The Paris Climate Change talks have just concluded with an historic agreement.  As we begin to parse and debate its contents, it’s a good time to consider how our children are grappling with what may be the greatest challenge of their future. This complex, emotional, and volatile subject is engaging children as well as adults. In general, climate change is an especially difficult environmental issue. It involves complex systems, large scale, uncertain predictions, multiple time frames and moral/ethical dimensions. Yet, the urgency of climate change remains. Even as children are developing cognitive analytic skills and refining their moral stance toward the environment as well as other humans, climate change issues press for immediate attention.

UNESCO states: “Education is an essential element of the global response to climate change.” Making education work as a tool in the battle against climate change is a tall order. Research from around the world is beginning to examine what kids know about global warming, greenhouse effects and related issues, which environmental education approaches are most effective, and what best predicts children’s attitudes and behaviors about these risks.

What do children know about climate change? To answer this question, researchers have asked children open-ended questions, such as “What is global warming?” and analyzed their responses. Or, they’ve asked children to draw their ideas about climate change. For example, in a study of 91 seventh graders in the Midwest, their essays and drawings revealed a rudimentary understanding of the science behind climate change. When asked: “What will happen if carbon dioxide levels rise?” 40% of students predicted melting polar ice would result in rising ocean levels. However, 41% of the students predicted the opposite effect: due to rising temperatures and resulting water evaporation, the oceans would dry up. Despite children’s uncertainty about climate change effects, there was no doubt about their seriousness and no lack of ideas about action. Children recommended using less fossil fuels, planting more trees, reducing pollution, and using alternative energy sources, such as solar and wind. In a study of still younger children, 9-10 year olds in Sweden and England discussed rising carbon dioxide emissions and what policies might mitigate them. The children came up with modifications to daily life, such as reducing energy use, and technological solutions, such as more energy efficient appliances. As the study authors noted: “Students positioned themselves as active contributors to society.”

How best to educate children about climate change? Climate change headlines are grabbing the attention of children and fueling their concern.  Doomsday scenarios can frighten children, however, and fuel helplessness and hopelessness. In a 2007 study of Australian 10-14 year olds, 27% believed that the world might end in their own lifetimes due to climate change. So, parents and environmental educators need to find the ‘sweet spot’ between well founded alarm and positive, pro-active strategies. In other words, children, as future stewards of the planet, need hope. This was underscored in a 2012 survey study of 723 Swedish teenagers. Those who expressed what the authors called “constructive hope,” seeing pathways to solutions, not only had more positive environmental attitudes, they actually engaged in more pro-environmental behaviors, such as reducing everyday household energy consumption, conserving water resources, and recycling. By contrast, children who felt hopeless or whose optimism was founded on denial of climate change, did little or nothing.  

Besides injecting hope and avoiding messages of despair, climate change curricula can increase knowledge about both the science and the strategies to combat global warming. Although tests of different approaches to teaching are sparse, experiential, constructivist, hands-on activities appear to be more effective than traditional lecture methods. While we have evidence for best practices to increase knowledge about climate change and encourage pro-environmental attitudes, we still don’t know what approaches work best to encourage children, adolescents and young adults to commit to actions that combat global warming.

Unfortunately, the science of climate change and the policy initiatives to counter it continue to be under assault.  In a highly politicized environment, shrill voices decry and deny, rather than examine the data. What effect does this charged rhetoric have on children trying to make sense of climate change? While empirical studies haven’t tested this question, I would guess that children are not well served. The issues of climate change engage and disturb children now, and they will bear the burden of them later as adults. Children deserve clear, calm, and informed dialogue. They are eager to help. We should help them do just that.

To read further:

Bofferding. L., & Kloser, M. (2015). Middle and high school students’ conceptions of climate change mitigation and adaptation. Environmental Education Research 21, 275-294.

Byrne, J., et al. (2014). Climate change and everyday life: Repertoires children use to negotiate a socio-scientific issue. International Journal of Science Education 36, 1491-1509.

Karpudewan, M. et al. (2015). Enhancing primary school students’ knowledge about global warming and environmental attitudes using climate change activities. International Journal of Science Education 37, 31-54.

Karpudewan, M., Roth, W., & Chandrakesan, K. (2015). Remediating misconception on climate change among secondary students in Malaysia. Environmental Education Research 21, 631-648.

Ojala, M. (2012). Hope and climate change: The importance of hope for environmental engagement among young people. Environmental Education Research 18, 625-642.

Spepardson, D. P., et al. (2009). Seventh grader students’ conceptions of global warming and climate change. Environmental Education Research 15, 549-570.

Shepardson, D. P., et al. (2014). When the atmosphere warms, it rains and ice melts: Seventh grade students’ conceptions of a climate system. Environmental Education Research 20, 333-353.

Tucci, et al. (2007). Children's fears, hopes and heroes: Modern childhood in Australia.