Those of us teaching students about climate change have a conundrum: How do we teach the extensive “bad news” – rising temperatures, erratic weather, flooding, and wildfires – while encouraging our students to engage with climate change rather than retreating into despair and denial?
There isn’t an established way to do this. Many of us take the advice of communication specialists, who encourage us to establish the scientific basis for global warming and the problems that it causes, and then quickly segue to solutions that will stop it, or at least slow it down. This approach is grounded in an understanding of human psychology, which argues that being told about a big problem without a ready solution leaves people feeling afraid, hopeless, and discouraged from taking action.
While emphasizing solutions is better than just dumping a hopeless apocalypse in the laps of young people, it limits the potential for students to engage with climate change. Why? Most importantly, climate change really isn’t a problem, and doesn’t really have a solution. I don’t mean that bad things are not happening as a result of climate change. I don’t suggest that these things cannot be made better with better technology or energy conservation. And I don’t argue that teaching solutions won’t encourage our students to engage with climate change.
My point is that climate change is different from “normal” environmental problems which can be solved in some way that can be observed on human time scales. Hole in the ozone layer? Phase out CFCs. Acid rain? Install smokestack scrubbers. Endangered species? Protect habitat. In contrast, regardless of what we do or don’t do about climate change it will be a defining feature of life on Earth for thousands, and maybe millions, of years. The usual “solutions” to climate change, such as electric cars, more renewable energy, and reduced carbon footprints, will at best slow down the trajectory of global warming. If we are honest with our students, we will explain that actually stabilizing the climate will entail drastically reducing fossil fuel use while simultaneously reorienting the economy away from endless growth. The latter are not solutions, they are multi-generational processes which will fundamentally transform human society.
Crisis and Opportunity instead of Problem and Solution
So if we don’t emphasize climate solutions, what do we teach our students? A better framing than problem/solution is crisis/opportunity, which recognizes that both the threat of climate change and the rewards for adaptation and transformation are much greater than we typically imagine.
Rather than a mere problem, climate change is a crisis which threatens the stability of the biosphere, and by extension, human civilization. Unfortunately, there is no quick fix - global warming is not an epic drama with that will be resolved at the end of the movie, and conditions on Earth will not, on human time scales, ever be the same as in the past. With this understanding, we acknowledge the urgency and the transformational force of climate change and can let go of the illusion that once it is solved, things will continue pretty much as before, only with renewable energy instead of fossil fuels.
The crisis/opportunity frame also expands our vision for how the future could be better than the present. In fact, climate change presents some tremendous opportunities for improving our quality of life. To name a few: drastically reducing the pollution and destruction of ecosystems that are caused by mining, transporting, and burning fossil fuels. Slowing down our way of life to a humane pace. Reconnecting with local communities and the natural world. Reorienting our economy away from endless growth and towards a system that improves human and non-human life. I argue that our students will be motivated by these opportunities much more than by looking at climate change as a problem that should be solved in order to maintain the status quo more or less intact.
What do we do when a student asks, “so what can we do”? The bottom line is that we can teach our students about climate change without offering neat and tidy solutions. Encourage them to talk about climate change with family, friends, and members of their community. Introduce avenues for climate activism. Illustrate the ways in which communities around the world are responding to climate change through adaptation and creativity. Certainly renewables and carbon footprints should be part of the discussion, but only in the context of the wider transformation that we are undertaking. Empowering our students to be an active part of this transformation should be our most important goal.