Climate change is hard to learn, and therefore hard to teach. It’s useful to know some of the main barriers to understanding that have been documented in research on climate change attitudes in the US over the pat 15 years or so (and I am focusing on the United States here). These barriers have been remarkably durable, so anyone seeking to educate about the issue should consider them as they think about how to go about it.

  1.  Information is not enough. This is the most important thing to remember.  Attitudes and beliefs, and even more so behaviors, are little affected by knowledge.  The world has been awash with effective, compelling presentations of climate change science for years, but public attitudes have changed very slowly indeed. Personal engagement together with good information is the way to go — and talking with others is critical as a way to help people make sense of the confusing new world whose threshold we are crossing.
  2.   Some other time, some other place. Data suggest that a majority of Americans see climate change having its effects in the future, 10 or more years away, and on people in developing countries.
  3. Climate vs weather, and personal experience.    Many studies have shown that people’s feeling about trends in climate are very much influenced by recent personal experience.  To take an example from my own work:  When we asked students in several Massachusetts schools if they thought the climate was changing, the majority said Yes. When they were asked how it was changing, the majority said it was getting colder and snowier — this in the wake of some unusually tough winters.  Anomalous weather events such as record heat, mega-storms, or unusually intense rainstorms, have some impact on people’s perceptions—but only temporarily
  4. The unseen world around us. The majority of people have little knowledge of their landscape and its behaviors, much less the organisms that live upon it.  Aside from major holidays, we tend not to be aware of seasonal rhythms — and therefore are not attuned to subtle changes that are happening.  The more acquainted people are with nature around them — their personal landscape — the more they are likely to notice trends, and care about them.
  5. Abstractness and complexity. The climate system is complicated.  While scientists are pretty certain about the major points (the greenhouse effect, the causes of especially rapid Arctic warming, the increase of water vapor in the atmosphere as the climate warms), there are many things yet to understand.  Currently, for example, there is active debate about whether and how Arctic warming is changing the behavior of the jet streams, on which a lot of our weather “rides”.  Another big question is, Are the massive deposits of sea-floor methane ice about to melt and release vast amounts of heat-trapping methane gas?  And of course there are many lively debates about different ways to reduce greenhouse gasses, and how quickly this can and must be done
    Such questions matter a lot, but they often turn upon scientific or engineering questions that most of us don’t understand very well.  In any case, the most important climate science rests upon well-known physics and chemistry, much of it dating back decades or even a century or more.
  6. Regional and local responses less well understood. Our lives are affected by local weather, by the trees and organisms around us, by the farms and watersheds we depend upon for nourishment and refreshment.  How they will respond (are responding!) to the “new normal” of 21st century climate is still largely unknown.  One hunch is that, just as climate warming started slow and is now speeding up, so also changes in the forests, fields, and waters of your neighborhood have been going on, slowly and mostly unseen, for decades now — but things will start speeding up.
  7. Finally, people’s beliefs about other things affect their attitudes about climate change.  People don’t want to hear bad news, of course.  People want to trust the authorities they respect, and be in harmony with their friends and neighbors.  According to good research, people mostly don’t understand, for example, that the vast majority of climate scientists accept the facts of human-caused climate change (and are worried about it)<  When they are given evidence that this is the case, however, they tend to be open to changing their own beliefs.
    Another study has shown that in good economic times, people are  more willing to acknowledge the facts about climate change;  in tougher time, they tend to turn away from the science, under the weight of more pressing personal concerns.
    Moreover, the majority of people don’t talk to anyone else about climate change more than a few times a year at most.  So in many settings in which we live our lives, we and our friends, family, colleagues, neighbors “manufacture silence,”  so that the scary and complicated issues can be ignored for a while longer, and hard choices can be avoided.

In the next few posts, as I turn to climate change education for different age groups, you will see that this list of barriers is not a curriculum for children.  Good teaching is informed by this kind of information — but the child’s experience must be on a very different level.

One last note:  I have not written about the psychological/emotional/spiritual costs of climate change. These are very real, and pervasive, and they should also shape how we work with children (or others).  Aldo Leopold said it powerfully, in words that I often quote because they reflect my own experience over many years:

One of the penalties of an ecological education is that one lives alone in a world of wounds. Much of the damage inflicted on land is quite invisible to laymen. An ecologist must either harden his shell and make believe that the consequences of science are none of his business, or he must be the doctor who sees the marks of death in a community that believes itself well and does not want to be told otherwise.

We will come back to this dimension of climate change education in a later post.

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2 thoughts on “Teaching our children about climate change, Pt2: Why climate change is hard

  1. Growing up in an ecologist’s household I have been hearing these matters discussed my entire life. Not even Quakerism has removed me from the mainstream consciousness of the culture as much as living in an “ecological” mindset. I have the feeling that cultures or societies will of necessity work at climate change backwards (technically and policy-wise), because that is all they can do. In my estimation, those who live with a different orientation should be prepared to (and largely are so far) embrace every little helpful thing without giving up on the bigger picture. The bigger picture Is Bleak, but I have lived that way forever and even my thinking suggests that the bigger picture has always been Bleak for our species, in most ways…
    I am encouraged, therefore, to read your work on structuring thinking and training, because instead of merely crying in the wilderness we also need to invite everyone to do their lives differently, and then to see where we are, and then to re-invite…

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    1. Amen and Amen. If nothing else, educating our children about the beautiful, wonderful, intricate world, not just to know about, but to love and give thanks for, is the key to our being able to move into whatever’s coming with some grace. And educating their elders about the threats to the blessed and (mostly) kindly kosmos that we have known for 10,000 years is the only way we can act at all to build something Less Bleak. And we Quakers, and our friends, have got to be much bolder about testifying to the hope that is in us, beyond technique and policy — because it matters HOW we inhabit the strange coming world.

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