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Country: France
SDG Region: Europe and Northern America
Sector: Formal Education
Keywords: Formal education, multidisciplinary approaches, project-based learning, eco-anxiety

In 10 middle schools in France, climate education is expanding from traditional science-based approaches. Students are learning how to take climate action and deal with emotions arising from climate change.

Emotions, Climate Change, and the Classroom

The climate change education course was developed by the Office for Climate Education (OCE), an organization with a global network with its headquarters in Paris.

Starting in September 2022, lessons focused on nature, the science of climate change, and how the climate functions. In December, the focus shifted to emotions and motivations around climate action. Students discussed their emotional reactions to climate change and engaged in group work to brainstorm solutions to climate issues. Starting in January, the program took a project-based approach. Students developed and implemented a climate change mitigation or adaptation project focused on issues specific to the school.

In focus group discussions, which were all conducted with 12-year old girls, OCE’s case study researchers found comprehension of climate change was an issue for the students. The topics taught in lessons, such as the greenhouse effect, were complex, and so students had difficulty recalling and explaining the scientific concepts in their own words.

Students also found it difficult to grasp the systemic aspects of climate change. Rather, they tended to focus on providing examples to prove the existence of climate change which were not always accurate. For example, students repeatedly linked climate change and pollution, and they inaccurately suggested that plastic pollution is the main cause of climate change.

The confusion that arose in the students’ minds around climate change consequently was related to their emotions on the topic.

The students described high levels of fear that sometimes overstated the immediate implications of climate change. For example, there were frequent allusions to ‘the end of the world,’ which the researchers suggest is linked to misunderstanding the complexity of the climate crisis. OCE also found that emotions were also highly linked to animals and biodiversity, with students particularly demonstrating empathy for many animal species. This points to the fact that some topics, such as biodiversity, are more attractive to this age group. 

“Diverging from traditionally science-based approaches was novel for the students and provided avenues for them to exercise more agency and expression in discussing climate change.”

The students were generally highly motivated to engage with climate change through education.  When considering future actions to address climate change, the students demonstrated an intention to take individual actions, such as writing letters to the mayor and reducing their own pollution to keep the planet clean. They also indicated an understanding of wider community-based approaches, such as local governments planting more trees. 

This case study points to the importance of addressing climate change in age-appropriate ways.

Some of the topics discussed in this project were overly complex for the age group, which led to misunderstandings and heightened worry and fear around climate change. The research found that some topics, such as biodiversity, are more attractive to this age group, which may act as entry points for climate education. Importantly, the case study shows the importance of developing climate education initiatives that move beyond an exclusively science-oriented approach. Engaging with the social and emotional aspects of climate change allows students to immerse deeper into the reality of climate change by considering how the phenomenon impacts them emotionally. Similarly, incorporating a project-based element into the climate education program engaged students by allowing them to think creatively and participate in hands-on exploration.

The MECCE Project is grateful to the Office for Climate Education for conducting this case study


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