Research Summary

Geographical process or global injustice? Contrasting educational perspectives on climate change

Climate change should be contextualized as a justice issue by classroom educators

Environmental Education Research
2019

To mitigate the effects of climate change, it is crucial that developed countries take comprehensive action to reduce carbon emissions. Acknowledging justice as a key element of environmental issues is essential to create collective and equitable climate action, termed climate justice. Climate justice frames climate issues as political and ethical rather than a purely physical earth process. To promote climate justice in education, educators and practitioners must be knowledgeable about climate change and climate justice topics and understand how to implement this knowledge in the classroom. This study investigated how student teachers, educators, and climate change specialists interpret issues of climate change and climate justice. The researchers also analyzed how these groups perceived the way in which climate change and climate justice should be taught in the classroom.

Education for Sustainable Development (ESD) promotes an educational framework that addresses the knowledge, understanding, and actions required to create a sustainable world. Education for Sustainable Development encompasses social, economic, political, and environmental perspectives of climate change, but only to a limited extent. Particularly, the authors believe ESD is narrow in the way that it encourages people to reflect on their individual role in contributing to climate change rather than focusing on the larger political and economic influences. Climate Change Education (CCE) is an important aspect of ESD, as it provides critical education by framing climate change within the context of climate justice. Incorporating justice into environmental issues is an essential first step to creating collective and equitable climate action. The researchers called for the inclusion of Global Citizenship Education (GCE) in CCE and ESD. Global Citizenship Education fosters not just an understanding of the role of justice in climate change, but also an understanding of the systems, structures, and processes that give rise to global injustice. GCE also promotes moving the focus away from changing individual actions and looks toward a collective response to climate change. These educational frameworks are important in encouraging educators to incorporate justice into climate issues and to focus on collective climate action.

This study focused on specialists in climate change (specialists) and teachers and student teachers (classroom educators) in Ireland. The specialists included university academics, development NGO workers, and environmental educators. The teachers were selected from schools in Dublin with a known commitment to GCE and the student teachers were selected from various institutions. The researchers conducted eight interviews with the specialists and seven focus groups with the classroom educators. The researchers asked the participants about their conceptions of climate change, including its causes, solutions, and consequences, their views on climate justice, and their educational practices in relation to these topics. The researchers then analyzed the interview and focus group data for common themes.

The researchers found different perspectives on climate change and justice education between the specialists and the classroom educators. The classroom educators emphasized climate change as a physical earth process and demonstrated limited knowledge of the social consequences of climate change, including the disproportionate impact it has on low-income communities. The specialists, on the other hand, framed climate change as a justice issue that requires political, social, and economic change. They believed that individual action and technological advances are insufficient climate response. Results showed that the classroom educators had a limited understanding of justice compared to the specialists. The classroom educators contextualized justice in a two-sided way, in which someone is either a perpetrator of injustice or someone is a victim of injustice, whereas the specialists identified justice as a more socially complex issue.

The researchers found the specialists and classroom educators to have different perspectives on how climate change and climate justice should be taught in the classroom. The classroom educators explained that they believed individual actions such as saving energy, recycling, etc. were sufficient climate change solutions. The researchers argued that this disengages people, particularly children, from looking at climate change from the broader context necessary to create change. The specialists, on the other hand, viewed individual action as an inadequate response to addressing climate change and instead promoted collective action. Additionally, there were two opposing ideas of how to teach climate action to children. The specialists viewed children as having the current capability to take climate action and be active citizens. The classroom educators viewed children as future citizens, suggesting that they should learn material now and take action later. The researchers argued that this ‘learn-now-act-later' approach limits children's agency in their future, and particularly their future in the context of climate change.

The main limitation of this study is that the participant groups do not represent all voices that may influence climate change and climate justice education. The children’s and parents’ perspectives and the policy makers that influence educational curriculum are not included in this study. Additionally, the participants were not chosen randomly which could have resulted in biased answers.

The researchers recommend that CCE be implemented in the classroom setting and in ESD in a way that seeks to address limited understanding of climate change, climate justice, and climate action among teachers. The researchers also suggest that GCE should be incorporated into CCE to promote active and engaged citizenship among children. The researchers call for education to help classroom educators contextualize climate change as more than an earth process and support them in exploring social, economic, and justice issues in the classroom.

The Bottom Line

Educators’ and practitioners’ knowledge on climate change and climate justice, and how they implement this knowledge in the classroom, is essential to promoting justice-focused climate action. The researchers looked at how classroom educators and climate change specialists interpret issues of climate change and climate justice and analyzed how these groups perceived the way in which those issues should be taught in the classroom. The researchers found that classroom educators interpret climate change as strictly a physical earth process, whereas the climate change specialists framed climate change as a global injustice that requires political, social, and economic change. The researchers also found that the educators promoted individual climate action, whereas the climate change specialists emphasized the need for collective action. The researchers called for teacher education to help educators explore social, economic, and justice factors of climate change within the classroom.