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How Important is Climate Education for Climate Action?
Caroly Shumway, Ph.D.
"The learning moment can be seized to think about what really and truly matters,
to collectively envision a better future, and then to become practical visionaries
in realizing that future." Kagawa and Selby (2010)
How significant is education for climate action? Cordero et al. (2021) showed that climate change education for undergraduate students could significantly reduce carbon emissions at the individual level by almost 2.9 tons CO2 equivalents/year. Extrapolating the results they found from their undergraduate course to secondary school students in middle-to-high income countries around the world, the authors found that climate education can compare favorably with six of Project Drawdown's top solutions, ranking in the top 25% of carbon solutions.
Cordero et al.'s results weren't for run-of-the-mill climate education, however. I'd like to share five lessons learned about what works in climate education, drawing from Cordero's results, plus two workshops that we recently participated in on climate education: the Sustainability Curriculum Colloquium, which focused on sustainability education in universities; and the Mid-Atlantic Climate Change Education Conference (MACCEC) which focused on climate education in K-12 schools as well as informal education.
Image credit: Cordero et al., 2020
First, linking climate problems to local impacts and solutions connects climate change to students' lives. Climate change often feels distant to people: distant in space and time. The Yale Climate Opinion Survey for 2020 shows that even though 56% of Americans think that climate change is already affecting people in the U.S., only 43% think it will affect them personally.
Just linking climate to an impact on people, however, is not enough.Monroe et al. (2019) note that just linking climate change to human impact is not enough. Courses exploring climate changes throughout history did not reduce students' ambivalence toward the importance of climate change in their own lives (Nam and Ito, 2011). However, climate education incorporating local impacts does help to make the manifold impacts of climate change real, from impacts to water quality to the recent heat dome in the Pacific Northwest to increased allergies as a result of pollination occurring earlier in the season than in prior years.
Second more time should be spent on climate solutions than climate problems. Climate anxiety occurs at all ages (APA, 2009). Educators need to be careful not to overwhelm their students with gloom and doom. While it is important to explain climate effects, having students learn about individual and collection climate solutions relieves climate anxiety and also increases students' ability to consider climate change careers for themselves. Career options extend beyond the obvious, such as solar panel installers. Luke Rhine of the Delaware Department of Education described the state's efforts to help students prepare for tomorrow's green careers through work-based learning. Climate change considerations are occurring in many industries, from insurance to aquaculture. Atlantic Sea Farms, for example, started sustainably farming kelp in Maine. Farming kelp helps to provide supplemental income to lobster fishermen off-season, while sequestering carbon at a rate faster than. that of forests.
Third, engaging in a community action project increases students' response efficacy (the belief that one can actually do something). Educators canhelp the students to become change-makers in their own right. Monroe et al. (2019)'s global review of climate education showed that discussing climate solutions with students, along with providing opportunities to take scientific or civic action, had a positive effect on students' well-being and sense of empowerment. The Wild Center offers Youth Climate Summits to inspire climate action and build student leadership capabilities. The Wild Center provides a toolkit for others to do the same, and 30 places worldwide have now done so!
Fourth, students of all ages benefit from a systems-thinking approach. Even very young children understand the circle of life; what they don't understand are the specifics. The Systems Thinking in School Project reviewed systems thinking education in 197 separate studies. The results showed that the systems thinking tools helped students to visually represent their understanding of complex systems, through such visual approaches as behavior-over-time graphs (BOTGs), connection circles, and causal loop diagrams. The approach benefited student learning in multiple systems, including history, science, economics, and political science. The approach helped students to become better readers, writers, and problem-solvers. Feeling confident in such tools gave students increased motivation and self-esteem. Nearly 60% of students reported that they learned more with this approach. Ashwani Vasisth of Ramapo College described the need for a systems-thinking educational approach to help students better understand the complexity of climate change, and its impact on so many spheres.
Fifth, teaching skills on future thinking helps students to envision the type of transformative change needed for this climate crisis. Davis Bookhart of the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology described our very human shortcomings in envisioning the future. He provided practical tools useful for helping to teach undergraduate and MBA students how to engage in future thinking: tools such as visioning, or back-casting, which asks the students: "If we want to reach a certain goal, what actions must we take to get there?"
In sum, this type of climate education can help us make the changes necessary to ensure the Earth is habitable for people and wildlife.
P.S. We are pleased to announce our newest Dive Deeper course: Regenerative Agriculture. This mini-course, in collaboration with the YouTube Channel Just Have a Think, teaches the role of soil as a carbon sink; how farming practices such as regenerative agriculture and managed grazing can reduce carbon emissions; and other food-based and land-based solutions to climate change. You can register here.
P.P.S. Do you want to explore how behavior change can be used for climate change? We are presenting a one-hour Webinar on Behavior Change for Climate Action for the Oceans and Beyondon Thursday, Aug. 26th, 1pm EST
This webinar by The Center for Behavior and Climate (CBC) will teach nine foundational principles of behavior change and how to apply these interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary principles to increase individual and collective climate action for the oceans and beyond. From tackling habits, to worldview, to social influences, to framing, we will provide case studies showing the impact of each behavioral tool.
Co-sponsors: OCTO (EBM Tools Network, The Skimmer, OpenChannels, MPA News, MarineDebris.info)
Register: https://us02web.zoom.us/webinar/register/WN_zdl-ONEaSbaqJw6_us-89A[If you are unable to access Zoom, you can view a livestream at https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCPBHFN-LvAPNqTC6MZmVNVg at the time of the webinar.]