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Student-Led Journal Confronts Climate Change

February 27, 2023
Ethan Olson


In this interview, IGCC associate director Lindsay Shingler talks with Ethan Olson, the outgoing editor-in-chief of the Climate Change Review, about how the publication was created, the differences between how Gen Z and other generations confront climate change, and the place of art as well as academic research in developing climate solutions. The Climate Change Review is a student-led online journal and grantee of the UC Institute on Global Conflict and Cooperation. Since its inception in 2020, the Review has published more than 100 pieces—almost all written by undergraduate students—about subjects ranging from economics and politics to environmental justice, urban planning, and food systems.

How did The Climate Change Review get started?

It started during the summer of my first year at UC San Diego. I was doing research on international climate change policy and became interested in climate change as its own disciplinary topic. But I was struggling to find a good hub that compiled resources for climate change across the multitude of disciplines that it applies to, and I really wanted to find a space where students, and potentially professors and community members, could give their perspective on climate change.

In September of 2020 I began to formulate the idea of a publication similar to other student-led publications at UC campuses. I was inspired by Prospect at UCSD, which is devoted to questions about global politics, and the Berkeley Political Review at UC Berkeley.

I want to bridge the gap between disciplines and have one space where climate change was the sole disciplinary focus, rather than an environmental publication, which might post a lot about climate change but would miss out on the more sociological, anthropological, urban, and other disciplinary fields of interests that apply to climate change in a very, very impactful ways.

It’s one thing to have an idea, it’s another to actually put your effort behind it and make it happen. Where did the motivation come from personally?

During my early career, I was beginning to realize that the old saying is true: if you want something done, you have to do it yourself. Within the university setting, especially at UCSD, many opportunities are driven by your own personal ambition. There are a lot of things that you can do that aren’t clearly stated. As a first-generation college student, I’d had a year of experience within the university setting and was beginning to realize that I could just start this—that there was nothing holding me back. I could literally just create a website and start hosting content, and send it out and communicate with my peers via social media.

One of the things that makes The Climate Change Review so cool, is that it has a variety of different kinds of content from technical research papers and policy briefs to personal essays and poetry. Why is it important to include art and personal reflection?

From the get-go, I didn’t want it to be an academic journal where you’d only find academic pieces, because those already exist, especially at a university like UC San Diego. There’s no shortage of research being done on climate change in a very high academia way. My concern was confronting climate change as something that’s not going to be solved within the chambers of academia alone. And a big part of The Climate Change Review is that it’s very solutions-oriented. When somebody publishes an article, or poem, or artwork, there’s some sort of solution orientation. Solutions require creativity. I really wanted it to be a site where students could think critically about climate change and investigate, theorize, and imagine creative solutions to either mitigate it, adapt to it, or just communicate it.

A canvas painting of a green and blue woman, or Mother Nature, with flames reflecting in her eyes.

Mother Nature Weeps Tears of Fire, 2022. Acrylic on Canvas by Ivan Toscano.

How are the perspectives of students different from older generations, or faculty? And how are they the same?

They’re a lot more radical. I don’t want to make students seem naive, because they aren’t. My peers who study climate change, who care deeply about climate change and its impacts, who have taken many courses about climate change and how to address it properly, are tired and fed up. They’re willing to be very honest about what we need to do to actually solve the problem. I don’t want to say that older generations are not facing the issue head-on, because there certainly are people studying climate change that do. But I think I think younger generations are less indoctrinated into the socio-economic systems that dictate how the world works and are much more willing to think outside of those paradigms. They’re a lot more comfortable with imagining a future that is radically different than what we have in today’s modern, capitalistic society.

Another big difference is that my generation, even in comparison to millennials, has been brought up knowing the sad reality of generational inequities between, say, Boomers and Gen Z. Millennials could at least dream of owning a house but for people in my generation, that’s not an expectation. It might be a hope but it’s almost like a fantasy. Because of that, we’re more open to being a lot more radical when it comes to policy and activism. And in a way, I think that makes us more optimistic than older generations, because we’re not constrained to traditional forms of pushing progress forward, which I think have been very stifling.

