BA English Literature and Spanish

Year of entry: 2024

Course unit details:
Climate Change & Culture Wars

Course unit fact file
Unit code AMER30572
Credit rating 20
Unit level Level 3
Teaching period(s) Semester 2
Available as a free choice unit? No


This module offers an interdisciplinary examination of the modern American environmental movement that has arisen in response to climate and ecological crisis as well as the forces that have thwarted this movement and the change needed to confront the crisis. 

The groundbreaking publication of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring in the 1960s, along with various US environmental disasters, created a turning point in the 1970s in how Americans viewed the natural world and the role of humans in altering it. The resulting high moment of environmental regulation and pro-climate culture is our starting point, which soon gave rise to sustained forces of conservative, corporate (and liberal) backlash. The unit will explore what was at stake in this enduring and inflamed contestation over the environment, which has become yet more intense as scientists warn of ever-greater climate peril. 

We will look at a series of key political events, media debates, movement activism, and popular cultural texts (documentaries; fiction films; television; adverts), to explore how values and beliefs about the environment have been shaped and contested. The module will address key issues in modern America to do with: the role of capitalism and growth; environmental racism and Black and indigenous ecologies; ecofeminism; climate change and emotions; market liberalization versus regulation; environmentalism and social justice; the influence of corporate money in politics; contemporary US (post)consumerism; protest movement building; the role of institutions (including universities) in the climate wars; experts versus populists.


The aims of this unit are:

  • To develop an interdisciplinary understanding of how environmentalism and climate change debates have developed and been framed in America since the 1970s
  • To develop a complex understanding of the possibilities and constraints in communicating risks about climate change
  • To engage with scholarship about climate change debates from a range of fields to produce well-synthesized and well-contextualized argument 
  • To introduce students to key  environment-themed primary texts from film and political culture and to develop strong analytical skills to interpret them;
  • To develop understanding of the neoliberal turn in America and how it has shaped debates about and responses to climate crisis




Knowledge and understanding

By the end of this unit, students should be able to:

  • Demonstrate a thorough familiarity with a range of environment and climate-related debates and cultural texts since the 1970s in America
  • Show how the heated debates over the environment offer a portal into understanding certain key cultural, economic, and political trends in America since the 1970s
  • Use and synthesize interdisciplinary scholarly ideas to develop a layered understanding of American environmentalism and conservative backlash;

Intellectual skills

By the end of this unit, students should be able to:

  • Think critically and make critical judgments about modern American environmentalism and  the “climate wars”;
  • Demonstrate a nuanced understanding of how discourses and policies about the environment are interconnected;
  • Identify and outline key problems and issues to do with contemporary American politics, society, and economics that are raised by the environmental crises;
  • Synthesize and analyse environmentalist and backlash texts, drawing reasoned conclusions


Practical skills

  • Plan and execute independent research on environmental debates in post-1970 America;
  • Make good use of library, electronic, and online resources pertaining to the course;
  • Speak and write clearly about conflicting positions on climate change;
  • Engage in constructive debates with peers through class discussion and non-assessed formative presentations


Transferable skills and personal qualities

  • Retrieve, sift, organise, synthesise and critically evaluate material from a range of different sources, including library, electronic, and online resources;
  • Deliver non-assessed oral presentations in front of a seminar group;
  • Produce written work that collects and integrates evidence to test a critical argument;
  • Demonstrate good teamwork skills by acknowledging the views of others and working constructively with others.


Employability skills

This course unit helps equip students with a range of transferable skills: logical thought; good oral and written communication skills; resourcefulness in the ability to gather, analyse and evaluate critical sources; time management skills through the completion of independent and deadline-driven work; oracy skills through class presentations and seminar discussions. This unit fosters employability by encouraging students to identify and understand a range of different viewpoints and/or critical approaches about one of the most current and pressing issues of our time.

Assessment methods

Method Weight
Written assignment (inc essay) 60%
Portfolio 40%

Feedback methods

Feedback method

Formative or Summative

Presentation feedback (no assessment weighting)


One on one optional meetings in office


Comments on essay plans (optional)


1-hr essay planning workshop in seminar (Week 5)


Numerical grade and written comments on essay within 15 working days


Formative and summative


Recommended reading

Indicative readings:

Julie Sze, Environmental Justice in a Moment of Danger (University of California Press, 2020)

Erik Conway and Naomi Oreskes, Merchants of Doubt: How a Handful of Scientists Obscured the Truth (New York: Bloomsbury, 2010)

Martin Gilens and Ben Page, “Testing Theories of American Politics: Elites, Interest Groups, and Average Citizens,” Perspectives on Politics 12.3 (2014): 564-81

Andrew Hoffman, How Culture Shapes the Climate Debate (Stanford, CA: Stanford UP, 2015)

Naomi Klein, This Changes Everything: Capitalism versus the Climate (New York: Penguin, 2014)

Toby Miller and Richard Maxwell, Greening the Media (New York: Oxford University Press, 2012)

Rob Nixon, Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2011)

Nathaniel Rich, “Losing Earth: The Decade We Almost Stopped Climate Change,” New York Times Magazine (1 August 2018), whole issue

Eithne Quinn, ed., ‘In Practice: Teaching Environmental American Studies in a Moment of Crisis’, Journal of American Studies (2021)

Indicative popular cultural texts:
Youth v Gov (Netflix, 2022)
The Day After Tomorrow (Roland Emmerich, 2004)
The Lorax (Chris Renaud and Kyle Balda, 2012)
Avatar (James Cameron, 2009)
The Island President (Jon Shenk, 2012) 
Cowspiracy (Kip Andersen and Keegan Kuhn, 2014)
Avengers: Infinity War (Anthony Russo and Joe Russo, 2018)
North Pole, television series, (2017--),
Joni Mitchell, ‘Big Yellow Taxi’ (1970)
Marvin Gaye, ‘What’s Going On’ (1971)
Childish Gambino, ‘Feels Like Summer’ (2018)


Study hours

Scheduled activity hours
Lectures 11
Seminars 22
Independent study hours
Independent study 167

Teaching staff

Staff member Role
Eithne Quinn Unit coordinator

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