Climate Change is Emotional – for All of Us

This post was written by educator Charlotte Jones.

I can remember the first moment I learnt about climate change. I was 9 years old, I had just got my pen license, there was a new playground put in at school (with a very exciting slide) and we were voting for our next class captain at the time. Our teacher asked us to make research posters on an environmental issue, and from our provided list of options, I decided to research the greenhouse effect. 

I remember this moment with such clarity. Not everyone had this opportunity of education, and research has shown that whilst education on climate change is growing worldwide, the extent and quality of content is still uneven, so not all people will have learnt about the greenhouse effect as a child. Furthermore, not everyone remembers learning about climate change. But for me, this event remains a distinguishable moment of my childhood. And I was scared.  

I started to see disconnections between what we were learning and how we lived our lives, and this both deeply troubled and intrigued me.

Charlotte Jones

My life went on, and as I grew, so did my passion for social and climate justice (two concepts I came to learn are inherently entwined). I asked why at every opportunity I had (much to the frustration, at times, of my family and teachers!). I was fortunate to have the opportunity to further my education and study my Bachelor of Social Science at the University of Tasmania, through which I learnt more and more about the injustices of the world, and I started to wonder how everyone else around me was learning about topics that were really hard. I started to see disconnections between what we were learning and how we lived our lives, and this both deeply troubled and intrigued me. 

I used this initial curiosity as the beginnings of my research, which asked – What the ongoing social significance of emotions are in educational experiences of climate change. Climate change has become a familiar part of school curricula over the past 2 decades, with the need to “enhance education” enshrined in the Paris Agreement negotiated under the United Nations. Previous research on climate change education has predominantly explored the delivery of factual information, framing of information, learning strategies for absorbing information and teachers’ experience of delivering information. There is beginning to be a growing focus, however, on student emotion in learning about climate change. Researchers have yet to fully investigate the complex and diverse experiences associated with learning about climate change, particularly in relation to the ongoing emotional consequences of this learning for public engagement and debate. 

Our research involved semi-structured interviews with 21 participants aged between 18 and 24 years in Hobart, Tasmania. We asked these young people to describe, reflect upon and interpret their educational history, then their educational encounters with climate change, and finally their emotional responses to climate change during schooling, including any ongoing significance of these in their early adulthood. Three key themes from these interviews emerged. 

Stripped of power

There is an expectation, grounded in the information deficit model, that education will be empowering, transformative and mobilise new agents for change. There is some truth to these characteristics. However, for many students learning about climate change troubled these expectations, and they instead were overwhelmed by information and by experiences of limited agency and power. Climate change knowledge was fragmented and divided by disciplinary boundaries. Students were not supported to navigate the boundaries between school and life and were left feeling helpless before this unfolding emergency. The home/school dichotomy was reflective of the public/private dichotomy of emotion, with emotions about the climate crisis, for many, discouraged in formal education spaces. While some students sought to maintain this distance, others were paralysed by it. 

Stranded by the generational gap

Learning about climate change alerted many students to their positions in a system of unequal power. At the time of learning about climate change they couldn’t vote and had limited ability to change their consumer choices or their mode of transport – and yet they learnt that these very actions, of which they cannot engage, are powerful tools for changing the climate system. Adults by contrast can undertake these actions and are positioned in our society as protectors and guides. However, for many of these participants learning about climate change sparked feelings of betrayal, as adults failed to fulfil these promised roles. Their security in adults, for many, was shattered during these learning experiences. They found hypocrisy in the actions of those adults they were taught to trust, including their teachers, parents, and politicians. 

Daunted by the future 

In our society schools are structured to be forward-thinking institutions, encouraging and preparing students for a “bright and shiny” future. For many, learning about climate change disrupted this myth, as the jarring reality of climate change conflicted with this ideal of a stable and secure future. Students felt ill-equipped to cope with the future climatic instability they had just learnt about. Anxiety about instability and grief for lived and anticipated loss, were deeply felt by many (often in private) and changed how young people perceived their personal and global futures. Hope, however, was experienced in various ways – hope in action, in technology, in religion, in humanity. However important to note here hope was never experienced in isolation, but rather as a part of a network of feelings. Emotion doesn’t exist in silos, and so hope – when it was expressed – was experienced in entanglement with other emotions. 

Bearing witness to emotions These experiences present a snapshot of the formative experiences of climate change education. These stories made clear the need for fostering safe and facilitative spaces for young people to respond to learning about climate change through their full range of cognitive, bodily and emotive registers. Young people are beginning to be louder in initiating these spaces and are demanding places for these conversations. Educators, parents, politicians and others need to be active in responding to this need and in creating and fostering spaces alongside young people that give social permission to experience and express emotion about climate change.

Charlotte Jones is a social scientist and current PhD Candidate in the School of Geography, Planning, and Spatial Sciences at the University of Tasmania and a Future Leaders Scholar. Her work explores how affect shapes young people’s understandings and responses to climate changed futures. She also teaches Sociology and Geography, with a focus on environmental sociology, human geography and global political ecology.

For classroom resources to support teaching young people about climate change, explore this collection from National Geographic Education’s Resource Library.

Lead photo by Keith Ladzinski.

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