Broken record (and length) warning: Some of the topics in this post have been addressed in earlier posts, and some are updated here, like one of my four climate literacy points (#3). This text is largely derived from a rather long memo to the administration of a higher-ed institution that I’ve been advising about climate education. I wrote it after a particularly disheartening exchange in which a senior-level decision-maker said:
“I disagree with joining a culture and messaging that alarms people about climate change…I don’t think upping our profile on climate change will help enrollments.”
I, for one, find that statement alarming. It suggests that some adults with power in educational institutions are misinformed about the climate crisis, and possibly even willfully ignorant about it. This is understandable to a point– we are after all, all humans living on the same planet and what we see happening around us is really, really scary. However, if you have the power and agency to meet students in their reality, to provide exactly the kind of climate-literate education that young people need right now, and choose not to, well that is something else.
Young people need the adults in their lives to meet them with honesty, openness, and courage in regard to the defining challenge of our time: the rapid and preventable breakdown of Earth’s climate and ecological systems. This is the message that I’ve heard from students through the 15+ years that I’ve taught them about Earth Systems and climate change.
Over the years, I changed what I had planned to cover in my climate science courses in response to the students’ needs. As their understanding of the climate science progressed, and its implications for their lives sunk in, students wanted to talk about ‘what to do’ about it, the broader social/political implications, and also how they were feeling about it. There were even outbursts of emotion – grief really – that they felt for the world and their futures. Some call it ‘eco-anxiety’ but it is really just an appropriate response to the science that they were learning. I’ve learned how to support students in those moments – you affirm, validate, remind them that they’re not alone. However, in my experience, what young people need is a framework of climate-literate support from all of the adults in their lives, and that especially includes their teachers. It can’t just be me. It can’t just be one class, and the message needs to be consistent and integrated across the curriculum and the college experience.
This conclusion based on personal experience is supported by large-scale data from several recent studies looking into ‘eco-anxiety’ in young people. A December 2021 study published in The Lancet surveyed 10,000 people between the ages of 16 and 25 in ten countries (including the USA), and showed that a majority of them were very or extremely worried about climate change (59%), and 84% were at least moderately worried about it. Another study in Canada from January 2023 surveyed 1000 young people in the same age group and found almost identical rates of ‘eco-anxiety’ amongst participants. At least 56% said that they felt afraid, sad, anxious, and powerless about the climate crisis, and 78% reported that climate change impacts their overall mental health. A full 37% reported that their feelings about the climate crisis negatively impact their daily functioning, which includes their ability to focus on their studies. A 2016 study from the UK found that 16-to-24 year-olds were more impacted by worry about climate change than adults: 73% of young people reported that the climate crisis was having a negative impact on their mental health, versus 61% of adults in the UK. Both of those figures increased by 12% and 6% respectively by 2020.
Participants in all of these studies were asked to identify or voluntarily offered reasons for their feelings of worry and anxiety. The Lancet study found that climate anxiety and dissatisfaction with government responses are widespread in young people in countries across the world and impacts their daily functioning. A perceived failure by governments to respond to the climate crisis is associated with increased distress. In this study ‘government’ referred to elected officials at the national level, but adult decision-makers in young peoples’ lives also fall into that category, because we have more agency to take meaningful action than they do. In the Canadian survey, young people rated governmental responses to climate change negatively and reported greater feelings of betrayal than of reassurance. 76% of young people reported that they believed that people have failed to take care of the planet – that means us adults – not them. The authors conclude with [emphasis mine]:
“The data show that young Canadians need a diversity of coping supports and believe the formal education system should be doing more to support them.”
The implications of these studies are profound, and should inform our decisions about how to transform higher education to meet the needs of our students. The conclusions of the Lancet study summarize the data well [text in brackets are my additions]:
“Distress about climate change is associated with young people perceiving that they have no future, that humanity is doomed, and that governments are failing to respond adequately, and with feelings of betrayal and abandonment by governments and adults. Climate change and government [adult] inaction are chronic stressors that could have considerable, long-lasting, and incremental negative implications for the mental health of children and young people.
The failure of governments [adults] to adequately address climate change and the impact on younger generations potentially constitutes moral injury. Nations [adult decision-makers] must respond to protect the mental health of children and young people by engaging in ethical, collective, policy-based action [and self-education] on climate change.”
What do students need?
