One way to combat climate change? Change how it’s taught

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Researchers have found that rural New York, where over two thirds of all regulated wells are located, and rural Kentucky, where the coal industry used to employ more than 15,000 people, are more susceptible to climate change denial.

In a four-year study of climate change, experts from the University of Rochester, Paul Smith’s College, and Morehead State University showed that the curriculum in rural Kentucky and New York schools in its current form was ineffective and often met with hostility.

To change that, their findings—published in the paper, “What is climate change education in Trump Country?”—suggest not to hone facts and figures, but to discard an “us versus them” mentality and expand one’s empathy instead.

“If educators’ efforts to help people change their minds or to interact with each other makes students feel embarrassed or condescended to—or like they’re part of an outgroup in the classroom—then those efforts will fail,” says Kevin Meuwissen, associate professor and chair of teaching and curriculum at UR’s Warner School of Education. “Because students who feel ostracized will recognize what is happening to them. And they will shift to protect their identities and group allegiances as an upshot of these interactions.”

Kevin Meuwissen, a researcher from the University of Rochester.
Kevin Meuwissen

In fact, feeling attacked or condescended to can lead to further entrenchment of those already held beliefs, researchers say, so the first step in any classroom tackling this issue, from elementary school to college, is respect.

“It’s about the narrative and how you present it and how you see them in solving the problem in the future, rather than telling them, ‘you are bad because you think this way,’” notes David Long, associate professor of middle grades and secondary education at Morehead State.

The path toward understanding climate change is best viewed as a personal one, the study finds. By diving deeper into the social, political, and cultural understandings that students have with climate change, it is easier for them to reflect on how climate change has affected their lives.

Long and Joseph Henderson, lecturer in the environment and society department at Paul Smith’s College, come from rural backgrounds and understand the dilemmas that others in similar cultural regions face. They use their experiences as part of the in-group to model the tension when their commitments to scientific understanding and environmental improvement bump up against the cultural values and the roles extractive industries have played in their communities’ livelihoods.

“When students talk about the most significant facets of who they are, whom they trust and why, the stakes associated with protecting their worldviews and values, and how that all plays into their thoughts and interactions related to climate and the environment, there are opportunities to explore how motivated cognition plays into their learning, which doesn’t happen with talk that centers on scientific studies and evidence alone,” Meuwissen says.

Additionally, introducing project-based learning, which aims to solve issues in the community rather than memorize content, is an effective way to make climate change more engaging. This approach can lead to studying deeper topics, including the roots of climate change, which Henderson says are more complex than people generally think.

“If (my students have) been taught (climate change) at all, they’ve been taught that we (humans) are burning carbon. It’s much more complicated than that. To understand it, you have to get into the political and social structures and dynamics—all the ways in which this issue has existed in the world,” says Henderson, who adds that his students are, by and large, prepared and eager for these types of conversations.

“I want them to see that rural America is a place of extraction,” he adds. “It’s a place where people get ground up in these extractive industries, and people get pulled in. Rural America is complicated—racially, socially, and economically—but that’s a thing that is often resonant with them. I then start to compare and contrast those environmental injustices with them in urban areas, making those broader-scale connections.”

Henderson says one of his main goals is to show students how the global economy and a colonial history of extraction is linked to the current system that damages rural communities. This idea veers directly into politics, something environmental researchers often would rather avoid entirely.

However, Meuwissen says, this is an unavoidable feature, repeating a mantra, “There is no environmental science without environmental politics.”

The research team knows there are limits and potential pitfalls to this approach.They believe in it despite criticism.

“There’s only so much traction that you have with folks like that,” says Long, “but you take steps. That’s the big thing; we all have to make more concerted efforts going forward.”

Henderson adds: “Are we trying to solve everything? No,” he says. “But we are trying to figure out a way to live in a country together with people who think differently, to solve common problems that we all have. And most of our students are on board with that.”

Jacob Schermerhorn is a Rochester Beacon contributing writer. The Beacon welcomes comments from readers who adhere to our comment policy including use of their full, real name.

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