised the question: why is the temperature rising so much and why are these workers being exposed to these conditions in the first place? I realized there were bigger issues tied to historical processes such as colonialism that I wanted to understand.  This was my entry point to the study both public health and climate change.

What is the importance of climate change education?

There is no job you can imagine in the future, especially in public health where there is not going to be a necessity to understand climate change, even at a very foundational level. You don’t need to be a climate change modeling expert, but you need to understand it from a social perspective. From how I view the world, climate change is here and it’s an existential crisis.  It is a cross-cutting issue, where any social or structural determinant of health that you explore, or any way that you look at the human condition—climate change is operating in that space.

Last year during my attendance at the 2022 United Nations Climate Change Conference in Egypt, the conversation revolved around the need to integrate climate change into curriculum across the board. Similarly, I serve on the America Public Health Association (APHA) Advisory Board for the Center for Climate and Health Equity. We have also been working on developing a strategic plan to integrate climate change into public health education in order to augment our student’s knowledge.

What will you teach in the class?

The course is developed through the lens of social dimensions of climate change with the intention of exposing students to a wide-range of topics. They will learn about the foundations of climate science, greenhouse gas effects and which ones we are concerned about and why. Students will learn about how our social norms in society inform our actions or inaction around climate change. They will learn about coloniality, social movements, political economy, and climate justice and think about what sort of policies we should be developing when it comes to climate policy. I want them to think about the broader challenges around climate ethics, and to critically think about the implications of these issues. Notably, we de-emphasize grading and busywork and take a very applied and engaged approach that encourages my student colleagues to deeply reflect, formulate, and share their climate thought leadership.

What do you want students to know about addressing the effects of climate change?

I reference a quote by one of my favorite scholars Bell Hooks: “To be truly visionary we have to root our imagination in our concrete reality while simultaneously imagining possibilities beyond that reality.” I sit with this quote quite often because it asks us not to forgo what we have, but think in terms of possibilities and not just probabilities. I want my students to know, while there is an urgency to address climate change, they should entertain the possibility of social change.

If you go back a few decades ago people experienced injustices through atrocities such as colonialism, eugenics, and segregation – this was the norm and people’s reality at the time. If you proposed an alternative world or asked people to imagine a different reality, they would have probably told you there was no real scenario of changing their reality. We need to root ourselves in the concrete reality but imagine a world beyond our current situation. I want our students to be imaginative and have faith and hope in their generation to know there is nothing stopping them from imagining and creating a completely different world where we are addressing climate and living in a just and equitable world.

How can students apply what they learn in their future careers?

I want to decenter the thinking that we are only interested climate change when it comes to health care. This class is designed for students to incorporate what they learn into whatever type of work they decide to do in the future. The knowledge they acquire will have them thinking about the climate as it relates to their work and interest. All of the skills they will learn are transferable. My hope is that students are coming into this class not only from global health and the environmental health track, but also from epidemiology and other specialties. I want our students to think about, what does it mean to inform biostatistics through a climate lens, how do we develop and update behavioral health policies to mitigate climate change and make communities more resilient? My hope is that student driven assignments will speak to them and their interests and how climate change features in their passions. All of this is designed for them to cultivate a broader vision for an equitable world where there is no reality where you can ignore climate change, no matter the field you go into in public health.