Firstly, students who are wrestling with ‘climate anxiety’ need to feel heard and understood. According to human and planetary health scholar Britt Wray, it can help to have “people with whom you can dwell on these emotions and explore them without fear of someone minimizing them or brushing the distress off as catastrophic thinking.” However, in my experience, and according to other surveys, young people say they don’t receive that type of validation from adults in their lives, and especially not within our siloed educational system. This is where creating that climate-literate-adult framework of support for them is crucial.
Secondly, students need to be shown how to meaningfully respond to the crises of our times. Research from the Yale School of Public Health suggests that involving students in collective action is the best way to alleviate climate anxiety and feelings of helplessness. They found that for young adults, anxiety about climate change was linked to symptoms of depression only in those who were not engaged in group activities to address global warming. They continue [emphasis mine]:
“Engaging in collective action can have a multitude of benefits including social connectedness with people who share similar goals and values. We know from a large body of literature that social support is one of the strongest predictors of mental well-being. …. taking action on climate change is really one of the most powerful ways to combat hopelessness and helplessness. Go do something—not as an individual, but as part of a group.”
This is supported by a UK study that showed that higher climate anxiety was associated with higher clinical symptoms of depression and anxiety (not just worry), and that if these young people also had high levels of activism, the depression symptoms were alleviated. A climate-crisis-informed curriculum that focuses on how to enact system change to get human activity back within safe planetary operating space (see #3 below), could serve the same function.
Thirdly, young people need to be taught how to build lives that are purposeful and fulfilling amidst the scientific reality of climate breakdown and ecological destruction. There are real, practical ways through this that we can teach them. An appropriate curriculum would involve foundational coursework about how we got to this point in human/geologic history, including the root social/political/economic causes of our multiple overlapping crises, an exploration of where we go from here including system change and how to make it happen, and the acquisition of practical skills such as organizing human endeavors at all scales, conflict resolution, emergency response, building community, and other hands-on skills for living a low-consumption life.
All of these needs must be met by a college with climate-literate faculty and staff, so that the message is consistent and well-informed:
Yes, things are scary and bad, but scientific consensus says that we still have time to meaningfully limit the damage, and build a fairer and safer world at the same time. We don’t have all the answers, but we’ll do our best to get there together. It’s not too late.
What do I mean by climate literacy?
To be climate-literate requires a basic understanding of the science behind the present climate and ecological crises, of how science ‘works’, the social/political/economic causes of these and allied crises, and a willingness to continuously learn about the existing and rapidly evolving science and practical responses to these crises. This is very difficult to do on one’s own, so most people whom I engage with on climate have an overall sense of doom and helplessness, like there is nothing meaningful that they can do about it. This is totally understandable.
Over 50,000 peer-reviewed papers in a wide range of disciplines were published last year about ‘climate change’, and only about 4% of them were covered by major news outlets including more ‘liberal’ organizations like NPR. The vast majority of those news stories focused on the negative, disaster- headline stories. For example: a major conference this May involving more than two-thousand researchers on post-economic growth scenarios, sponsored by the European Union, was not even covered by the BBC or any major news outlet in North America. It is no wonder then that busy people with full-time jobs and/or families are not up-to-date on the climate science and what to do about it. I see this all the time in my interactions with the public on climate.
What adults need to understand in order to help young people are four Climate Literacy points (skip to #3 if you've read the earlier post):
1) The climate emergency is very serious - worse than you probably think (or maybe not). The IPCC reports, on which the COP negotiations are based, are founded in doubly-peer-reviewed science - it is as solid as it gets. However, the scientific consensus is tempered by government officials and industry gatekeepers in the final published report; that together with the cautious language that is central to scientific research, the recommendations from the IPCC reports are the bare minimum of what the world should aim for. But it isn’t game over yet (see #2).
2) The latest climate science consensus says that the climate will stabilize very quickly- on the order of years instead of decades or centuries- once humanity stops emitting greenhouse gases. This is amazingly good news- and it is somehow left out of most dialogues about climate mitigation, perhaps because once understood, one must admit that we have the means right now to stop the climate from degrading further, yet choose not to do it. I’ll repeat that: We could stabilize the climate right now if we chose to. This is not the time to give up or look away.
