The best ways to teach and talk about climate change with kids
Your approach should involve both science and emotion.
Mary DeMocker is the co-founder of Eugene 350.org and author of the book, The Parents’ Guide to Climate Revolution: 100 Ways to Build a Fossil-Free Future, Raise Empowered Kids, and Still Get a Good Night’s Sleep.
This story originally featured on Hothouse. Subscribe to the climate newsletter on Substack.
If you work or live with kids, you know that most are pretty down in the dumps. Blame the pandemic, sleep deprivation, or their damned phones. But something else lies behind the fear, even despair, felt by a majority of children and young people today. It’s something that began in 1760, at the dawn of the Industrial Revolution, and has only picked up steam since then: climate change.
Roughly half of young people between the ages of 16 and 25 years old report climate anxiety affects their daily lives. In a 2021 study of 10,000 young people around the world, US and European researchers found that most agreed governments were “betraying me and/or future generations” thanks to climate inaction. When asked to describe the future, 75 percent called it “frightening.”
Bella Klosterman felt that way, too. Born on Earth Day in 2001 to environmentally conscious parents in Portland, Oregon, Klosterman grew up taking brief showers, turning down the heat, and shunning single-use plastics. In grade school, she tearfully ditched her night light one evening, overwhelmed by visions of her wasteful energy use hurting polar bears. When exposed to environmental education at her middle school, Klosterman says, “I kind of caved in on myself.”
While the 16-year-old managed to excel on multiple fronts in high school—in the National Honor Society, on the varsity volleyball team—her encounters with the carbon cycle in science class left her with a “lost, hopeless feeling.” By the time she signed up for an environmental justice class at the end of 10th grade at Lincoln High School, she felt “very stressed out and anxious about the climate crisis.”
But that began to change the day she walked into Tim Swinehart’s class at the start of 11th grade. Most schools sidestep any mention of climate change’s impact on students’ lives. Swinehart, as part of his environmental justice class, found a way to give students worried about their future what they really needed.
It’s too late
Swinehart began teaching at Portland’s Lincoln High School in 2008. As a social studies teacher, he taught the established consensus around climate science and shared stories about the looming impacts on nature and people, usually in far-off nations. At the time, he believed his main responsibility was to help students see a crisis worth caring about.
That’s changed as Swinehart has witnessed his students’ mental health decline. During previous UN climate summits, when he showed news reports on young climate protesters demanding bold climate action from world leaders, students expressed excitement and a sense of empowerment. Last October, though, during the international climate negotiations known as COP26, Swinehart instead sensed his students sinking as they watched. “I turned it off and asked, ‘How are you guys doing?’” he says. “‘It’s just a lot,’” they responded.
His students repeat a dispiriting narrative: adults don’t care, they’re not acting, and corporate control of government dooms any progress. “I think we have gone from not seeing the crisis to, now, ‘It’s too late,’” he says. Now his focus has shifted. He’s focused on showing “there’s a world still worth fighting for.”
Mainstream culture and science haven’t exactly made the task any easier. High-budget dystopian films like Snowpiercer, Interstellar, and, most recently, the witty if disempowering Don’t Look Up, reinforce the foreboding. Students’ daily lives are being impacted by the deteriorating climate: West Antarctica’s “doomsday glacier” is slipping toward catastrophic collapse, potentially raising sea levels tens of feet this century. Raging fires across the West mean kids breathe wildfire smoke every summer. Last year, Oregonians endured a sweltering “heat dome” that killed 116 in their state alone. Meanwhile, global emissions, after dipping during the pandemic, have continued their inexorable rise.
Are you feeling it?
Yet amid this backdrop, Swinehartfound ways to empower his students. His approach goes beyond standards-based climate literacy. He tells students in his environmental justice class about the causes of climate emergency, then prioritizes their emotional support and, just as importantly, the solutions. “If we expose students to the enormity of the climate crisis, we also have to encourage them to see themselves as change agents,” says Swinehart’s co-author Bill Bigelow in their book, A People’s Curriculum for the Earth: Teaching Climate Change and the Environmental Crisis.
Stories of ordinary people working for climate justice help students find their place among them. For Klosterman, who says she was “very shy and quiet” when starting the class, it began by speaking up in public for clean air legislation. She found presenting pollution research to her local community exhilarating. Classmates, witnessing her growing passion for activism, urged her to revive the school’s environmental justice club. So Klosterman did.
Ultimately, Swinehart’s class made her feel less alone. “We saw others connecting with the climate crisis,” she says, “not just my class of 15 or 20 people, but a lot of people really caring.” By 2018, Klosterman was leading multiple climate strikes and walkouts to demand—and eventually receive—funding for district-wide climate justice literacy for K-12.
