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MIT Better World


11.169 Global Climate Policy and Sustainability


Janelle Knox-Hayes, professor of economic geography and planning, Department of Urban Studies and Planning

From the Catalog

Global Climate Policy and Sustainability, offered by the Department of Urban Studies and Planning (DUSP), examines climate politics both nationally and globally. Using case studies from various regions, students assess the impact of sociopolitical, economic, and environmental values on the development of climate strategies. Students gain a better understanding of how policymaking works in different parts of the world and make recommendations for more effective and sustainable climate action.

Class Structure

“Climate change is such a complicated phenomenon with scientific, economic, political, social, and cultural dimensions,” says Knox-Hayes. “This class challenges the underlying notion that climate change is just a technical problem of reducing greenhouse gas emissions.”

Says student Leyla Uysal, cross-registered from the Harvard Graduate School of Design: “I always thought we could solve these problems with science or technology, or from good planning or design. But that all must be implemented through the policies.”

The course teaches future planners to consider all of these dimensions by thinking both globally—about the future of the climate—and hyperlocally—about what people need from their cities to continue their lives and livelihoods.

The class is open to undergraduates, graduate students, and other groups affiliated with MIT, including participants in the Special Program for Urban and Regional Studies, a one-year program for mid-career urban development professionals. Discussion-heavy classes allow for the sharing of experiences and perspectives, helping students to contextualize complex topics. Collaborating with classmates of different ages and backgrounds approximates real working conditions.

“A lot of this content is very interesting, but it’s really only given nuance and depth when you hear about how people have applied it,” says Rose Winer-Chan MCP ’23.

The semester is framed around the central team project of creating either a climate action prospectus or an in-depth case study for a city of the team’s choice. Modules help students think through the myriad factors that contribute to a given city’s response to climate change, and assignments guide students along the multiple steps required to conduct comprehensive study.

Lectures explore national and global interplay, focusing on the countries covered in Knox-Hayes’s book The Cultures of Markets: The Political Economy of Climate Governance. Each semester, Knox-Hayes updates the information from the book with current climate issues.

For example, in 2019, the class explored how the historic Australian drought and wildfire season impacted climate policy across the board, including the commissioning and ultimately shortsighted decommissioning of an expensive desalination plant that was mitigating Australia’s drought-induced water crisis.

“It’s this fascinating dynamic where politicians are trying so deeply to please the polity and respond to whatever the concerns are on the ground, but no one can ever quite get the messaging or the response, at least in the political form, to climate change right,” says Knox-Hayes.

Seeing globally to plan locally

Understanding the vast, complicated inputs that affect climate policy is key to the urban planning profession.

“I want class participants to have an understanding of the interdisciplinary and diverse nature of climate change, what it means, and then an understanding of how to build responsive strategies,” says Knox-Hayes. The eight teams in the spring 2023 cohort studied cities that spanned the globe—including Malé City, the Maldives; Belo Horizonte, Brazil; and Eskişehir and Şanlıurfa, Turkey. Students present their findings during the last two weeks of class, bringing to light the many similarities within city cases across the globe, including the importance of assessing where funding comes from and where it goes.

“The Maldives is such a small country that a lot of climate action is centered at the national level,” says Anushree Chaudhuri ’24, SM ’25. “We met with representatives from the [Malé City government] to understand the issues at the local level.” Adds Winer-Chan: “They’re quite advanced in their climate action…so we did a deep dive into elements of the climate action plan that we thought could be fleshed out more fully.”

“Eskişehir had very well-structured, well-detailed, well-documented examples,” says Uysal. “Şanlıurfa had nothing, literally nothing, except one picture. We ended up comparing these two cities and describing he corruption at the local level, regional level, and national level.”

Global Climate Policy and Sustainability will be an elective in the new Climate System Science and Engineering degree program, jointly offered by the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering and the Department of Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences.

“The lecture material speaks to a number of disciplines, and that’s why it sits very well in an interdisciplinary major on climate change,” says Knox-Hayes. “For DUSP students, it’s training them as future planners to be able to respond to this in whatever real-world scenarios they’re working in.”