Climate change and education

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Mary Gagen, Professor of Geography at Swansea University.

When the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change was signed, by 154 states and Europe, in Rio de Janeiro in 1992, the signatories to that convention would have had to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by just a few percent per year, between then and now, in order to stabilise our climate by the mid-21st century. However, those reductions did, for the most part, not happen and now greenhouse gas emissions need to be lowered by 8% every year to maximise the likelihood of limiting global warming to a safer level – a huge undertaking.

Far from saving ourselves from having to make big changes by moving away early from using fossil fuels to support economic growth and development, our societal apathy means we now have to make far greater changes, in a much shorter space of time. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the international body who monitor our changing planet, say we now need rapid, far-reaching and unprecedented changes in all aspects of society to have any hope of limiting climate change.

The first scientists to describe the dangers of fossil fuels were writing in the early 19th century, so why have we shown such apathy in the face of an emerging climate crisis and can education help us now?  I am a climate scientists but, above that, I am a geographer and that means, whilst I seek to understand our planet, I also seek to understand us, our society, our communities and why we struggle to steward the only home we have.

I am a passionate educator, having taught geography at degree level for decades and also working on schools outreach programmes, and it turns out there is a problem with climate change and education. Educating people about climate can help motivate action to protect our planet but it can also hinder change making. When climate education is focused on fact giving in a way that ignores how the human brain responds to risk, threat and our profound send of belonging to specific groups and specific ways of thinking, it meets a psychological phenomenon known as politically motivated reasoning, and the result can be a disaster for promoting positive behaviours around climate change and the protection of nature.

Your brain on climate science.

 When we seek to educate around the facts of climate change, the numbers, figures, graphs and arguments we present as evidence are processed, in the minds of those we are attempting to educate, by the part of the brain that controls emotions. In essence the human brain judges facts and information according to the emotional associations those facts provoke. If someone’s political beliefs steer them towards social justice, equitable access to resources and stewardship of our planet, the positive emotional response they get from being presented with a climate science perspective allows them emotional ‘buy in’, without compromising who they are. Unfortunately, the counter is true. If the person we are seeking to communicate with feels their way of life is threatened by facts they are presented with they will reject them in the face of all reasoning, logical and critical thinking.

This response is termed ‘motivated reasoning’ and it is extremely powerful. Motivated reasoning undermines the classic approach to public education around science - the so called ‘deficit’ approach, which assumes all that is needed to promote behavioural change on a particular topic, is the right access to knowledge. Motivated reasoning is also not lessened by the degree of scientific literacy or technical reasoning capacity an individual has. In fact, studies have found that climate facts polarize audiences most severely when individuals have a high degree of scientific literacy.

When psychologists explored motivated reasoning and climate science, they found a real problem. Essentially, we filter out facts if we feel that acceptance of those facts would drive a wedge between us and our peers. Climate education is politically polarising because it presents us with a conflict of interest. If I buy into these facts, am I going to have to change who I am, and am I risking others who I identify with ousting me? This is an entirely sensible approach for the social primate brain we all possess, which so highly values social cohesion. However, it means climate education based on facts alone cannot change hearts and minds outside of those who feel ‘already converted’, but what it can do is give those of us who’s personal politics support climate-aware lifestyles a dangerous echo chamber whilst utterly alienating others.

If accepting the facts of climate change makes our way of life feel threatened we have a tendency to reject those facts, if accepting them makes us feel heard, affirmed, supported and gives us a sense of belonging we tend to accept those facts. The fact is; facts polarise us.

Educating for change.

What can we do to protect the way we educate on climate from culturally divisive strategies,

what can we do to counter motivated reasoning and indeed should we even try to? Some methods seem simple and obvious. Placing the audience at the heart of our educational interventions is critical, and a standard best practice approach in any aspect of public engagement. Tea party Republican Debbie Dooley is a staunch Trump supporter who talks to Republicans about climate change through the lens of the Green Economy and renewable energy. Climate activist Professor Katharine Hayhoe promotes finding common ground before approaching any community to talk about the climate; what do hunters and fishing communities care about, what is important to golf enthusiasts? Because climate threatens every way of life there are ways in to talk with any community about climate, if the right approach is taken. People should be at the heart of any educational intervention. Science Education expert Professor Louise Archer brings the idea of using an ‘equity lens’ to steer educational outreach to better place individual’s lived experience at the heart of intervention design.

Whilst researching motivated reasoning, psychologist Dan Kahan found that politically motivated reasoning seemed to be offset by practices that encouraged scientifically curious thinking. In a study that grouped people up according to how naturally scientifically curious they were, before asking them to consult climate science data found that motivated reasoning was lessened in the scientifically curious group. A huge educational advantage of this finding is that scientifically curious thinking can be learned and our education systems can encourage this sort of thinking. At public levels, citizen science projects can encourage the same.

 More then ever before, as we face grand challenges within every part of our society and on every habitat and ecosystem on our planet, science and citizenship education in our schools needs to promote enquiry, experimentation and curiosity-driven learning.  Young people who have been encouraged to think scientifically, are educationally curious and able to apply reasoning and critical thinking to inform their personal decisions are more likely to make informed choices about the planet as adults.

But science education is only one side of the coin. Empathy and compassion are at the heart of successful climate education, both towards our environment and to help us understand the perspective of others that is needed for climate education to work. Perhaps some of the wellbeing tools that have become popular in our schools over recent years, such as medication and mindfulness, can also be used around climate education. Mindfulness was brought into education in a large scale way essentially to tackle compassion and empathy training in schools and workplaces, thus it raises an interesting question of whether it can be used to educate us on the need for compassion towards nature and our planet, regardless of our political views.

Whatever tools are used to widen the effectiveness of climate education they need to be put in place rapidly. We are, without a doubt, running out of time and the threats, fear and anger felt by a huge section of our society when they even hear the phrase climate change are a huge barrier to the enormous changes we need to make to protect our blue and green planet for future generations.

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