New climate change certificate program launches Fall 2021

Bay Bridge agaisnt a backdrop of orange skies

Smoke from the North Complex fire over the Bay Bridge on September 9, 2020. PHOTO BY CHRISTOPHER MICHEL

Certificate program spans several disciplines

The Bay Area, like the rest of the world, has already felt the impact of climate change. There’s been coastal erosion, recurring droughts and ever-longer and more destructive wildfire seasons. Nevertheless, many treat the subject like the proverbial elephant in the room — something impossible to ignore yet hard to address. There’s an “activation barrier” for people, explains San Francisco State University Professor and Chair of Biology Laura Burrus, partly because the problem is so huge. She and several other faculty members are hoping that a new interdisciplinary climate change certificate program will give students the tools to dismantle those barriers and tackle climate change in a meaningful way.

“All of us need to be equipped to think about and respond to climate change. We all need to be actively engaged community members,” Burrus said. “It’s going to take every person on this planet engaging in this conversation.”

The 12- to 18-unit certificate program is designed to give students a foundational understanding of the causes, effects and mitigations of climate change so they can take action in their communities. While some of the courses that count toward the certificate are in the sciences, Burrus wants students to know that the program is not exclusively for science majors. In fact, the program was designed so that students from any major can take any course — there are few to no prerequisites. It’s also open to matriculated and non-matriculated students and students who aren’t working toward a specific degree.

“There are a lot of GE [general education] courses that meet requirements and there’s a sustainability overlay, so students don’t really have to take a lot of extra courses to get the certificate,” she added.

All of the courses existed prior to the new certificate, but the program groups them into three categories: causes, impacts and solutions. Students are required to take a foundational course as well as one course in each category. Students can choose from a range of classes that are spread across four of the University’s six colleges: the College of Science & Engineering, the College of Liberal & Creative Arts, the College of Health & Social Sciences and the College of Ethnic Studies. Course topics include race activism and climate justice; environmental communications and electronic media; restoration ecology; and climate politics and policy. The hope is that the program will eventually expand to the Lam Family College of Business and the Graduate College of Education.

An important focus of the program is climate justice, Burrus says. “We know the effects of climate change are going to most dramatically affect our most vulnerable populations. It’s a tremendous disparity that people need to be aware of and work to mitigate,” she said. “Given that climate change will affect our most vulnerable communities, we would like to see students from those communities actively engaged in the conversation.”

A future goal of the program is for students to work on projects that would help these communities. Students could work with nonprofits or non-governmental organizations as part of a capstone course, Burrus adds. “That’s where the magic happens. You’ve learned about all this stuff about social justice, causes, impacts and solutions, now let’s go do something,” she said. “We’re hopeful that we can point students in the direction of getting involved, but in the future we hope that we can create a capstone course that does get them involved.”

More information about the new climate change certificate program can be found at