Global CCE Blog

The State of Climate Change Education Research: Taking Stock of the Past and Looking Forward

Dr. Joseph A. Henderson, Paul Smith’s College

I live outside Lake Placid in Upstate New York, just over the border from Montreal, Quebec and on Haudenosaunee land. This area is famous for the 1980 Winter Olympics and the “Miracle on Ice” hockey game between the Americans and the Soviets. This is also the home of New York’s famous Adirondack Park, one of the largest protected mountain landscapes in the contiguous United States. Tourism and outdoor recreation are big industries here. This year’s ski season – historically a major economic driver during the winter months – has been sluggish to non-existent. Climate change is altering the natural and social patterns that shape this place and its people, and is increasingly top of mind for my neighbors.

Clearly an education in climate change is happening simply due to people’s lived, visceral experiences, and this in a relatively protected corner of an imperial superpower (historically spared the worst of the ongoing climate crisis). While there’s still a long way to go, the field of climate change education is growing and evolving as more people around the world come into contact with the lived realities of a warming planet. Recently, Dr. Marcia McKenzie, Dr. Fikile Nuxmalo and I co-authored and co-edited an open access special issue of the journal Research in Education on the state of climate change and education research. Titled Climate Change and Educational Research: Mapping Resistances and Futurities, the special issue takes stock of this evolving field from our particular scholarly vantage points.

Special issue editors and authors work broadly with political and sociocultural analyses of education and apply these lenses to climate change educations, broadly defined. While much climate change education research has its roots in formal science education, the field is expanding outward into more diverse spaces and places, and papers in the special issue evidence this shift. Authors investigate visualizations of climate-induced biodiversity loss, climate fiction and colonial imaginaries, cartographic pedagogies, the digital infrastructures of education governance, the history of superordinate curricular reforms, and youth mental health vis-a-vis political agency. This diversity in scholarship mirrors broader trends in climate change discourses. No longer is climate change being discussed within the narrow confines of the scientific community, and recent years have witnessed a growing awareness that climate change touches most aspects of people’s daily lives. Climate change is a truly wicked problem par excellence.

Photo credit: Clark Rasmussen

Photo credit: Research in Education Volume 117(1) Special Issue Cover

Photo credit:  US Department of Agriculture

Photo credit:  Braden Gunem

Photo credit:  Preston Keres/USDA/FPAC

Articles across the issue share foundational assumptions about the colonial and capitalist power dynamics at the root of the climate crisis. These structures continue to shape educational responses to the climate crisis, providing both possibility and resistance to new ways of being and living in a warming world. A key justice concern across all papers is the “uneven distribution of futurity” at the present moment, as those in the privileged Global North adapt their lives toward climate change differently than those in the Global South. Reality is obviously more complicated than this simple dichotomy (parts of the United States, for example, are still considered “developing” according to United Nations reports), but the broader pattern of global inequality of climate change and its impacts continues to shape how educationalists engage with the issue. The special issue authors and their scholarship are indicative of these broader shifts in climate change education research and practice.

No longer do scholars naively assume that it is enough to just teach people about the basics of climate change science in the name of increasing so-called climate literacy among populations. While a noble goal, there’s now a broader awareness that politics and policies matter, that social and cultural dynamics matter, and that intergenerational struggles over educational goals are shaping the climate change education space.

The MECCE Project is conducting this exact research in the context of comparative educational dynamics and their localized realities across the world. For example, a range of global indicators of climate change communication and education have been developed, including of national-level integration of climate change in formal education policy, such as national curriculum frameworks and subject syllabi in primary and secondary education. The MECCE Project is also exploring the relationships between climate education indicators, indicators of public engagement with climate change, and country characteristics such as climate vulnerability, emissions, and educational attainment. Alongside its indicator development work, the MECCE Project has funded 20 case studies of innovative, quality climate communication and education around the world, and a new call for case studies proposals was recently completed. The MECCE Project’s case studies cover diverse geographic areas, such as Argentina, Canada, France, Indonesia, and Senegal, and diverse settings such as schools, farming communities, Indigenous land-based camps, and national governments. The case studies are developing our understandings of holistic and culturally- and regionally-responsive climate communication and education. Scholars will need to do much more of this work in the future given the uneven nature of climate change education implementation around the world, including increasingly violent responses to the climate crisis.

Climate change education, much like climate change itself, has geographically and culturally distinct dimensions and this is now the more interesting and variegated research landscape that we find ourselves engaging with. It is long overdue in my professional opinion. My neighbors here in Upstate New York are just beginning to understand how the capitalist and imperial aspirations of the United States have shortened their winters. Doing something about this situation will mean contesting long-standing structures in the society. That is a space of both resistance and possibility. As the agrarian poet Wendell Berry wrote some years ago, “the impeded stream is the one that sings.” The climate change education community, while still grossly underfunded and impeded in many ways, also appears to be singing at the moment.

About the Author

Dr. Joseph Henderson is an Associate Professor of Social Sciences in the Department of Environment and Society at Paul Smith’s College in Upstate New York. He is trained as an anthropologist of environmental and science education, and his research investigates how sociocultural, political, and geographic factors influence teaching and learning about climate change. He completed a Ph.D. at the University of Rochester in the United States, where he conducted ethnographic analyses of science learning, sustainability education, and educational policy. His post-doctoral work at the University of Delaware examined the emerging field of climate change education from a learning sciences and educational policy perspective. His current research investigates how environmental education contributes to emerging ecofascist movements around the world. As part of the UNESCO-informed Monitoring and Evaluating Climate Communication and Education (MECCE) Project he investigates climate change educational policy in federated governance systems. He recently co-edited Teaching Climate Change in the United States, a collection that celebrated the diversity of climate change education programs across the United States. He has published in the Journal of Environmental Education, Environmental Education Research, the International Journal of Science Education, and Educational Studies. Additionally, he is an associate editor at the Journal of Environmental Studies and Sciences and is an editorial board member at Environmental Education Research and the Canadian Journal of Environmental Education. He lives in Saranac Lake, New York with his wife Tracey and their two children and where he is an elected member of the Saranac Lake Central School District’s Board of Education. In his free time, he likes to hike mountains, backcountry ski, and play video games.