By Jupiterimages

University of Pennsylvania senior Rebecca Pritzker is interested in business, but she also has a passion for the environment and sustainability.

Luckily for her, as an environmental studies major concentrating in sustainability and environmental management, she’s able to combine the two fields of study.

“A lot of businesses have started to value sustainability,” she said of why she decided to declare the major. “Environmental sustainability is a big part of corporate sustainability.”

Students like Pritzker are experiencing a new academic trend: undergraduate degrees and courses that focus specifically on sustainability and climate change. These topics have sparked debate and discussion in the United States in the past few decades.

A two-day United Nations conference focusing on climate change resumed Monday, USA TODAY reported. A climate panel scientist said at the conference that while it’s difficult to link a single event to climate change, Hurricane Sandy was “probably not a coincidence,” also according to USA TODAY.

Jean-Pascal van Ypersele, the vice chairman of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, told the Associated Press that strong scientific evidence points to human impact as a key factor in climate change.

“It’s a very, very broad consensus,” Van Ypersele said. “There are a few individuals who don’t believe it, but we are talking about science and not beliefs.”

Climate change also became the focus of President Obama’s first press conference since his re-election.

As discussions over climate change have progressed, 77% of all U.S. institutions now offer an undergraduate degree program in sustainability, according to the American College and University Presidents’ Climate Commitment (ACUPCC), a network of more than 650 schools that enables college and university presidents to sign a “commitment” agreeing to address climate change on campus.

Meanwhile, the Princeton Review reported last year that 642 institutions offered degrees in environmental sustainability.

“Higher education is always slow to change, but we’re at a moment in time where we have to be quick to change if we wish to remain leaders in our field,” said Sarah Brylinsky, program associate for Second Nature, the primary supporting organization for the ACUPCC.

The University of Montana launched one of the nation’s first Climate Change Studies programs in the United States about three years ago. The interdisciplinary minor focuses on the science and policy associated with climate change and its potential solutions.

“Students are able to take their learning from these varied disciplines and understand the issue of climate change in more wholeness,” said Nicky Phear, an instructor and program coordinator for Climate Change Studies at the school.

Other schools such as Arizona State University (ASU) and San Diego State University have also launched majors in sustainability in the past few years.

ASU offers its sustainability majors through its School of Sustainability, a first-of-its-kind facility established in 2007 as part of ASU’s Global Institute of Sustainability.

“Universities are starting to realize that if they are to remain relevant … they have to really start to look for disciplines and programs that address these issues,” said Nalini Chhetri, a faculty member at the school and the Institute’s climate change science manager.

Climate change and sustainability have become an increasingly common topic in classes, too. Boston University (BU) offers 103 sustainability-focused courses, according to the school’s website.

Henrik Selin, a professor in the Boston University Department of International Relations, has taught a course titled “Science, Politics and Climate Change” since 2005. The course allows students to explore the scientific and political perspectives and debates surrounding climate change.

“From the natural sciences to the social sciences to the humanities, you have more and more people approaching climate change issues through their disciplinary perspective,” Selin said.

As for students’ futures in the field, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported in March that as of 2010, 3.1 million people — or 2.4% of total U.S. employment — were employed in “green” jobs, or those that “produce goods and provide services that benefit the environment.”

Chhetri said that because sustainability is a new academic discipline, there “isn’t necessarily a huge market for these students,” though she expressed optimism that the field will continue to grow.

“This is common with new programs,” Chhetri said. “This is what I call the transition period. I think these students are very brave for taking this on, despite some fear about what to do with the degree.”

Jordan Friedman is a Fall 2012 USA TODAY Collegiate Correspondent. Learn more about him here.

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