Climate change in interdisciplinary teaching

27 Sept 2022

Students and lecturers from all disciplines are coming together at LMU’s Munich Climate School. This event has set itself a clear objective: to encourage a holistic understanding of climate change so that active countermeasures can be undertaken.

© IMAGO / Christian Ohde

How can climate change be halted? How can we achieve net zero emissions of greenhouse gases? These are the questions to which LMU academics across a broad spectrum of subjects are seeking answers.

For the second time, they are now sharing their knowledge with students of all disciplines at the Munich Climate School. For a whole week, a series of fundamental talks about various aspects of climate change will be delivered – some in person, others in a hybrid format. Economist and adviser to the government Professor Karen Pittel will provide an introduction into the topic of climate and business, for example, while Professor Matthias Garschagen will discuss the disastrous consequences of climate change. Social ethicist Markus Vogt will explore the issue of climate justice from a theological perspective.

In the course of the week, the students will discover what diseases can be attributed to climate change, which challenges plants now face and how financial risks can be cushioned. Simulation games round off the program, whose primary emphasis is on personal exchanges. Debates between lecturers and students are explicitly welcomed, because the whole aim of this educational event is to spawn joint projects going forward.

The idea for the school grew out of LMU’s Climate Forum, a loose affiliation of researchers brought together by legal expert Professor Helmut Satzger and LMU Vice President Professor Francesca Biagini. Satzger and some of his colleagues have also shouldered the task of organizing the Climate School.

Questions about criminal climate law

Finding a legal expert so deeply involved with issues of climate change is surprising only on the surface. Why? Because questions about what criminal climate law might look like and how it can be applied are rooted in the very nature of the issues at stake. Germany has, after all, committed itself to climate neutrality. Is it not therefore logical to have to regulate the legal underpinnings and outworkings of this obligation?

“Climate change is such a serious problem,” Satzger insists. “So why does the sharpest sword in the state’s armory – criminal law – have so little to say about it?” For some years, the legal expert has been studying whether and how behaviors that damage the climate can be prosecuted and prevented. No easy matter, given that prohibitions tend to be unpopular in a liberal society. One acceptable workaround could be emissions trading, which permits a measure of leeway.

Satzger and his research associate Nicolai von Maltitz have set up a dedicated research project on the subject. “Our basic idea,” von Maltitz explains, “was to understand climate neutrality as a legal status that ties emission-causing behaviors to compensation mechanisms." However, the undertaking soon pushed the two researchers to the limits of their discipline: In looking for answers, they lacked the foundational scientific understanding that could be supplied only by other discplines. Which is why they began to forge networks. “That was the initial spark,” von Maltitz notes. The idea for a Climate Forum was born.

From Climate Forum to Climate School

“It was strange,” says Satzger, “that so many faculties were addressing similar questions, but that there was no real forum for dialogue.” And since the pressing issues of climate change should also be reflected in the teaching provided, the first Climate School was held last summer, just a few months after the founding of the Climate Forum. The school was a resounding success.

“The mood among the students was very exciting and stimulating,” Satzger recalls. He was particularly surprised by the discussions held not only between students and lecturers, but among the lecturers themselves.

David Kaiser, a geography student who attended last year’s Climate School, is in full agreement. He applauds the debates held in a spirit of equality. And he has no doubts: “If you want effective solutions in the context of climate change, it is worth looking into other disciplines.”

Working toward solutions

The organizers are now keen to keep the school going and open it up to students and lecturers from abroad. As things stand, all teaching staff take part on a voluntary basis with no compensation. That said, questions remain over the Climate School’s longer-term financing. But whatever happens, the event should continue to be built around personal encounters, which Satzger sees as the best platform on which to launch joint projects.

The huge challenges that lie ahead evidently do nothing to dampen the mood of those who attend the Climate School – a mood which, in Satzger’s words, is “by no means subdued”. “In our capacity as scientists, we are there to solve problems. We won’t bury our heads in the sand, and there are reasons for hope. I am optimistic that we can make the best of the situation.”

His personal dream is to guide the students to become experts in climate law within the framework of a master’s course. And part of this dream has already been fulfilled: With the support of several colleagues at his faculty, Satzger has already set up a research unit for climate law.

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