Should we aim to leave students feeling empowered to tackle climate change? Should we try to give them hope? And, if so, how?

As I’ve blogged about a few times recently, I have been working with a couple of collaborators, Susan Cheng and JW Hammond, on a project aimed at understanding student views on climate change. As part of this, I’ve been thinking about what we teach and how we teach it, and also about a common challenge faced by instructors who teach about climate change: how do we convey the severity of climate change without leaving students feeling depressed and hopeless?

As I was working on the manuscript describing the first set of our results, I typed a sentence to that effect, and then just sat and stared at the computer for a bit, wondering “Is it my responsibility as a biology instructor to leave students empowered and with a sense of purpose?”

I often just plow through as I write, leaving things like “<insert more here>” to avoid disrupting my flow while I am writing. So, to sit and just stare at my computer for 5 or so minutes after writing a sentence is unusual for me. Less unusual is that I decided to go to twitter to see what other people thought:

It was interesting, and I think encouraging, to see that almost all the people who responded (excluding the folks who just wanted to see the results!) said yes.

A few days later, I got to the section of the discussion where I wanted to go into this more. I wrote out a topic sentence that laid out the idea that educators would ideally want to both educate and empower students, and asking how instructors can do that. Once again, I got stuck. I had no idea what to write, so instead added a comment indicating I needed to do more reading and thinking before I could actually write that paragraph. And, since I was working on that section while home with kids on yet another snow day, it wasn’t a great day for reading and thinking and reflecting, so I moved on.

When the kids finally went back to school, I came back to that section. I came up with this list of things that might leave students feeling empowered rather than despondent:

  • Empowering women and girls can help fight climate change (TED talk by Katharine Wilkinson on the topic)
  • The Green New Deal, which aims to substantially reduce US carbon emissions, has rapidly gained in popularity and, therefore, political viability
  • Young climate activists such as Greta Thunberg are organizing climate strikes in which tens of thousands of students have participated
  • Leading students in the World Climate Exercise, which has been shown to increase the motivation of participants to take action on climate change, including leaving participants with greater feelings of urgency and hope and a greater desire to act on climate (Rooney-Varga et al. 2018).

As I’ve thought about this, I’ve ended up with countless tabs open in my browser as I try to think about what I can change in my course to give students some hope. But then I got to one of those tabs, which argues that we shouldn’t aim to have hope:

Everything will be okay. We say it even when we don’t believe it.

Maybe we should stop saying it. There is opportunity in this acceptance. [Climate scientist Kate] Marvel thinks we need courage, not hope. We must know what’s coming, we must realize it will hurt, and we must be very strong together.

I also found the idea of solastalgia, which is “the homesickness felt when one’s home environment is damaged or degraded”, really interesting. As the person who coined the term, Glenn Albrecht, writes, “we are in the middle of a pandemic of earth-related distress that will only get worse. Everything that was once familiar and trusted in our environment will be experienced as the “new abnormal” as development and climate pressures continue to build.”

Given all that, should we be trying to leave our students feeling hopeful?

I’d love to hear from you, based on your experiences as a student and/or instructor in a course that covers climate change. Should we aim to leave students with a sense of hope? Should we aim to leave them feeling inspired to action? And, if so, how can we do that?

24 thoughts on “Should we aim to leave students feeling empowered to tackle climate change? Should we try to give them hope? And, if so, how?

  1. When I taught Climate Change for non-science majors I struggled with this a lot. I have a wonderful friend who now runs outreach at a college sustainability office; at the time she was a high school librarian and she was incredibly talented at connecting with college students about hope. She would come to my class at the end of the semester and run a workshop that combined storytelling, art, and small group discussions. I think the students appreciated this opportunity to step out of the class material and reflect on their experiences, their new understanding of climate change, and their hope for the future. I guess my advice is — find a Benny! She’s incredible!

    • Can we clone Benny? 🙂

      But, seriously, yes, I think (as some of the comments below get at), one thing that can be effective is to devote some time to storytelling and allowing time for reflection.

