Climate Change and Environmental Education

Climate Change and Environmental Education: Framing Perspectives
Marianne Krasny, John Carey, Bryce DuBois, Caroline Lewis, John Fraser, Kari Fulton, Billy
Spitzer, Mary Leou, Judy Braus, Anne Umali Ferguson, Jose Marcos-Iga, and Akiima Price
February 1, 2015
Civic Ecology Lab
Photo Credit: Bryce DuBois
Environmental education (EE) is in a powerful position to address climate change because of its
history of incorporating science with policy education, and proven ability to evolve in response to
social and environmental change. The purpose of the paper is to stimulate discussion about the
implications of climate change for EE practice, and to suggest ways that EE practices might
effectively address climate change. The viewpoints expressed here were synthesized from the
remarks of a panel of six climate change experts from diverse fields presented at a workshop held
June 3 2014, at New York University in New York City. We also incorporate perspectives shared by
the 95 environmental education professionals who participated in the workshop and those of climate
action leaders.
Four themes emerged during the workshop: advocacy and civic engagement, environmental justice,
climate change as the new normal, and collective vs individual action. In this report, we describe
these four themes, followed by brief climate change and EE position statements contributed by the
six panel members.
Introduction and overview
How are educators addressing climate change in the classroom and informal settings? In science
classes, teachers focus on the scientific facts about rising greenhouse gas concentrations, historical
warming trends, and related flooding, droughts, and sea level rise. Yet research shows that
knowledge about climate change does not necessarily lead to support of climate change policies or
climate friendly behaviors (2, 7). Environmental educators also focus on the science of climate change,
but have a broader mission including changing environmental behaviors and teaching skills needed to
engage in the policy process. Because of the broad scope of its practices, and its demonstrated ability
to evolve as societal and environmental conditions change (5), EE is well positioned to play a role,
alongside management and policies initiatives, in addressing climate change. Below we propose four
themes that EE programs might consider in informing their climate change programs.
1. Advocacy and civic engagement. Embedded in EE’s definition are notions of changing
environmental behaviors. Yet EE has generally shied away from advocacy and espoused the
view that individuals should be left to make their own decisions once they are taught the
facts. Given the immediacy, magnitude, and widespread impacts of climate change, should
we revisit EE programs that have engaged students in the policy process? And should we also
examine the lessons learned from other educational, communication, and civic engagement
campaigns that have played a role in major social and policy changes (e.g., the civil rights
2. Environmental justice. Climate change and related sea level rise, heat waves, droughts, and
flooding have a disproportionate impact on poor communities and communities of color.
These communities are forming coalitions to address climate change issues (e.g.,
Environmental Justice Climate Change Initiative). EE should join forces with environmental
justice groups as part of the larger climate change rights movement.
3. Climate change as the new normal. The fact that the Earth’s climate has changed and it is no
longer possible to conserve much of our natural heritage has important implications for EE.
Adaptation education that is consistent with environmental quality values needs to be
considered, and EE can learn from examples of people adapting to change in ways that
protect and even enhance communities and ecosystems. Educators should also consider their
role in helping people cope with the powerful emotions generated by climate change,
including feelings of vulnerability (leading to denial) and feelings of loss (leading to
4. Collective vs individual action. EE has a tradition of focusing on changing individual
behaviors to address collective action problems (i.e., problems where a group of people or
countries collectively have a stake). In this case, the collective action problem relates to
managing a common pool resource, i.e., our climate. Given the wealth of research on
conditions that foster collective action to sustainably manage common pool resources (3, 11),
EE should consider incorporating this body of work into our pedagogical strategies and our
lessons. Further, EE should consider the types of individual behavior change that will most
likely lead to collective action.
Theme 1. Advocacy and civic engagement
A recent article in the New York Times raises the question of whether climate scientists, by avoiding
making claims not backed up by research conducted according to rigorous scientific standards, have
been withholding information on which our future as a species and Planet depends.(10) Might
environmental educators be guilty of something similar—avoiding teaching about climate change for
fear of repercussions or simply stirring the pot? Or even by espousing a facts-only approach?
Much of what is taught in EE is based in environmental science, including climate change science.
While science information is critical, research has demonstrated that more information or even
knowledge about climate change does not necessarily lead to support of action to address climate
change, and in fact can lead to less desirable behaviors.(1, 2, 7) Thus, a focus on conveying sciencebased information alone is not consistent with research about effective practices to meet EE’s goal of
fostering pro-environmental behaviors. One possible means to address this issue is to teach skills of
engagement in the political process, including advocacy.
Advocacy is closely tied to civic engagement. In EE, a civic engagement approach entails viewing
members of the public as citizens who can play a role in shaping public policies. It suggests that we
need to educate and support people in participating in climate change solutions through voting,
contacting elected officials, organizing, protesting, and similar activities. Drawing on EE’s strong
tradition in civic engagement, we might support program participants in advocating for more bike
lanes in city planning, or in joining a climate change protest.
The civic engagement paradigm in EE can be used simultaneously with the consumer education
paradigm, in which we educate people so they can make environmentally informed choices about the
products and services they buy. The notion of tipping point suggests that once a certain number of
people engage in a visible action (like installing solar panels), the rate of adoption increases rapidly.