For Swinehart, climate education starts with what he calls “radical imagination.” Every year, he asks students to imagine the world they want to inhabit in 2040, not one they’re told will happen. It’s their own vision, Swinehart says, even if it seems naive and ridiculously utopian: “There are so few opportunities for adults or young people to really use our amazing capacity to think about all the ways the future is not yet written.”
Why “more facts” isn’t enough
The typical educational approach to the climate crisis—if it’s taught at all—is to describe the science. While the majority of US parents and teachers believe students need climate education, 55 percent of teachers don’t teach—or even discuss—climate change. Those that do often offer just a few units in physical science classes, and the Next Generation Science Standards, developed to help deliver accurate climate science, are unevenly implemented by states.
But a “more facts” approach may not be what students need most. Teaching the science is necessary, yet climate education can actually deepen students’ distress if they can’t express their emotions alongside their new knowledge.
In a small study last year in Australia, most students surveyed said their climate education at school left them feeling “stripped of power,” “abandoned by adults,” and “daunted by the future.” Teachers signal to students that anger and distress aren’t appropriate in classrooms: “Like, ‘go home and cry about it,’” said one student in the study. Another mentioned, “I used to go home and cry a lot about it, but yeah, not at school.”
My own son, 22, echoed these sentiments. He told me his high school climate education was paralyzing, isolating, and, at times, even enraging. “They didn’t really discuss any possibility to fight back against what’s happening,” he said. “It’s taught in a disempowering way.”
Now, more psychologists are calling for comprehensive, interdisciplinary climate education that includes meaningful emotional support for students.
Because kids don’t like injustice
Veteran teacher Carrie Ann Naumoff says she leaves ample class time for student feelings. Her climate justice teaching began 20 years ago at Edison Elementary School in Eugene, Oregon. Her fifth-graders were expressing increasing worry and outrage during marine science units. They asked why dead zones were expanding as populations of anemones, crabs, and whales declined. “The kids drove me to say ‘Yes, let’s find out what’s going on!’ and from there, they lit up,” she told me during a Zoom interview. “Because kids don’t like injustice.’”
From there, Naumoff says, they started to understand the politics behind environmental issues. When constitutional scholar Susan Dwoskin began teaching at Naumoff’s school in 2013, the two collaborated on an environmental justice curriculum for their combined fourth and fifth-grade classroom of 60 students. Until Dwoskin’s death in 2019, their year-long curriculum wove together environmental justice, aesthetics, and civics. They taught children to love their world—people, animals, beauty, freedom, and justice—while seeing themselves as capable of affecting the course of events.
One of her students’ favorite guest speakers was Kelsey Juliana, then a 17-year-old plaintiff for the high-profile Juliana v. US case (21 children suing the government to affirm their constitutional right to a healthy climate). During her 2015 visit, Juliana invited the students to attend her next hearing. Naumoff recalls, laughing, “The kids turned to us asking, ‘Can we go, please?’” The teachers quickly arranged for their students to stand on the courthouse steps with their handmade posters of animals they wanted to protect. “Almost every one of our 60 kids said that hearing was the highlight of their school year,” says Naumoff.
Naumoff says it’s critical to create a classroom culture in which every student feels safe sharing their feelings. Teachers invite discussion about current events, students’ experiences of global weirding, and student opinions about social justice issues through safe, honest conversation. “We taught critical thinking, not what to think,” she says, “and to find credible sources for their news and research.”
Naumoff connected students to the wonder of the world by asking what they care about—an animal, river, or issue such as sustainable logging—and might like to research and report on for the class or sometimes the public. “We started every day talking about current events,” says Naumoff. “If there was a wildfire or international climate meeting, we’d talk about it—‘Why is it happening now? How do you feel about it?” Students get excited, she says, when they’re allowed to freely choose topics, and find other students with whom to collaborate on projects they design.
If we want climate education to empower young students, we need to convey more than facts. Even weather forecasters at the American Meteorological Society recently called for “‘holistic-climate-change education’ that includes not only knowledge, but also values, worldview, participation, hope, and other emotions.” The new education challenge, a Finnish report argues, will need to help pupils face down their climate anxiousness and emotions, to help nurture not only a responsible member of society, but a steward of the future. “The overall aim of education, ”they write, “is to create a civilized human being who takes care of himself and his culture, the Earth and protecting possibilities for future generations.”
Don’t underestimate the children
Despite this, Dwoskin and Naumoff faced perennial fears from parents: Wouldn’t a crisis that overwhelms many full-grown adults terrify kids? After all, any exploration of planetary heating leads to species extinction, intensifying superstorms, droughts, and more.
But in Naumoff’s experience, it doesn’t. She’s a believer in the late Swiss psychologist Jean Piaget’s theory of child cognitive development, which holds that by age 12, children are able to ponder moral, philosophical, social, and political concepts. As they transition into that stage around age ten, children seek more abstraction. “They love big, adult ideas and they’re hungry for truth.” says Naumoff. Teaching only to the standards prevents students from getting the time they need to respond to the enormity of what they’re learning. So Naumoff does it anyway: “I say, ‘Screw the standards. I’ve got scared kids. We’re gonna talk.’”