      • @Caitlin:

        Huh, I followed your link and was interested to discover that my favorite book series–Terry Pratchett’s Discworld novels–is considered “hopepunk”. I never thought of Pratchett that way (having never heard the term “hopepunk” until just now), but I think the label fits. Pratchett certainly does think the world is what you make it, and that it’s improvable. He does believe in working together to build institutions that are bigger and more effective than any one person. He does think there’s no such thing as a chosen one or a savior, and that believing in one is dangerous. He does think that struggle to make the world a better place will never end, and that you should keep trying anyway even when it seems hopeless. He does think that justified anger has its uses, but also thinks that it has to be channeled and let off the leash only in rare contexts. (Neil Gaiman has a Guardian article that’s good on Pratchett’s anger…) And he does value small gestures and doing what you can where you are, even if it doesn’t seem like much.

  2. Hey Meghan. You defined your goal as “how do we convey the severity of climate change without leaving students feeling depressed and hopeless?”. I am wondering if this is really what happens. I think a lot of what people do is block out the message. ““.. if the information you have to offer is tied to a bleak message, you must assume many will choose to avoid it.” That is a quote from “The Influential Mind” by Tali Sharot, which I really like. She talks a lot about how people receive information.
    Sharot writes ‘…to influence actions, you need to give people a sense of control. Eliminate the sense of agency and you get anger, frustration, and resistance. Expand people’s sense of influence over their world and you increase their motivation …’ This statement gets at how to inspire to take action, which is not your stated goal. But I like the concept of agency as it relates to your question of hope. Do students feel they have a sense of agency? Hope can come in different forms. (1) Climate change is pretty bad, but not that bad. Just looks at the new wind farms. (2) Climate change is pretty bad. But people like you are doing something about it. This latter message gives a sense of agency.
    So I think Sharot’s message related to your question would be: Give a lot of negative information, and people will find a way to block it out and move on (she gives some examples with health information to make this argument). So in this case you don’t need to worry about your students! But give a message with agency and people will learn about the issue better and have more hope. You are using the word “empowered” I suppose in the same way she uses “agency”.
    So one solution might be to tell stories of people doing things. Certainly giving the background of the scientists doing things is done more now, even in text books. I think this helps a lot. But e.g.: rather than show all the windmills in Germany as a sign of hope, tell the story of a young German engineer working on windmills. Rather than showing Lonnie Thompson climb mountains to glaciers with the story of their disappearance (and the impending doom of the inhabitants at the downstream), tell the story of a graduate student and their choice to work on Lonny’s lab and how they think their research will help.
    I am likewise really struggling with how to teach climate change in my non-major class.

    • One important thing may also be to include narratives of actions and people that are outside of science. In a deep way, it seems likely that these people (specifically politicians, business-people, etc) will have larger impacts on many aspects of climate change than most scientists.

      Narrative and storytelling are double-edged swords: they can make us agree with things which are not necessarily purely factual, or to develop reasons to act beyond “objectivity.” But on the other hand, none of us are purely “objective,” and I think the pedagogical literature does show that we learn substantially more from good stories than we do from cold, rote facts. In this way providing an emotional connection, and a sense of potential agency, I think accomplishes exactly what Meghan is looking for. Without any personal connection (agency), students are far less likely to even remember the details of lessons, much less feel able to apply them in any way, even at the voting booth.

      • Yes, that is a great idea. This conversation has me thinking about using stories of people in disciplines like business, psychology, nursing and teaching: the majors of my students!

      • Such good thoughts in this thread! As to whether students are actually getting depressed: I don’t know for sure if they are getting depressed, but our data show that they are getting more worried, and that some of them are getting super worried (including referring in short answer formats to panic attacks).

        We will write at least one follow up paper (hopefully a few!) that analyze the short answer responses, which give us a much better insight into agency. But one of the conclusions based on our early analyses is that students do not leave the course feeling a sense of agency. I agree that that’s something we should aim to do a better job of, and I think the idea of using specific stories (perhaps such as the one about Greta Thunberg, the young climate activist?) could empower people.

