Yukon College is expanding their offerings in one the hottest (pardon the pun) arenas today: climate change. Often described as one of the greatest challenges of our time, human-induced climate change is already having major impacts on northern communities and ecosystems. Many factors will determine how the trends we are witnessing now will play out in the future and there is an increasing recognition among governments, NGOs and industry that literacy in climate science is no longer an option but a necessity.

Communication, between the scientists studying the changing climate and the rest of us – including those we trust with important decisions, can be fraught, however. This, says Dr. Katrine Frese, instructor and coordinator of the new post-degree certificate in Climate Change Policy is why the college chose to focus on policy instead of science in expanding its educational programs.

“Many MA programs focusing on climate science already exist in Canada,” she says, “but there are problems in science communication. Our focus is on liaising with and communicating the science to decision makers.”

The new program is aimed at professionals already in the workforce and while the qualifications listed in the course description include a university degree, Frese says that relevant work experience will be considered as well in order to capture the widest range of students. You don’t have to have a science background to take the program either, in fact it is aimed at providing a bridge between the world of climate science and those involved in policy development. This gap can be large, and the ambition of the program to cover all aspects from critically evaluating the latest in the rapidly evolving field of climate science through to policies on adaptation and mitigation is as well. “We can’t cover everything,” admits  Frese. “It’s a huge topic, complex, even intimidating – but we hope to have a pretty broad spectrum by the end of the first year.”

Frese explains that the dynamic natures of both climate science and policy mean that learning to critically evaluate what one hears and reads will be a key skill, and that even from the teacher’s perspective striving to give an unbiased education on the subject is a challenge. As the academic world of climate science and society’s responses evolve, so too will the program.

“This [year] is the first iteration,” says Frese, “the program will be able to change and grow over time.” She cites anticipated student feedback and the dynamic nature of the subject as the drivers of the course’s evolution.

Some of this student input could even be current or past experiences from their professional lives, says  Frese. This, added to the course material that is primarily drawn from case studies of climate change responses in the Yukon will help to make the lessons as relevant and comprehensive as possible. Ultimately, she would like to see policy development become a ‘social process of decision making’, not just something that happens from the top down.

As with other liberal arts courses at the college, the program is limited to 25 entrants – Frese hopes for ten in the first year and 15 by year three, though she acknowledges that she doesn’t have a strong sense of what the uptake will be. The college currently offers a continuing education course called Climate Change for Decision-Makers that tends to have between ten and 20 students for its bi-weekly lectures.

“We anticipate about three hours a week per course,” she tells me when I ask about student time commitment, which amounts to six hours a week for a year over two courses during each of the fall and winter semesters capped off with a two-week summer field trip. All in all the 15-credit program is set to cost $8,850 and begin in September of this year, with applications being accepted come February.

With the intended audience being working professionals all of the course work outside of the field school will be carried out through Yukon College’s online platform, and Frese hopes to make use of as many different tools as possible to create a ‘classroom feel’ for the students. The online nature of the program also opens it up not only to students outside of Whitehorse, but across the country and internationally.

“I’d like to have recordings of guest lectures including First Nation elders, online seminars and group work to expand beyond the classical learning materials,” she explains.

While Frese is the instructor and coordinator of the program, she has been collaborating intensively with Yukon Government’s Climate Change secretariat and the college-based Yukon Research Centre and Northern Climate ExChange (NCE) to develop the program over the past 12 months. From her own background in the natural sciences as a geologist she says she is fascinated by the systems on the planet and thinks that climate literacy is incredibly important to understanding where political actions come from. She sees a huge need for climate policy to integrate western science and indigenous knowledge, and hopes that graduates of the course will be able to better navigate the interplay of engagement, politics and communication that are necessary for policy to be developed as living documents.

“It shouldn’t just be a piece of paper,” she says of the ways we choose to respond as a society to these important issues, “it should be something that is revisited, has responses assessed, and revised over time.”

Frese hopes to see more and more positions related to climate change showing up in all the governments in the territory, and also that this kind of education will support a growing thread of climate literacy running through the offices of those that make decisions affecting our communities. If the mixed crowd that showed up for the information session about the program on January 10 is indicative, that just might happen.

Check out Yukon College’s webpage for more information on the program.