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Country: South Africa
SDG Region: Sub-Saharan Africa
Sector: Informal education
Keywords: Participatory approaches, rural engagement, place-based learning, power dynamics, public participation, public access to information, climate communication

In Western Cape, South Africa, a group of 10 girls aged 14 to 18 worked as co-researchers to interrogate the underpinnings of climate change knowledge.

Global Challenges, Local Narratives

This case study explores the complexities and possibilities of informal climate change education. Climate change is not always included in formal education curriculum, and teachers in formal education settings are not always equipped to address the complexities of climate change. However, that does not mean that students are unaware of climate change. On the contrary, young people globally are highly aware, concerned, and eager to learn about climate issues.

Students are often excluded from decisions about their own learning. Teachers, often constrained by the boundaries of curriculum and assessment, set the boundaries of learning in formal education settings. Unfortunately, this can leave gaps around issues that students care about, such as climate change.

This multi-step, multi-method case study used ethnographic methods, narrative inquiry, and action research to position students as owners of their own learning. The students all have direct experience with the socio-economic and environmental impacts of climate change. However, they did not feel able to engage in conversations about climate change outside of their immediate peer group.

The research empowered the students to be co-researchers in the case study. Through the research process, the students were supported to learn about climate change in a way that enabled them to learn and share information that is important to them. This involved open discussions with the co-researchers, allowing them to ask their ‘Big Questions’ around climate change:

“I want to know how climate change changes.”

“I want to help people understand more about climate change without them disagreeing with me. How do I educate others?”

“I want to understand how climate change affects people. For example, what is the connection between shortage of water and climate change. I don’t see the connection.”

“I want to know more about how climate change impacts people living in underprivileged communities. Climate change impacts rich people differently.”

From here, the co-researchers assembled their collective understandings of climate change to answer everyone’s Big Questions. The co-researchers developed a shared understanding of what climate change is, what causes it, how its effects can be measured, and who is affected by it. 

“We pieced our collective understanding together and found that climate change is global. It is caused by six gases. The biggest one comes from fossil fuels (oil, coal, and gas). It started during the industrial revolution. We can trust the data because we can measure carbon way back in time. Climate change affects everyone. But it’s hardest on marginalized communities. It’s difficult to make climate change easy to understand.”

By collectively answering questions through shared knowledge, the participatory methods used in this case study allowed the young co-researchers to take control of their learning. The co-researchers were able to validate their knowledge and build their confidence in talking about this topic within their communities. The students were able to learn from each other through community-based education, which could be continued without the mediation of the primary researchers, suggesting possibilities for ongoing climate education in informal education settings.

“We decided that despite our differences: age, backgrounds, familiarity, time together, we would open our hearts and share with trust. We all share in this research. We all own the research. This means everyone will have a chance to verify the data and the words that are used.”

Out of the discussions that arose from this participatory climate education grew an awareness of a divide between the Global North and Global South, whose knowledge ‘counts,’ and the fundamental nature of information about climate change solutions.

As the co-researchers’ knowledge of climate change developed, they realized the dominance of the Global North has shaped the way that climate change is understood and discussed. When considering how they could take action on climate change, the co-researchers found it difficult to overcome their distrust of climate education deriving from the Global North. This meant that while the students were acutely aware of the direct impacts of climate change on their lives and their communities, they were unsure about how to take action. Similarly, case study also uncovered the implications of the digital divide on climate communication in areas with less access to the internet and computers. The digital divide impacts how young people in South African townships receive information, filter understanding, develop awareness and knowledge and ability to share their understanding, commitment and ideas for action.

This case study grapples with the deep and uneasy tensions of social inequality and the causes and consequences of climate change, and draws attention to the digital divide as a climate action issue. The research points to the need for climate change knowledge itself to be reshaped to address global power imbalances. Equitable understandings of the causes, impacts, and solutions of climate change, developed through networks of individuals and communities in the Global South, would enrich climate change communication and education for all.

The MECCE Project is grateful to Lucy Cavendish College and to the co-researchers for conducting this case study


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