    • IMO one of the most interesting phenomena of the climate debate is observing the methods that catastrophe advocates use to rationalize the rejection of their message. I think most people accept the basic message. But there is rightfully something fishy about yet another apocalypse that’s just over the horizon, like others before it that never materialized. And I think this hints at why surveys are frequently misleading: when pressed to express, people go with the position that they think they’re supposed to have. But alone in the voting booth, they follow their gut.

  3. Interesting post Meg. I think this is just part of a wider discourse that we and environmentally-minded members of society should be having. Not just about climate change but about a whole raft of environmental impacts. Because I do worry slightly that an over-focus on climate change distracts from more immediate environmental impacts, particularly loss of habitat which could help to mitigate the effects of climate change.

    Don’t know if you saw this recent post of mine, and the post by Joern Fischer that inspired it, but they seem relevant here:

    • One of the most interesting things we’re finding with this study relates to how students link the different things we cover in the course related to human impacts on the environment (e.g., plastic pollution, eutrophication, climate change, habitat loss). Right now, we’re hoping to make this the focus of follow up work. I think there are really interesting things happening there, and obvious things we could try to change to help students to a better job of understanding and processing what we cover in class.

      Also: this is one of the areas where the short answer responses students gave are really interesting and give insights that we would have completely missed if we had just done the Likert-style questions. Those questions are only on there thanks to my collaborator Susan suggesting them — I’m so glad she did!

  4. This is a very important question. My experience w intro and upper level biology students:
    1) Nowadays a big majority of your students already accept human caused climate change.
    2) Focusing only on the damage, even for 5 minutes of intro, without providing hope that human agency can also help fix that damage, can cause you to lose the entire class. You are then wasting everybody’s time.
    3) What better way to engage students in ecology than to outline “4 great challenges”—renewable energy, carbon sequestration, habitat preservation…—things we talk about all the time amongst ourselves? Ask who in this classroom is going to have the next big idea? Put students to work.
    4) In short, both hope and despair are infectious. There is already wayyyy too much despair floating around.

    • “both hope and despair are infectious. There is already wayyyy too much despair floating around.” This could be used to frame a discussion about this issue in class!

      And, yes, you are right that most students enter the course accepting that humans cause climate change.

      In terms of providing hope: a colleague asked me once why I teach about Judas goats in the Galapagos during the lecture on human impacts on the environment. That person wasn’t sure what I was trying to get across with it, thinking in terms of what question I might ask on an exam related to it. My response was: 1) it’s the point in the course where the students are the most excited in class, and, in my opinion, there’s value in having something in class that’s exciting and interesting and kind of weird that they will then go tell their roommate or friend or whoever, and 2) it gives hope that we can, with enough sustained effort, undo some of the damage we’ve done, and I think that’s really valuable, too.

  5. Very interesting post Meghan. I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately in a different context: diversity and equity in academia. When I showed that 57% of N. American TT ecology asst. profs hired in the last 3 years were women (, the most common reaction I saw online was “this gives me hope” (or words to that effect). But there was a minority reaction along the lines of “how dare you tell women to feel happy about their current status in STEM”.

    Of course, as I thought I had made clear in the post, I wasn’t trying to tell anybody to feel hopeful, or unhopeful, or happy, or angry, or anything else! The point of the post was knowledge, not feelings. I was just trying to say “here’s a data point–one small piece of a larger puzzle–that seems worth knowing if you care about diversity and equity in academic ecology.” Not because I want to privilege knowledge above feelings–I don’t–but just because feelings are very personal things. One person might be spurred to action by hope–a feeling that we’re making progress, that the change we want to see is within our grasp, etc. Another might be spurred by anger, or fear, or whatever. And those feelings are all valid, or can be. I confess I’m not a fan of the view that political change can only come from one feeling. I think that view leads mostly to pointless, counterproductive, negative-sum online arguments between people motivated by different feelings. (e.g., “if you aren’t angry like I am, you must not care enough about the issue, you’re not showing sufficient concern for and solidarity with the oppressed, and you’re trying to silence me by stemming my anger” vs. “if you’re not hopeful like I am, you’re betraying the cause by making others give up in despair or lash out ineffectively”). To be clear, I know you weren’t espousing this view, but I’ve run across it online and I disagree with it.