Thus, EE should considering focusing on those behaviors for which there are few barriers, that are
visible, and that are likely to lead to positive feedback loops reinforcing the behaviors and leading to
more individuals adopting the behaviors. For example, according to Keya Chatterjee of the US
Climate Action Network, recent changes in tax and energy law make installing solar panels
inexpensive (and saves money within a reasonable time frame), thus reducing barriers; installing
solar panels is a highly visible action; as more people install panels, the price of conventional energy
rises, leading to a positive feedback loop of more solar installation. Ms Chatterjee predicts that we
are near a tipping point in the US with solar panel installation. Further, energy use is one of the three
biggest contributors to climate change (along with transportation and food production). This suggests
that EE may want to focus on, and where appropriate advocate for, highly impactful and highly
visible behaviors.
The advocacy and civic engagement theme is closely tied to the collective action theme. However,
collective action suggests that we teach about factors that facilitate collective action, whereas the
advocacy and civic engagement theme proposes that we train EE participants in specific skills that
enable them to engage in advocacy and other forms of civic action.
Theme 2. Environmental justice
Because poor communities often have deficient infrastructure and are disproportionately located in
hotter climates, they may suffer disproportionately from the effects of climate change. Proponents of
environmental justice are forming coalitions to address climate change (e.g., the Environmental
Justice Climate Change Initiative). Joining forces with climate justice groups may benefit both EE
and the climate justice movement.
Environmental justice focuses on the rights of communities and individuals who are less powerful
economically and politically. As a social movement, it strives for the equitable distribution of
environmental benefits and burdens. Its tactics draw in part from the civil rights movement, notably
because many communities subject to environmental injustice (e.g., the placement of toxic facilities
near where they live) are in the poorer states of the southern US, and thus suffered the most extreme
racial injustices.
Low-income communities and communities of color have experience dealing with multiple stresses,
including poverty, crime, flooding, pollution, and limited open space. This experience, and in
particular the means that environmental justice communities have generated to address these stresses,
may provide insights in planning for new stresses related to climate change (9). For example, civic
ecology practices in low income communities such as community gardening or block beautification
projects simultaneously address degraded vacant space, sustainable food production, and declining
sense of community, which may be similar to stresses created by climate change.
Theme 3. Climate change as the new normal
EE has focused largely on behaviors that limit our negative environmental impacts, consistent with
what we now refer to as mitigating climate change. It is critical to maintain our focus on mitigation
and environmental values. But given that climate change effects are already being seen in the form of
flooding, drought, temperature increases, and resulting impacts on agriculture, disease, and livability
of vulnerable communities, EE also needs to grapple with its role in climate change adaptation.
EE has a history of evolving its practices in response to societal and environmental changes. After
the Dust Bowl, EE incorporated conservation education and a focus on soil conservation, and in
response to widespread pollution in the 1960s, EE adopted a problem solving approach. However,
adapting to the reality of climate change has larger implications, in that some actions that help us
adapt to climate change conflict with long-standing conservation values. For example, climate
change adaptation education might entail planting non-native species that are more likely to grow in
a warmer and drier climate, in a city park or artificial wetland. This creates a tension, that while
perhaps not unprecedented in the history of EE, requires serious thought and integration into the
definition and scope of our field.
The 2014 IPCC report outlines different types of climate adaptation under the broad categories of
structural/physical, social, and institutional.(6) Within each category, a subset of approaches is
consistent with environmental values. For example, under physical/structural, ecosystem-based
adaptations like installing artificial oyster reefs and restoring dunes to protect shorelines are more
consistent with EE values compared to building concrete seawalls.(8)
Accepting the reality of climate change also entails facing the profound sense of loss and
hopelessness that it engenders in some people, including potentially our most vulnerable children and
teens, as well as EE professionals who face environmental decline and possibly associated feelings of
loss on a daily basis (4). Hopelessness can become a vicious circle, leading to inaction, and further
hopelessness or even despair. Further, although some claim that the battle to mitigate climate change
so that the Planet retains any semblance of life as we know it has been lost, many feel that there is
still a possibility to avert some of the worst impacts if we act quickly, strategically, and forcefully.
For these reasons, it is important that EE take care in how climate change education is presented to
vulnerable audiences, and that we are aware of the potential to engender feelings of loss and sadness.
Further, we should plan educational strategies to avert this possibility by suggesting meaningfully
ways to engage in mitigation and adaptation, and by incorporating the skills needed for such
engagement into our EE programs. We must also pay attention to the emotional support needs of EE
Theme 4. Collective vs individual action
Climate change, similar to other environmental and conservation issues, presents a collective action
or “tragedy of the commons” problem. I am better off if I drive my car or take a hot shower, but
collectively if we all drive cars and take hot showers and thus use energy and water, the environment
suffers. Fortunately, scholars like Nobel Laureate Elinor Ostrom and popular writers like Malcolm
Gladwell have given us multiple tools to understand collective action problems. For example, we
know that collective action to sustainably manage a common pool resource (such as a forest) is more
likely to occur when certain conditions are present including:
the resources and use of the resources by humans can be monitored, and the information can
be verified and understood at relatively low cost;
rates of change in resources, resource-user populations, technology, and economic and social
conditions are moderate;
communities maintain frequent face-to-face communication and dense social networks—
sometimes called social capital—that increase the potential for trust and lower the cost of
monitoring behavior and inducing compliance with rules or laws;
outsiders can be excluded at relatively low cost from using the resource (new entrants add to
the harvesting pressure and typically lack understanding of the rules);
users support effective monitoring and rule enforcement.(3)
EE could use these and similar principles generated by Ostrom and her colleagues to help program
participants analyze situations in which collective action is more or less likely to be successful.
