After the latest gut-wrenching Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report, with the United Nations Climate Change Conference ahead, and with the school year in full swing, a question arises: How should we be teaching young people about climate change?
This is no longer a niche topic. As we are forced to confront the fact that the climate is connected to every aspect of our lives and the world around us, teachers at numerous levels (from middle school to college), across multiple subjects (from the sciences to the humanities), find themselves engaged in climagogy—teaching students about different aspects of the climate crisis. Since young people will be dealing with climate change for the rest of their lives, this is a welcome development.
But teaching about climate change—and related topics such as the biodiversity crisis and environmental injustice—shouldn’t be about merely conveying facts. That model of education, which imagines that individuals are rational machines who will automatically take action (and the right action) if they have all the facts, is inaccurate. Climate change denial, antimask activism and flourishing conspiracism have made this painfully clear.
I’ve taught about climate change for over a decade, and I’ve found that two critical elements are frequently overlooked as we teach students about the warming world. Failing to include them in the classroom not only leads to an impoverished understanding of the subject, but inhibits our collective ability to respond. These elements apply to teaching outside the classroom, too—whether it’s practiced by parents, grandparents, siblings or mentors.
The first is emotion. How should students feel about climate change? Emotion norms guide us on how to feel about different issues, but these norms tend to prioritize certain topics (such as intimate relationships) and ignore others (such as collective or global challenges). Some of my students enter my classroom having experienced significant climate anxiety. For others, I have the heavy responsibility of opening their eyes to some deeply troubling realities. At that point I may be the person in their lives who knows and cares the most (publicly) about climate change. As such, they unconsciously take cues from me about how one might feel about the subject, just as they take cues from their friends, public figures and people they encounter on social media and in films, TV shows and literature.
Should they respond to the climate crisis with a sense of objectivity and disinterest? That is what most teachers are trained and frequently incentivized to demonstrate: just the facts, please. Should they feel despair and hopelessness? Many students leave classes that discuss environmental issues in such a state. Should they feel blindly optimistic, despite the avalanche of bad news? It’s painful to see my students suffer, so there’s a temptation to end my classes by saying, “With the right policies and innovation, everything will be fine,” even if it’s not true.
Or should students acknowledge, feel, discuss and process their emotions—emotions that attest to their underlying care, concern and connection to the natural world? Should they use these feelings, hard as they are, as fuel to take meaningful action? This is what I now try to encourage and model for students. It begins by admitting to myself that teaching is, among other things, an affective demonstration, and that my students are carefully (if unconsciously) attuned to my performance.
That puts an additional burden on teachers. Not only must we stay up to date with a subject that is constantly developing and craft classes that are both educational and engaging during a pandemic, but we also have a duty to demonstrate an emotional orientation towards climate change. That’s hard; perhaps it’s unfair. So is climate change. It’s time we acknowledge that emotion is a critical aspect of learning about and responding to it.
Second, teachers and institutions ought to present pathways to collective action. Climate anxiety is crushing for isolated individuals, but more bearable within community; and communities provide guidance and norms about what to do with these feelings. The “just the facts” model of education assumes that students will know how to translate their awareness into action. But my own research, and that of other social scientists, has shown this to be untrue. People may acknowledge the gravity of the situation but believe that taking small and sometimes even counterproductive actions is sufficient.
Especially since many young people are already alarmed, instructors and institutions ought to point students towards efficacious actions they can take and groups they can join. Individual actions (such as eating less meat) are valuable, and can signal to others that we are concerned and willing to change, but they have little impact. Much more impactful is participating in collective action, whether it’s focused on shaping policy or working with communities to increase social resilience. It’s also more social, affirming and joyful, and therefore more sustainable.
I now conclude my introductory classes by assigning readings about climate change and emotions, and giving students time in the classroom to discuss and process their emotions with peers whom they trust. I speak candidly about my own emotional journey and the way that climate change has impacted my thinking, my life and my plans for the future. I bring in speakers from local and campus organizations that students might join. And I emphasize that there are many roles one can play in a justice-centered response to climate change, including writing, organizing, policy making, holding office, protesting, envisioning better futures, and caregiving. Maybe even teaching, too.
I make it clear that there is no expectation that students should feel the way that I or others do, or take the kinds of actions that I and others are taking. Or any action at all. That would be inappropriate, since I welcome all kinds of students into my classes.
But it’s just as inappropriate to teach about climate change and not be attentive to the emotional dynamics of learning about it today. It’s cruel to open students’ eyes to a world on fire, neglect to offer them helpful resources, models or pathways to action, and then wish them a great break. It won’t help them avert despair and doomism, and it won’t help us maintain a liveable planet.
This is an opinion and analysis article; the views expressed by the author or authors are not necessarily those of Scientific American.