Privileged humans in wealthy countries do not have much time to dramatically change our course to lessen the “atlas of human suffering” that the coming decades will see- but we do have time, and that is key. Climate heating is caused by cumulative greenhouse gas emissions- the more GHGs in the atmosphere, the worse the heating and the higher the chances are of passing tipping points that will accelerate it. The sooner we stop, the less bad things will be by orders of magnitude, and we have the means to do it quickly. The only thing missing is political will, so we all have to become politically involved.
3) Climate is not the only problem, but they all have the same ‘solutions’. Human industrial activity (including agriculture) has caused 6 of our 9 planetary boundaries to be breached, including that for a stable climate. If we take into account the fact that a very small minority of Earth’s human population are responsible for the vast majority of these interconnected problems, and want to account for that, then we have passed 7 out of 8 Earth system boundaries for a just and physically stable world. But crossing these boundaries is literally not the end of the world- we can get back within them on timescales relevant to a human lifetime, to live well within safe planetary operating space. How? All of these boundary breaches are caused by the same thing: overproduction and consumption by that same minority of people above.
There are a lot of very smart people out there with plausible, practical blueprints for meaningful change. And there are ample examples of other ways of organizing society and living through cataclysmic changes in non-dominant cultures. The only thing lacking is the political will to support transformative change. To date, no country has passed or enacted policies to get human industrial activity back in line with what the scientific consensus says is necessary to avoid dangerous climate heating - not even close to the Paris agreement - and most are moving in the opposite direction. Young people who are paying attention know this (see above), and they feel betrayed by adults. We need to be much braver and bolder.
4) Massive change is coming anyway- our only way through it is to embrace it. It is almost cliché now, but it is impossible to have a continuously-growing economy on a physically finite planet. Period. Our global economy is dependent on extracting and using up fossil, mineral, and biological resources. Those are all either running out or being destroyed. Technology, whether tied to the decoupling of production from environmental damage (green growth), or betting on a future wiz-bang invention, will not ‘solve’ these crises. Each of us needs to understand that the world we grew up in is gone, and we cannot use our own life experiences to inform us about how to prepare students for their futures. What replaces the old system, and how we get there, is up to us. This is where educational institutions need to stand up and pay attention.
Making connections, framing the crises: How educational institutions could become exactly what students need right now
Young adults are also very concerned about the multiple, interconnected social and political crises that they are experiencing at home and witnessing around the world. Racism, patriarchy, xenophobia, climate and ecosystem breakdown, do not exist in vacuums- they all have the same root cause: systemic, entrenched inequality by design that concentrates political and economic power in the hands of a small number of powerful people, mostly white men. Many scholars now refer to these connected self-reinforcing crises as our polycrisis. Climate breakdown is both a crisis in its own right, and a product of a social order that subjugates, extracts, transacts, and accumulates.
Students need us to make the connections between these seemingly overwhelming, separate challenges so that they can make sense of a hostile world, and begin to learn how to change it. Understanding that these crises are all connected makes them seem a little less overwhelming, and provides focus for learning and action. Higher education today needs to acknowledge its part in the polycrisis, teach about how humanity got itself into it, and educate for how to live within safe and just planetary operating space. This is how we, as adults who have benefited from the present fundamentally unequal and destructive system, help students face their future and thrive in it. That is the job of higher education.
In summary, young people know about climate change and are very worried about it, whether they voluntarily vocalize that or not. They need us to be guides for them in what is shaping up to be an increasingly uncertain and volatile future, and we cannot rely on our past experiences of what worked for us to inform us how to help them. We need to be honest with ourselves and them about the challenges that they will face in the future that we are bequeathing to them, and to talk about it openly. Skirting the issue, silo-ing the climate crisis, relegating it to optional learning by young people only – is essentially lying by omission and shirking our responsibilities as adults in their lives who are supposed to prepare them for their future. We need to be brave during this extraordinary time, and vulnerable enough to learn, so that we can be the guides and advocates that our students need us to be.
As philosopher and longshoreman Eric Hoffer wrote:
"In times of change, learners inherit the earth, while the learned find themselves beautifully equipped to deal with a world that no longer exists."
I got a 30-minute zoom meeting with a different senior-level administrator after I sent the memo, that began with an “I’m on your side” declaration (huh?). There was a lot of gesticulating, a few buzz words, some management-speak, and a complaint that the memo was too long (hence the gesticulating). It ended with a promise to send an invite for another 30-minute meeting. The invitation never came.