You are the founder and have been the editor-in-chief since about 2020. How has The Climate Change Review grown in that time? What are some of the things that you’re most proud of?

Growth has not been constant, especially considering the fact that we are a student-led publication. So we’re largely dormant for a quarter to a third of the year. But it’s also variable because the amount of content we put out, and the amount of reach we have, largely depends upon the ambitions of the individual writers, editors, and other members of the Review.

Some of the things I’m most proud of are first and foremost, the impact we’ve had on the student writers themselves. If I’m being honest, I think the biggest benefit of the Review is not in sharing information to readers that they did not know previously. It’s more about getting undergraduate students, and in some cases graduate students, to think critically about climate change, to investigate different solutions to climate change, different perspectives on climate change, and to creatively theorize their own solutions, their own adaptation techniques, and their own communication strategies. In the future that might change if our readership increases, and I hope our readership does increase. But I still think the biggest impact of the Review thus far is motivating undergraduate students to think about climate change, and to take some ownership of the issue by being able to share their thoughts on a dedicated platform.

Do you have a favorite piece or a favorite interview that you guys have published so far?

You know, I think my favorite, or at least one of my favorites, personally, that I wrote, is a piece titled “Bjarke Ingels, I’m Tired of Your Eco-Porn.” It’s just me ranting about this very famous architect that specializes in very utopian, and in my opinion greenwashed, renderings of massive buildings. I focused on his vision for this completely new city in the middle of the American desert that’s built from the ground up, and it’s super futuristic. It looks great. It’s all green with vegetation. But of course, it’s incredibly dumb and unsustainable. Why would you build a new city from scratch? What we should be doing is fixing the cities that already exist. That was probably my favorite piece to write.

You mentioned that the Review has been interested in linking up into the community? What have you done in that regard?

My favorite example is the art exhibition we hosted last spring, where we essentially had an open call for art pieces from mainly students, but also anybody in the surrounding community interested in displaying their art that related to climate change. We had about two dozen art pieces on display. We had a room at UC San Diego called the Climate Action Lab, where we hosted this art exhibition that was open for anybody to just walk in. And it was really great, because it wasn’t just students that came. It was people who saw our flyers from local neighborhoods, or heard about it through social media from other parts of San Diego.

We worked with two other orgs at UC San Diego—the Green New Deal and Climate Action Justice Scholars to organize this event. We had an interactive art installation and two or three musical groups came and played original music about climate change. At that at the end, Green New Deal at UCSD, a student activist org, had their final meeting of the quarter. They talked about all the things they had accomplished by working with faculty members and community members to help decarbonize the campus. It was really great to see all of these different actors come together.

Two people, one sitting and playing a guitar and the other standing next to a microphone to sing, performing for a small crowd at UC San Diego.

Two musical performers.

The Climate Change Review is in the process of growing to go beyond UC San Diego to include other campuses. What does that involve and why is it important?

We are in the middle of expanding The Climate Change Review, from a publication solely based at one university, UC San Diego, to a publication that spans all the UC campuses. We’ve been gradually picking up interest from individuals at UCLA, UC Santa Barbara, UC Irvine, and UC Berkeley. The mission is to create a connected network of mostly undergraduates who are interested in critically assessing and engaging with climate change as this interdisciplinary topic and connecting that sort of expertise, interest, backgrounds, and geographies, to create a unified front of climate activist scholars. We’re still at the beginning. I’m really proud of how far we’ve come since I started the review in 2020. But I’m also really excited to see what students across the University of California system do with it once I leave.

You are a senior at UCSD and will be graduating this year. What are your plans?

I’m planning on getting a Master in Landscape Architecture and becoming a landscape architect. When I started at UC San Diego, I was an international studies major with an emphasis on political science. And that’s how I got into climate change as an issue. I came at it more from an international political perspective. But since then, I’ve become a lot more interested in addressing climate change from a more ecological perspective. That’s not to say that either one is better but it’s just what my individual interests are. I love understanding how natural and urban systems clash and how they can potentially synergize, too.

Read more from The Climate Change Review: