Tuesday, 20 March 2018

CASE STUDY: Climate Ethics

Futuristic painting of large cairn-stones, covered in greenery and topped with buildings, against a bright blue sky.
Climate Ethics (originally known as Environmental Ethics) was developed by Dr Holly Lawford-Smith during her time at the University of Sheffield’s Department of Philosophy, with support from USEA in the form of an  Enterprise Curriculum Development Grant.

The module introduced students to the challenging moral and political issues raised by climate change - a key innovation was the novel, authentic way in which students were tasked with responding to the question:
“You have £1000 to spend on doing good. Will you choose a climate-related cause, or something else? Which? And why?”
As a direct result of developing and delivering the module, Dr Lawford-Smith was nominated by her students for, and won, the 2016 Students’ Union Academic Award for “Excellence in Learning and Teaching”.


PHI143 Climate Ethics

Subject area


Module overview

Climate Ethics ran for two academic years from Autumn 2015, until Holly’s departure from TUoS in early 2017. The innovations in the module were supported by the provision of an ECD Grant in the academic years 2015/16 and 2016/17. The key innovation of the project was described in the original ECDG application, submitted in 2014/15, as follows:
“Students considering the ethical case for action against climate change will be given a chance to work directly on the question of how climate activism compares against other morally important goods, and which of the climate-oriented projects is the most efficient and desirable, by securing £1000 to invest in the charity / cause / project of their choice. They will work in groups to figure out the best uses of the budget, and will deliberate as a class on the most compelling case. Their experiences working in groups will give them an experience of collective political action.”
Dr Lawford-Smith developed the module in response to a perceived gap in the curriculum concerning the topic, felt to be highly relevant and relatable in a UK context with many interdisciplinary connections – thus making it potential engaging at first year, when larger numbers of dual honours and non-philosophy students study unrestricted modules within the department.

The students and the curriculum

Climate Ethics was a 20-credit elective module open to first year single- and dual-honours Philosophy students (Level 1). It was studied by 39 students in Autumn 2015-16 (50% single-honours PHI), and 29 in Autumn 2016-17 (one-third single-honours PHI).

At the time of the project, all Philosophy modules bar one were elective.

The module was pitched at an introductory level, aiming to engage a diverse cohort of learners including those without a prior background in philosophy or knowledge of ethics.  Content was framed around a central climate change problem, introduced at the beginning of the semester.

Learning and teaching aims

“Climate Ethics aims to give students a developed understanding of some of the central philosophical questions in thinking about Environmental Ethics. At the end of the course, candidates should be able to explain the central philosophical positions in the literature on these topics in some detail, and articulate and defend relevant considerations bearing on a judgement of which of these positions are, on balance, the most defensible.

“By the end of the unit, a student should be able to demonstrate the capacity to articulate the philosophical issues involved in Environmental Ethics. This will involve the ability:

  • to recognize and contrast alternative arguments both for and against duties to protect the natural environment, non-human animals, and future humans' ability to enjoy the natural environment;
  • to explain and assess those arguments; 
  • to show familiarity with some of the most important literature in philosophy and politics relating to environmental issues; 
  • to come to an intelligent and balanced view of the issues studied, in light of the complexities raised through the lectures and seminar discussions;
  • to form and defend an evaluation of some of the arguments discussed. 

“Students will therefore develop their capacities for analysis, argument, interpretation and contextual understanding, and also develop the skills necessary to write articulately and successfully about such issues, and to present their ideas clearly.”

How do students develop their capabilities?

Authentic Problem Solving: Students were given a realistic problem to solve, conducting research and presenting the case for awarding funding to an organisation in the knowledge that real money was at stake.  Constraints included the requirement that only one organisation could receive the money, and stipulations from the University about the types of organisation eligible to receive funding.

Innovation and Creativity: Philosophy is an inherently creative discipline, lateral, divergent and creative thinking being key aspects of the process of “doing Philosophy”.  For many first year students, in particular dual honours students, Climate Ethics would have been the first time they were required to operate in this way. Creativity was employed by the groups of students in considering the ways in which money might be used, where and how it might be invested, and in developing effective arguments to persuade their peers of their cause.

Risk-taking: Students had very limited time and resources in which to do all of the required thinking and evidence-gathering necessary to come to a rational decision about how/where to invest the money, and yet they must reach one firm decision. Students had to strike a careful balance – between instinct and emotional connection with a cause, and the gathering and appraisal of firm evidence – both when attempting to convince peers of their cause, and when deciding where to cast their own vote.

Taking Action: With only one organisation receiving the entire pot of money, and this decision being based on majority vote in the class, firm decision-making was a key aspect of the project. Through working in groups to research the cause, develop their argument and deliver a presentation to the rest of the class, students learnt leadership skills – either through assuming the role of leader in their group or through interacting with those who do, observing behaviour and considering how this might feed into a group peer assessment.

True Collaboration: Group members needed to work effectively and professionally together on order to achieve greater shared goal of persuading the rest of the class to invest in their cause. They were able, and encouraged, to use a range of forms of communication, both in order to work as a group and in the use of supporting media when delivering their presentation to the class. Where feasible, representatives from relevant organisations “pitched” their cause to the class in the early stages of the module. The extent to which groups then liaised with external organisations varied across the class, and some of the skills associated with collaboration depended on the self-efficacy of individuals and groups in engaging with their own development


Following research, groups of four or five prepare and delivered a 10-minute presentation in Week 11 on the organisation or charity they believed was the most deserving of the money.

The presentation was unassessed; however, individual group members gave peer assessment grades to each other based on their performance or contribution to the group assignment (10% of module mark). The group project also had bearing upon an individual essay (40%), in which students were asked to discuss the group decision and present their own argument, with evidence, for whether or not they agreed with the group decision.

The examination, worth 50% of the final module grade, assessed module topics not covered by the group activity and essay.

Supporting students

Besides a small amount of input from external organisations, all learning and teaching support for students on the module was provided by Dr Lawford-Smith and a team of PGR tutors. No input from other teams or services within the University, with the exception of USEA, was required.

Teaching was delivered through a combination of whole-class lectures and small-group tutorials. Dr Lawford-Smith’s practice with regard to lecture delivery is to intersperse presented content with multimedia such as video clips, and to incorporate discussion every 20 minutes or so during each session to maintain concentration and interest levels.

Students were not given the choice of groups, with all members assigned to groups by the module leader. This had the effect of “forcing” groups to organise themselves in order to meet effectively and get the task done.

USEA support

Support was provided to Dr Lawford-Smith in the form of an ECD Grant for the two years’ project duration (£1,000 per academic session), used to provide the pots of money for donation. This was approved with view to learning being gleaned from the approach taken in the module that might be applied elsewhere through other means.

USEA also provided one-to-one advice and support (face-to-face and via email), and liaison with Finance and other University departments given the nature of the Grant spend. Says Dr Lawford-Smith of our support:
“I really liked that you were excited about the idea and that [...] even though there were lots of complications, [the USEA attitude was] ‘I’ll find a way to help you do that.’”

Learning from the approach

Module evaluation feedback demonstrated the module had been well received by students, and this positive response was also reflected in Holly’s nomination, and winning of the the 2016 Students’ Union Academic Award for “Excellence in Learning and Teaching” after the first instance of module delivery. Feedback in the second year of delivery included a comment by one student that Climate Ethics was “by far her most interesting module”.

Some student suggestions after the first year of delivery included a desire for more “science” and setting up of the problem. However, cohorts on such elective modules typically vary greatly from year to year, and such an intervention many not have been appropriate in the second instance. Dr Lawford-Smith did, however, review and replace some lecture content in the second year, and made alterations to the focus of the individual essay assessment, introducing the opportunity for students to disagree with their group’s decision rather than being forced to defend it.

According to Dr Lawford-Smith, Philosophy students can sometimes believe that applied subjects are “easier” as they require less learning of jargon and abstract concepts. This may have been one reason for low take-up in both years of running, despite Holly’s expectations about levels of interest.

After the first year, the small numbers had prompted the change in module title from “Environmental Ethics” to “Climate Ethics”, the former potentially having some negative connotations from students who may have experienced studying it at A-Level. On reflection, however, Dr Lawford-Smith expressed some feeling that the content and concepts within the module may have been better suited to third year study, and that some students in considering module choices may have assumed a level of prior knowledge for the module that was not in fact required.

From her own perspective as a teacher, Dr Lawford-Smith felt that developing the module had had a positive impact on her own professional development:
“Any new course is great just because you learn a ton. And that’s good for research and [...] it feeds into all your other teaching.”
She reported witnessing certain students – in particular those she characterises as having “an activist streak”, often turned off by drier, more theoretical philosophical subjects – becoming impassioned and enthused by the authentic nature of the experience.

Further developments

Dr Lawford-Smith has since left the University of Sheffield, taking up an academic position at the University of Melbourne in February 2017 where, among other things, she still retains a professional and research interest in climate ethics and social justice. Holly believes that colleagues in Melbourne might be receptive to developing learning and teaching innovations similar to those seen in Climate Ethics.

Dr Lawford–Smith has suggested that, whether here at Sheffield or elsewhere, other topics within Philosophy – in particular those of a political nature, such as feminism  – could lend themselves to tasking students with a similar, “real-world” project involving effective altruism in the manner demonstrated by Climate Ethics.


Holly shares more of her experiences in this Daily Nous article.

[Featured image: 'Dezeen Asian Cairns'  by Vincent Callebaut.]

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