Scientists and teachers often take on doom and gloom approach to climate education—and question whether it works

Teachers struggle to find the "most honest way to teach" climate change.

By Tristan Bove

Medill Reports, Dec. 16, 2023

Communicating a technical subject like climate change is hard enough without the added pressures of climate posing an existential risk that threatens lives and livelihoods on a planetary scale. As the realities of living with climate change become more apparent with every passing season, scientists and educators are still at odds as to how much they should focus on inspiring hope, and how upfront they should be about the undeniable dangers of living in an increasingly  warming world.

The question of how to address climate change with students was a topic of frequent discussion at this year’s 2023 Comer Conference, an annual gathering of top climate researchers held in southwestern Wisconsin this fall.

“I do struggle with this, whether to lean into the doom and gloom or not,” said Meredith Kelly, a professor in Dartmouth University’s Department of Earth Sciences, who also chairs the department. Posing the question to the crowd of educators during the conference opening remarks, no one had a clear answer.

Finding connections

The effects of global climate change have been increasingly laid bare by these scientists and so many more for all to see in recent years. In 2023 alone, Canadian forest fires burned long past the end of wildfire season, drought and scorching heatwaves battered vast swathes of South America, and devastating floods in Libya  killed thousands, underscoring catastrophic storms elsewhere – storms made significantly more likely because of climate change.

Some of these changes are partially attributable – and made all the worse – by this year’s arrival of El Niño, a naturally occurring climate phenomenon that tends to raise global temperatures and rainfall, with the Americas taking the brunt of the storms for up to a few years. But natural cycles don’t change the fact that human activity has been progressively altering the climate in recent decades. This October was the planet’s hottest October in documented history. The same temperature record has been broken every month since June. Climate scientists say 2023 is “virtually certain” to end as the warmest year on record, eclipsing the last calendar year record set in 2016. A 2022 U.N. report warned the past eight years had been the eight hottest ever recorded, and 2023 would add a ninth.

Between the disasters and the data, educators are figuring out how to incorporate climate change into their curriculums. But the trick lies in how to teach a subject with grave implications that requires urgent action as well as intergenerational cooperation. Other aspects of climate change, such as the nuances of teaching individual and collective responsibility and localizing impacts that can often seem abstract and far removed from the classroom, can be equally challenging.

“If you’re involved with climate, you’re thinking it’s everywhere. Everybody’s talking about it. You open the news and there it is,” said Marji Hess, an educator and climate action organizer who also spoke at the conference. But getting that exposure to stick meaningfully with children and teenage students is difficult.

“If you’re a younger person, the first question is, how do you even bring them into the conversation?” she said.

Hess is the founding director of Teens Take on Climate, a Chicago not-for-profit program dedicated to improving climate literacy and engagement among Chicago youth through the Gary Comer Youth Center and Gary Comer College Prep high school on the city’s South Side. Teens Take on Climate organizes learning programs and experiences for young people in the Chicago-area to learn about climate change and develop new skills students can apply to their personal and professional lives. For Hess, teaching climate starts with contextualization and finding how each student is most likely to relate to it.

“A lot of it is just getting students comfortable with this concept, this word climate,” Hess said. “When you’re talking about climate, it means a lot of things to different people.”

For some students Hess interacts with, climate resonates more when approached creatively. Some students successfully connect with climate through visual arts or storytelling, while others have brought recycling initiatives to their neighborhoods. The key is finding an entry point for students to relate with climate and process what it is.

“That’s the starting point. It’s making sure that understanding this abstract concept starts from a climate that they relate to, that is their thing,” she said.

Hard truths

But even for youth in Chicago, it is becoming harder than ever to treat climate like an abstract thing as city heatwaves and flooding increase.

Last summer, the Teens Take on Climate students from Gary Comer College Prep attended a week of community science workshops at the University of Maine’s campus and on the Atlantic coastline in Acadia National Park, a place Hess described as “beautiful, sunny and gorgeous.” But on the students’ return to Chicago, the sky was painted red and the air thick to breathe, as the wildfire smoke from Canada drifted down through the Midwest to make Chicago the world’s most polluted city for a day. On days like those, it’s best not to avoid the tough questions, Hess said.

“It was happening to them. It wasn’t abstract,” she said. “Then you really go into it and you see how far you can go. It’s then trying to find out what their questions are, and then helping them explore their own questions.”

Teachers can help students address their questions and guide them away from misinformation. But the best results happen when students are pushed to find answers on their own, either by connecting with experts or researching for themselves. Days where climate change becomes front and center in students’ lives can be the most valuable teaching moments, Hess said, and shying away from questions can end up being counterproductive.

The challenges with teaching climate don’t go away as students grow older. They just evolve. At Dartmouth, Kelly, as an earth sciences professor, said she felt the need to change how she taught climate in a science class she’d handled since 2009 after the Trump administration pulled the U.S. out of the Paris Agreement, an international agreement to halt global warming at a maximum rise of 2O Centigrade by reducing planet-warming fossil fuel emissions.

“I felt there’d been a change in the public acceptance or not of climate change over that time, and really felt like I had to adjust my teaching for that,” Kelly said in an interview, adding that she experimented with leaning more heavily into instilling urgent with students to address the problem.

That experiment, she said, ended up widely panned by her students, with many disliking the life-or-death framing. Kelly has since become more measured in her approach, citing the combined negative effects of climate anxiety and the COVID-19 pandemic on students’ mental health as reasons to be more hopeful and optimistic in her lectures. But she says she still fears whether this is the best approach that does justice to the subject matter.

“What I’m doing right now is trying to be very hopeful, but that’s maybe not the way to teach it either, because it might not be the most honest way to teach it,” she said.

Part of the problem is that not everyone is equally motivated or engaged with climate change, she said. Her science students may have actively studied climate and become invested in it over the years, but there are also students in her class who major in non-STEM areas and come with a different level of familiarity and interest in the subject. Gauging expectations in a classroom is important, Kelly said, and the doom and gloom approach can easily put off some audiences.

Teaching climate change could be considered an example of a wicked problem, a term popularly used in the policy world to describe largely intractable dilemmas with no clear-cut solution. Resolving the issue one way inevitably leads to big trade-offs and can even lead to even more unexpected problems emerging. In the case of teaching climate, the trade-offs are either growing anxiety, disillusionment and resignation in dealing with climate, or portraying an inaccurately optimistic picture of an environmental emergency that is manageable when at the moment it isn’t under control at all.

Some commentators have argued that the more serious, accurate teaching approach is the best way to go, as sociological studies suggest this has historically been the most effective way to ignite social movements. Others have advocated for climate change-focused teacher training programs that emphasize how to empower students while steering clear of fatalistic “disaster pedagogy.”

For Kelly, the important thing is to start a conversation with other educators. Teachers who “think about climate all the time” and understand the subject all have different approaches worth sharing and exploring, she said.

More teachers are ready to join the fight than ever too. In the US, 86% of teachers said climate change needs to be taught in schools in a 2019 NPR/Ipsos poll, and getting these programs in schools is necessary for any consensus to emerge on how to teach them accurately and respectfully.

“If you connect with a cool program, then you get to know about all these things, but if you don’t, you just don’t know about it. And I think that’s a missed opportunity,” Hess said. “It’s not a hard sell, to get young people to want to be involved with their future being brighter.”

Photo at top: Teens Take On Climate explore climate change at Acadia National Park on a 2022 field research trek led by Aaron Putnam, University of Maine Associate Professor of Earth and Climate Science. Photo by Jasmin Shah.

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