5 tips for navigating conversations with young people on the climate crisis

 I delivered a Pro-D workshop to BC high school teachers this past fall on BTCEA's signature educational programStudent Leadership for Change. Over the hour long workshop our conversations kept coming back to the tensions many teachers felt as to how to teach about the climate crisis; Teachers were worried about presenting the facts about climate change in a manner that does not overwhelm students, while also not downplaying the major changes required by society to turn things around.

This group of teachers are not alone in wrestling with this challenge. Indeed, this has been an ongoing struggle in the world of climate communications. And rightly so, the climate crisis brings with it a lot of devastation, particularly for young people whose futures will be most impacted if swift action is not taken.

While there is overwhelming consensus among scientists that the climate crisis is real, and happening now, there is unfortunately, far less consensus on effective communication tactics regarding the climate crisis. A clear example of this is David Wallace-Wells’ New Yorker essay The Uninhabitable Earth, (the most read New Yorker essay in history) which lays out a worst-case scenario of the climate crisis. This article stirred up controversy among climate scientists and communicators, who felt it went too far, and painted an apocalyptic future that was dangerous, and would scare people out of taking action. Others felt the article served as a necessary and sobering wake-up call that could disrupt people out of a business as usual mentality. The debate this article unleashed among some of the leading climate experts, highlights the real challenges of effectively communicating the realities of the climate crisis, its root causes, and what we have to do to rapidly change course to safeguard a healthy planet for human and non-human species.

So while there may not be consensus among experts on the single way to effectively communicate on the climate crisis to mobilize everyone into action, luckily, there are still many tips, strategies, and best practices coming out of the growing field of climate communication. Here are five tips from experts that I have used over the years to help navigate conversations about the climate crisis, particularly with young people:

1. Scrap the ‘either-or’ mentality- I used to think that climate communications was either positive or negative. But, I have come to realize that we don’t have to be so reductive. Human emotions are fluid, and we rarely just experience one emotion, particularly with something as big as climate change. While there may be initial feelings of sadness, grief this is not static, and can also co-exist alongside feelings of optimism, hope, or opportunity as we learn about success stories or take climate action ourselves.

2. Building on this: There is no ‘one size fits all message’ on the climate crisis. Humans are complex, and have different motivators, values, lived experiences and emotional responses meaning they will likely all have different responses to the same message. As researchers at the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication write: “diverse audiences have their own pre-existing beliefs, attitudes and values, and actively interpret and construct their own meanings from the messages they receive, which they in turn communicate through their own networks.” For example, climate communicators have found that young people have been receptive to climate messaging that focuses on protecting the things they love.  

3. Balance your message- Like all things in life, effective climate communications is all about balance. This means we don’t have to completely shy away from the scary truths of the climate crisis. But, we have to serve these with equal portions of climate solutions, and positive stories of everyday people making change. This is captured in research from the Climate Communications Project. Who write: “While there is no simple way to ‘activate’ certain emotions in climate change communication, research suggests there is a balance to be struck between ‘scary’ messages and messages that emphasize the constructive measures that people can take to reduce the risks of climate change.”

4. Draw on diverse narratives, stories, and the arts to reach your students. While the facts and science of climate change are critical to teach, research suggests that this alone is often not enough to motivate action. Most of us come to understand the world around us through stories and images. This is why it is important to bring in every day stories, and diverse narratives that communicate both the impacts and solutions to the climate crisis. Furthermore, research shows that young people resonate strongly with youth centered stories, compared to stories and examples of governments, or corporations taking climate action. This is because youth driven stories reinforce that young people have the power to have a positive impact.

 5. Create space for ongoing dialogue: Some research points to peoples’ emotional responses to climate change being less driven by the message they receive itself, but the follow up. Journalist David Roberts writes on this: “What matters in an overall assessment of someone’s disposition towards climate change is not their raw feelings in the immediate aftermath of an emotionally significant experience (…reading a scary magazine story), but how those responses are reinforced.

What this means is that effective climate communications may be less about the specifics of delivering the message, but how we continue to facilitate ongoing dialogue on the subject. Creating a space for students to express how they feel about the climate crisis with one another, and to take actions as a class has been shown to be highly effective in engaging young people on the subject. This is backed up by another study that found that greater emotional engagement on climate change, through dialogue helped to address some of the worries about the climate crisis, and led to more positive changes in habits for those involved.

There may not be one simple way to effectively teach about the climate crisis. The Climate crisis- is just that; a crisis, that brings with it a lot of devastation and grief. Teaching and communicating about it can feel like you are delivering terrible, destabilizing news. But, hopefully these tips will make it easier to navigate climate education and conversations in your class. As the research shows, we need not shy away from this reality. Instead, we should explicitly acknowledge the scary and overwhelming emotions that come alongside learning that the places, people, plants, animals, experiences, and things that we love and that make life on this planet so magical are under threat.  




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