Introduction to Climate Change Education

Climate change is the most complex and wide-reaching challenge facing humankind today. It is essential that we help younger generations to be better equipped to take on this challenge and that we call on their energy, creativity and drive to help us all work towards a common goal.

Education is critical to the global and national response to climate change: 

[Education] can be seen as a force multiplier. It acts as a driver and catalyst of all key development parameters: health and well-being, meaningful livelihoods, economic security and the full development of human potential…education influences the trajectory of an individual’s actions for decades and, in a collective sense, determines the course of human society itself  (World Economic Forum, 2017)

However, in order for education to be effective and purposeful to address climate change, teachers need to be equipped to take on this challenge.

A recent report, Canada, Climate Change and Education: Opportunities for Public and Formal Education, found that climate change is predominantly taught through science-related subjects in Grade 7 -12 classrooms across Canada.  An interdisciplinary approach to climate change is preferable because climate change is not solely an ecological or scientific phenomenon; its wide-reaching impacts and our efforts to mitigate and adapt to it require engagement with social, political, and cultural underpinnings and processes (Selby & Kagawa, 2013). Therefore, climate change education requires not only an interdisciplinary framework where the natural sciences are employed to learn about climate systems and the social sciences are where students engage in learning and social change making but also processes that allow for students to share their perspectives, including traditional practices or emotional responses to the existential realities of the climate crisis. The good news is that in the report, Canada, Climate Change and Education, the majority of teachers (75% of closed-sample educators and 81% of open-sample educators) believe that climate change education is the role of all teachers and that supporting an interdisciplinary framework.

While climate change presents educators with daunting challenges, these challenges also present valuable opportunities to evolve practice so that students have a sound understanding and are able to contribute to finding solutions in their schools and communities.

Our understanding of climate change and its impacts requires an understanding of multiple related systems (from the physical environment, to ecosystems, to human society) that transcend traditional subject boundaries. The nature of this complex problem requires deep learning which not only expands students’ knowledge and understanding about climate change but also touches their values, sense of place, feelings of responsibility, and capacities to enact change. 

The nature of this complex problem provides endless opportunities for critical thinking, including dissecting these various systems, developing media literacy skills, and exploring multiple information sources to enhance comprehension of the issues.

Discussion of climate change can lead to feelings of fear and anxiety and cause people to distance themselves from the problem, leading them to disengage, doubt, and even dismiss it.  Climate change learning in the classroom needs to attend—and respond—to the psychological fallout that occurs as one learns more about the severity and urgency of the issue.

A first step to mitigating fear is to create a culture of trust in your classroom where emotions are honoured and students are supported through the knowledge-building process. This guide is designed to be implemented within an inquiry-learning framework, the antithesis of traditional, “right”-answer-driven teaching. This learning approach honours students’ past experiences and perspectives and puts students at the centre of their own learning. By framing students’ learning process as solutionary and action-oriented and by also allowing students to express their emotional responses to severe ecological degradation, can allow students to process their emotions and may help them feel empowered to work towards a goal rather than feeling isolated, overwhelmed or hopeless. For many teachers, “having hope” is a complicated discussion, where there is a balance between remaining credible and honest with students while also being transparent about the latest scientific reports and what our collective inaction in the face of them suggests. This is where understanding developmental readiness and a learning progression for climate change education is necessary for teachers to gauge student readiness. A powerful starting point at any age is “active-hope,” where having hope is framed as an intention rather than hope tied to a chance of an outcome. It is not maintaining the status quo or burying one’s head in the sand. Active hope means taking a position where ideas and projects are created that push forward the visions and ideas of a positive future.

Climate change education requires a multi-pronged approach that directly addresses predominant misconceptions and also facilitates critical questioning of societal norms and cultural drivers. These drivers include the definition of progress. Some of the definitions include the idea of perpetual growth on a finite planet; the roles of science and technology; the viability of capitalism, consumerism, and the exploitation of nature; and values such as freedom, independence, comfort and success. 

Climate change needs to be investigated holistically. It needs to be investigated through an integrated and transdisciplinary approach that includes systems perspectives, spans from local to global, cultivates respectful ways of approaching contested positions (such as deliberative dialogue), and develops capacity and collective action taking—all approaches that are transferable to supporting students’ development in other areas!

It is important that the sensitive material in this guide is managed carefully, and it is the educator’s role to help guide students through the process of accepting and understanding the facts that are presented and explored throughout. Mentally preparing students before beginning to uncover sensitive material and surfacing some difficult feelings is an important consideration. Pre-learning activities that enhance classroom trust and set a precedent for accepting only respectful behaviour towards one another is a starting point. Other strategies to prepare students may give them an opportunity to become familiar with methods of coping and understanding difficult information and finally, encouraging students to process information with both critical thinking skills and an open mind. This may involve encouraging students to get in touch with their existing perspectives on issues that are presented and preparing them to challenge these views by using critical literacies.  

Pre-learning activities: 

  • Know your students. It sounds obvious, but navigating difficult discussions depends strongly on understanding student backgrounds, attitudes, expectations and beliefs 
  • Create confidential and optional student information sheets that could be a general ‘About Me’ or specific questions related to the discussion material to get to know your students a little better  
  • Do a Four Corners activity
  • Work together with students to create an Essential Agreement for your classroom that creates a climate that is respectful and safe for discussion and potential disagreement
  • Let students know ahead of time that the class will be presented with some sensitive material so that students have time to mentally prepare. Use a V-Heuristic

Principles for climate change discussions: 

  • Prepare to ‘Share the Air’: Ensure that everyone who would like a chance to speak, has a chance. This could mean preparing as a facilitator to moderate the discussion, or using a “speaking object” (something to hold on to while you share, and pass along when it is someone else’s turn to speak) 
  • Discuss the importance of using ‘I statements,’ speak for yourself rather than giving advice to others or trying to fix one anothers’ problems. 
  • Practice self-care throughout: monitor your own health and well-being and encourage personal coping strategies at any point throughout the learning process if the subject matter becomes too much.