    All of which is a long-winded way of saying, if I were teaching about climate change in a science class, I don’t know that I’d try to cultivate any particular feeling in my students–hope or fear or whatever. I like the suggestion of other commenters to cultivate agency instead. And maybe even talk about different people whose sense of agency springs from different feelings, and who use their agency in different ways.

    As an aside, I feel like lurking under the surface here is a much bigger conversation about alternative theories of political and social change. I know my own theories of political and social change are pretty inchoate and implicit, and not grounded in much knowledge or personal experience. So if I were teaching climate change in a science class, and wanted to talk about what individuals or groups of individuals can or should do about climate change, I’d worry a little about my ability to do justice to the range of views out there. I’d be very interested to hear from Meghan and others who actually teach this stuff: what do you say to students about this?

  6. I have been very interested in this since you mentioned researching students views on climate change, so I was very excited for this follow up post. This is something I have been very interested in researching as well, but haven’t quite figured out how. I feel like there is very little biology education based research out there on climate change (yet a plethora on other potentially controversial topics like evolution) so I am excited to see research going on here!

    I feel like my students are really apathetic towards global problems. After talks about climate change they sort of shrug their shoulders and say, “Hum, that sounds bad. But there is nothing we can do about it,” and then dismiss it without any thought. The would likely be one of the D’s in this survey ( — hey, maybe that is where I should start with my students!)

    I strongly feel that we need to empower students to do something — change their behaviors, write a legislator, and/or talk to others about the issue. I don’t think they comprehend that even small actions can be powerful and think that their actions have no consequences. I would be interested on how your students differ though. I teach in an area that is very blue on this map — — so I spend a lot of time teaching that this is a real problem, I am guessing the majority of your students come from a very different background.

    As for your question on HOW — I would also love to know. Hopefully we can get more biology based climate education research happening so we can really tackle these questions!

  7. I learned quite a bit last year – more than I had expected – from participating in one of the “Climate Reality Leadership Training” events last year, when they came through my city.

    I left not just with a sense a hope, not with the idea that hope is important, but with actual tangible hope and optimism. The way Al Gore put it, and it makes a lot of sense, is that you need to communicate the gravity of the problem, but pair this with evidence that we are well on our way to digging out of the problem. Our students hear a lot about the reality of the problem, but less about the technology and economics and politics of the solutions to these problems. So I think it’s important for us, as educators, to learn about what is happening with the development of clean energy technology, the trajectory of the market for energy, technological developments in energy storage and its cost, and what economists are saying about the projected costs of solar and wind power in the future based on increases in efficiency and market growth. It seems like a lot of good news, especially in the context of the negativity that people get on a daily basis.

    I think this hope needs to come from a personal place, with a story — but backed up with the data. And I think a lot of us in the ecology business aren’t equipped with information to talk credibly about the data suggesting that switching to a clean energy economy is inevitable. It’s not a question of if, it’s a question of how soon. So we need to give people hope to make that transition more quickly.

    • Hi Terry – I think that this is a very good example of what I was getting at above. One the one hand a switch to renewable energy has got to be a good thing as far as climate change is concerned. But facilitating that switch has environmental costs in terms of the physical resources required to sustain it, mining for rare earth elements, metal ores such as bauxite, etc., the pollution this mining causes, and so forth.

      And once all that infrastructure is in place, increased access to energy will speed up consumerism in developing countries, as we’ve seen in China and other parts of Asia, and South America, in the past 20 years. Ultimately this can only plateau once the human population stabilises, and we don’t know when that will be. By then who knows what state the planet will be in?

      So positive environmental stories on the one hand can have negative repercussions on the other. What I try to get across to my students is that _everything_ that we do has an environmental impact, directly or indirectly. But that’s also true of every other species on the planet. It’s just the scale of our effects is much greater than most. This is why I can’t bring myself to be too optimistic, even in the face of climate change “solutions”.

  8. I have no difficulty at all being optimistic about the future.

    Humans are decoupling from natural systems. Ultimately the only things that will matter are energy transformations and raw resource availability. Even food production could be mostly divorced from natural systems by the end of this century, and the need to preserve species for their genetic material could easily be eclipsed by humans’ ability to create whatever genes they want.