Some of these conditions may not be present in large scale collective action problems like climate
change. However, these principles may be applied to smaller-scale collective action, such as
ecosystem-based shoreline restoration in any one community. Further, understanding when
conditions conducive to collective action are not present should enable us to know where we should
be exploring alternative approaches to managing our climate resource, such as communication
campaigns and government regulation.
Appendix I. Climate change statements of Perspectives Workshop panel members.
John Carey, Freelance Journalist. I see two major challenges for environmental education. One is
increasing people’s understanding of the basic physics underlying climate change. The public needs
to know that higher levels of carbon dioxide inevitably warm the Earth, not just because scientists
say so, but because of the inviolable laws of physics. People also need to know that research into
geologic history shows conclusively that past increases in carbon dioxide are associated with
dramatic swings in climate and sea levels—just as the physics predicts. Such incontrovertible facts
may be more persuasive than arguments based on climate models or temperature records, which will
always have uncertainties.
The second challenge may be even tougher— convincing people that climate change is a matter of
science, not politics. We need to combat the widespread perception that climate change is a liberal
plot to raise taxes, increase the size of government and take away people’s freedoms. That requires
educating people not just about the science, but also about the economic costs (to the nation and to
them personally) of not acting to fight climate change, and about the many benefits that would come
from working to create a cleaner, more sustainable energy future.
John Fraser, President, New Knowledge Organization. EE should adapt its practices to engage in
deliberation about how to respond to the inevitable acceleration of biological change that will be the
consequence of climate change. Irrespective of policy and technological change, the anthropocene
has sown the seeds for the next Gondwana with international migration of biological actors whose
unforeseen interactions will define the next trophic change. Fraser suggests that it is necessary to
leave behind narratives of stewardship, and refocus EE efforts toward husbandry of the next
generation of biodiversity; focusing on natural processes that embrace productivity and the value of a
fecund regenerative process that will support a nature that looks nothing like what exists today.
Kari Fulton, Project Director Environmental Justice Climate Change Initiative. Environmental
Education and Climate Change must take into account the changing demographics of communities,
environmental justice, national security and emergency preparation. As a country we have quietly
slipped out of the mitigation phase of addressing Climate Change and are now facing a head on
collision with adaptation. Environmental Education must include an understanding of strategies for
surviving a natural disaster and building resiliency. These measures can include urban farming, water
conservation and identifying the uses of native plants and herbs.
I would also encourage Environmental Education to leap out of the "wonky" world of Science,
Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) courses and merge into broader fields of study and
public engagement. Broadening the outreach of EE also includes taking into consideration the variety
in our cultural dynamics and demographics. Communities of Color and/or low-income communities
are disproportionately impacted by climate change and the situation is magnified when you consider
displacement due to gentrification, immigration and previous natural disasters. Environmental
Education can also infuse various techniques of different cultures and traditional knowledge to
increase engagement with communities that are at the frontlines of climate change.
Caroline Lewis, Founder and Executive Director, The CLEO Institute (Climate Leadership
Engagement Opportunities). EE efforts and targets need immediate re-thinking in light of the
significant human-caused climate disruptions that are here and coming. EE must confront the
seriousness of climate change in order to purposefully unleash the economic and political engines
that spur bold, creative, scalable, job producing solutions. The EE field must also target collective
impact outcomes, as climate disruptions trigger food, water and health insecurity; species and
ecosystem vulnerability; economic challenges; environmental justice issues; and the escalating need
to act in the public’s interest. EE must target additional audiences, including investors and policymakers, and bolder content that much more deliberately addresses climate and energy literacy.
Billy Spitzer, Vice President, Programs, Exhibits & Planning, New England Aquarium. We need to
shift the climate change conversation from “doom and gloom” to “hope, innovation, and change.”
We need to go beyond describing the impacts, to help people understand how our systems for energy
and transportation need to change. EE used to focus on the small things we can do to make a
difference. Given the scope of the problems we face, we need to do big things and make a big
difference. We need to act as a community, realizing our potential as citizens, not just consumers.
This work was supported by the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) National Institute of Food
and Agriculture (NIFA) multistate project NE 1049. Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or
recommendations expressed in this publication are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect
the view of NIFA or USDA. This work was also developed under Assistant Agreement No. NT83497401 awarded by the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). It has not been formally
reviewed by EPA. The views expressed are solely those of authors, and EPA does not endorse any
products or commercial services mentioned.
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