That includes the fact that polluters and politicians are often obstructing solutions for personal gain. In fact, industry misinformation still fuels climate denialism at the highest levels of government, and in classrooms. In her book Miseducation: How Climate Change is Taught in America, Katie Worth documents how climate denialism has influenced millions of school kids.
Worth found that more than a third of young adults believe global warming isn’t human-caused, and a quarter of 15- to 17-year-olds reject the idea of a climate crisis, while most teachers give zero to two hours of climate education yearly. At one Arkansas middle school, Worth even met an oil and gas industry lobbyist whose sole job is to convince schoolkids that fossil fuels trump renewables. The lobbyist told Worth, “if we really want to change how people think about the oil industry, we got to get to them young. We got to get to kids.”
Yet we do a disservice to shield children from the truth. Even elementary schoolers can handle age-appropriate discussions about fossil fuel corporations and politicians blocking solutions, says Dr. Patricia Hasbach, a Eugene, Oregon-based psychologist and pioneer in the field of eco-therapy. “Kids have a right to know there are shortsighted, selfish players who have something to gain by sabotaging legislation or movements that make change for the greater good.”
When students feel burned out by all of this? For younger kids, Naumoff keeps photo books. “When I see the kids are fried or fidgeting, I say ‘Otter break!’ and hold up a photo of otters. They all just melt. It’s fun, otters are cute and playful, but it’s also aesthetics, reminding them of their love for nature and beauty.”
Failure is the hardest teacher
Students’ encounters with the outside world teach their own lessons, often hard ones. All grassroots movements’ struggles that succeed are won over time, usually decades. That’s an inherent tension in climate when scientists say global emissions must fall by at least 45 percent within just eight years.
It’s time we likely don’t have, and students know it. Unrealistic expectations about changing legislation, when the kids actually have limited agency to bring about those changes, may contribute to anxiety, depression, and hopelessness. “That’s a problem,” says Hasbach. Other researchers caution that climate activism, associated with resilience and positive development, may also be a “source of increased stress, particularly for marginalized youths.”
Demoralizing setbacks are inevitable. The Juliana v. U.S. case Naumoff’s students rallied for has stalled since the highly anticipated trial was canceled following a 2018 US Supreme Court ruling in the Trump administration’s favor. The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in 2020 that the youths’ request for a habitable climate should be addressed by the executive and legislative branches, not courts. Appeals continue, as do new youth lawsuits, but many kids, including my own, felt devastated by that defeat.
And the student-led campaign in 2016 for district-wide climate education in Portland? The school board did unanimously pass that resolution. But what followed was years of students fighting the district to fund the mandate. When Portland students finally won that round, a climate justice education coordinator was hired, then promoted from the position. At this writing, three years after agreeing to student demands for it, Portland Public Schools still have no formal district-wide climate justice education.
Climate justice is already here
Climate justice education is coming, if only because students are already pursuing the answers for themselves. Teachers are on board. The largest teacher’s union in the US endorsed the climate justice resolution passed by the Portland school board in 2016 that called for comprehensive climate justice education. So are students. Last week, 500 high schoolers marched out of school and through my town of Eugene, Oregon chanting “Climate justice now!” They demanded sweeping changes to how they’re taught and treated by adults who, as a 17-year-old speaker and Juliana plaintiff Sahara Valentine said, are leaving kids to “clean up messes which disproportionately impact us” and future generations.
But to go national, individual teachers can’t create school structures alone. Swinehart was told by district officials in 2018 that climate justice education was “peripheral.” To change curriculums, says Naumoff, “school boards have to want to teach climate education.”
Some states are forging ahead. New Jersey is pioneering how climate education can be led at the state level. State officials implemented new K-12 climate literacy standards to give kids the “opportunity to study and understand the climate crisis through a comprehensive, interdisciplinary lens.” Others are leading state standards from the bottom up. In Minnesota, high school students introduced a bill requiring comprehensive, justice-centered 1st-12th grade climate justice education.
More and more teachers are finding ways to meet student needs on their own without school board or administrative backing. They’re helping one another informally and through the “Teach Climate Justice” campaign available at the Zinn Education Project offering classroom-tested lessons, workshops for educators, and a sample school board climate justice resolution.
But the strongest levers for change, argues Naumoff, are parents. Those who want comprehensive climate justice education for their children, she suggests, can get together and advocate for city or statewide programming. Watch—or even influence—who’s elected to the school board that chooses your child’s curriculum. And speak up.
“One parent,” says Naumoff, “is more powerful at the school board than 100 teachers.”
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