    Because technological development is unpredictable, projections of CO2, energy consumption, resource use, climate, etc more than 30-50 yrs into the future are irrelevant.

    It’s hard to imagine why anyone would be upset about climate. By the time today’s college freshmen are in their dotage, climate will be almost irrelevant.

    • The idea that humans can ever completely decouple from natural systems is an anthropocentric fantasy that’s largely a result of our relatively short lifespans. Regional and global emergent diseases, volcanic and tectonic activity, climate shifts (natural and human-induced) occur at timescales that make us (a) forget they occurred in the past and (b) believe they will never occur in the future.

      Likewise the idea that other species are only worth preserving for their genetic material is, in my opinion, a very narrow world view. The products of billions of years of evolution deserve more than that.

  9. People (and Meg) have you read the book “Don’t Even Think About It: Why Our Brains Are Wired to Ignore Climate Change” by George Marshall? My daughter and I read it for our “journal club”.
    It is just a great review of the different psychological issues involved in people beliefs and how they form them. He presents much research (and interviews), but also visits many organizations himself.
    I’m reading stuff like this to better understand how information is received (and not!).
    On a personal note, one way it gave me hope, is to better understand people with different opinions on the issue.
    E.g. “We might be in no position to judge the levels of trace greenhouse gases in teh atmosphere, or sea levels… but we all think we know about the weather”.
    “The answer must lie elsewhere–not with the issue itself but with the way it has been told. It must be something about the way the story of climate change has been constructed and communicated, the people who tell it, and how it has attached itself to their values”. This is the issue, in a nutshell, addressed in the book!

  10. Hopefulness on climate change is a difficult problem in my opinion – having worked on climate and energy policy in one way or another since about 2007, while also doing a botany degree. The problem is that it’s a highly multidisciplinary problem. Consider the following angles that (I think) have to be considered to answer whether or not we can or should be hopeful:
    Biology: how much can ecosystems and species adapt?
    Climate science: how close to serious tipping points are we, and what does that say about the type of action required?
    Engineering: what technologies are really available to apply as solutions?
    Agriculture: can our food production survive the climate disruption?
    Economics: can market economies make the required changes in time (or at all)?
    Politics: what kinds of government can make the required changes, and which of them are ethically/socially acceptable?
    And so on.

    I think it may be too glib to just say, given the political situation (especially in the USA), that we have all the technology and science we need to reverse our terrible climate footprint or to (mostly) reverse the extinction crisis; most of the barriers are political and economic. But that’s too glib because the stage we are at with global warming means we have to consider it is possibly too late to save a number of species and ecosystems, and even if we can theoretically make the necessary changes, can we make them in time?

    On these matters, I have a certain (limited) amount of hope. I don’t profess to be an expert on any one of the above questions, just that I’ve considered them. I would not know how to begin in an ecology class (I’m not a teacher so I don’t have to). “If we don’t do something radical we will all suffer and the subjects of your research will be disrupted and destroyed” is probably accurate but hope requires seeing a way out and that’s more difficult to impart. But it is a really important problem, and thank you for making me think about it.

  11. I agree with Jeremy that it isn’t necessarily our role to “cultivate any particular feeling” in our students through teaching, but I think it is useful to acknowledge and discuss the feelings that students have about issues. I try to teach the key subject matter, data literacy, critical thinking skills, etc. then I think it is up to the students to gauge their own reactions to the content that has been taught or the larger societal issues that connect with the course content.

    I ask the question at the beginning and ending of my Conservation Science course:

    How do you view the future of the environment?
    a) Optimistically
    b) Pessimistically
    c) Neither
    d) I don’t care

    We then vote as a class for each of the options. I think this question might have come from a slide that Mark Vellend used to have in his conservation lectures. We also all fill out the Future of Conservation Survey ( and we examine the results for the class. We also discuss how student perspectives changed across the course. There is always a diversity of opinions from the students on how they view the future of the environment.

  12. Pingback: Friday links: marking Black History Month in ecology, financial crisis at Laurentian University, #pruittdata latest, and more | Dynamic Ecology

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