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Ed. Magazine

When We Teach Climate Change

Tina Grotzer explains the challenge teachers face talking about the environment
Illustration of woman watering a tree on fire
Illustration: Tete Garcia

When Tina Grotzer, Ed.M.'85, Ed.D.'93, a principal research scientist at the Ed School, met with her students this past winter during January term (J-term) for her Teaching Climate Change class, one of the things they discussed was a tricky but important question: How can educators support young people as they navigate between anxiety and despair and hope and action when they think about climate change?

Tina Grotzer

Not long after the class finished, Grotzer, a principal research scientist in education, spoke to Ed. about why she taught the class, climate anxiety, and how her students didn’t shy away from talking about hard issues.

What made you want to teach this course? 
Climate change is an existential crisis and one of the most difficult challenges facing current and future generations. It leads to so many issues of inequity and injustice. And we are seeing that every day now as people in island nations such as Kiribati, the Marshall Islands, and in seaside villages such as Miskito Village in Nicaragua deal with sea level rise, or Bhutan deals with glacial lake burst. We also see increased health issues due to warming cities, insect population migration, and new viruses and bacteria as permafrost melts. We are looking at mass climate migration. Climate change impacts many of the most vulnerable people on the planet and those who are least responsible for causing it. For a few decades now, I have talked about it as the defining injustice of our time. Often people need to see concrete consequences before they are willing to turn their attention to a problem. People are finally now beginning to heed the warnings.

What role should teachers and educators play?
When an issue is so urgent, it can be challenging to take the long view that education requires, but I think we must. We owe it to future generations to help them develop sustainable ways to live in the world. Life on Earth depends upon our making urgent and long-term changes for how we think about the planet and its resources. Besides that, kids are well aware of what is happening to the planet. They need teachers who can support their emotional development as well. So, teachers have a key role to play here. ... Kids are angry, rightfully so, at the generations before them. Teachers also have the challenging and important position of being a bridge between generations.

Educators need to teach the facts, but with climate change, the facts can be scary.
One of the reasons that community was important for the J-term class is that we didn’t shy away from the hard issues. We looked at the many impacts around the world and how challenging the problems are. It can be daunting to look at the images and video of impacts around the world and then to realize that some of these are from years ago. You can’t help but ask, “Why aren’t we doing more?” At the same time, we need educators to feel empowered to take action, and, very importantly, to help young people take concrete actions — more than just talking about it. We know that taking action can be protective of mental health.

"Kids are angry, rightfully so, at the generations before them. Teachers also have the challenging and important position of being a bridge between generations.”

Is the term “climate anxiety” commonly used?
Yes, and it shows up in different ways. There is a lot of talk in the literature about different forms of stress that people experience: solastalgia (emotional or existential stress caused by environmental change), ecosickness (ecologically induced illness), or anthropocene disorder (a change in affect as people feel overwhelmed and powerless in the face of the scale of the climate crisis). Most people are familiar with the term post-traumatic stress disorder. With climate change, people also talk about pre-traumatic stress disorder because there is a constant anticipation that preoccupies people’s minds. Other anxiety stems from a sense of loss of possible futures that one might have hoped to live; this is not unlike young people growing up during the Cold War. Some young people question the ethics of bringing children into such an uncertain future. For some people, climate anxiety manifests as a constant background feeling. … A generation is growing up with climate awareness and anxiety as an aspect of their being.

Does this anxiety vary by age?
Well, certainly high schoolers who can understand the science and “what if?” scenarios for what might happen are more likely to have a sense of concern. They also have a greater recognition of the counterfactuals — what was the world like, what is it like now, and what might it be like? This is different than the youngest children who may never know a world without extreme weather and mass disruption. There are some who think that the very youngest children should know about climate change and that the Earth is sick. I would argue that we should emphasize helping the youngest children develop a relationship with earth — to become eco-centric instead of ego-centric, and to empower them to do things to support the health of planet earth.

How does this affect how we teach the youngest?
We need to be careful about teaching them the direst consequences of climate change if we want them to develop into healthy young people with a sense of connectedness in their world and to avoid toxic stress. Of course, this stance comes with the luxury of living in a part of the world that is not already faced with dramatic impacts, and I am aware that this is a form of privilege that all of us here in Cambridge share. The impacts we are already seeing cast this issue in a different light for educators in some parts of the world and create current challenges for the education of young children.

How can we support young people navigating anxiety/despair and hope/action?
There isn’t just one answer and our discussions in class underscore that. One of the most important things teachers can do is support young people in meaningful action for the planet. In class, we looked at projects that support learning subjects like math, science, and economics, but that also embed lessons about caring for earth, sustainability, and doing good from an ecological perspective.

What about looking at solving the problem?
Just focusing on problem-solving can be emotionally challenging. Denying that climate change exists results in disengagement. So, teachers can support learners in balancing meaning and problem- solving, such as thinking about the power of our collective actions and understanding historically imminent and existential challenges that humankind has surmounted. A tricky aspect of the problem space is that we are asking young people to take action despite the inaction of previous generations. Teachers face a balancing act in addressing this issue. Helping young people see that some people were taking action and some cultures do live sustainably, while helping them to understand the human cognitive processes that can lead to inattention and denial, can lead to a better sense of how we got here and how they can address inaction in the future.

Ed. Magazine

The magazine of the Harvard Graduate School of Education

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