Teaching climate hope in an age of despair

A little more than a year ago President Trump announced he would pull the country out of the Paris climate accord on limiting global greenhouse gas emissions. It has been a challenging year to teach hope on climate change.

What I have learned is that we need to do better at teaching students how to talk about climate impacts and solutions.

The emotional labor of teaching on climate change is what I was not prepared for. I taught a brand new undergraduate course on climate change communication at DePaul University in the winter 2018 term. The 17 students in my class were largely there because they cared about climate change but were confused about how to talk about it.

There is an urgency to figuring out how to talk about climate change more effectively.

Decades of Inaction

Collectively we’ve wasted so much time. Scientists studied the greenhouse effect during the International Geophysical Year — in 1958. That’s right, 60 years ago scientists were working to figure out the impact of carbon dioxide on our global climate.

In 1979, an article in the New York Times warned about potential catastrophic effects of melting North Pole ice during the lifetime of someone then in their infancy. Today, ice cover at the poles is at an all-time low.

Climate scientist James Hansen, then head of NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies, testified to the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee about climate change in 1988.

James Hansen testifying to Congress. Source: Wikipedia.

Speaking of global warming, according to New York Times’ coverage at the time, he told senators at that hearing that “It is already happening now.”

What I was not prepared for standing in front of a university classroom teaching about climate change 30 years later was my students’ anger and confusion at hearing about Dr. Hansen’s Congressional testimony. I could talk at length about the latest social science research on effective climate change communication.

The questions I was unprepared for were the ones of why more hasn’t been done. Why have the adults, of which I am now one, and political leaders failed their generation.

To put it in perspective, in 1988 when James Hansen spoke to Congress, I myself was a child. Now, 30 years later, we are nowhere where we need to be to address what is essentially the ultimate collective action problem. The Paris accord to limit global greenhouse gas emissions was an important step forward. It is nowhere near enough.

Generational Shifts on Climate Change

This is an important psychological shift that is going on. Projected climate impacts still felt far when I was an undergraduate student in the early 2000’s learning about climate models for 2050.

Today, 2050 doesn’t feel all that far off. And, we are experiencing climate impacts which climate scientists have been forecasting for decades. In Illinois, we have already seen increased intensity of rainfall and flooding, along with droughts and rising average temperatures.

So the challenge for all of us is to understand how we got here. And, more importantly to understand how do we talk about climate change in a way that matters. In a way that bridges political divisions.

Much of the work of climate activist groups is focused on mobilizing the base and stigmatizing the fossil fuel industry. That’s important. But it is not enough.

To foster hope on climate change we need to also open a dialogue. Political ideology is a primary predictor of climate change beliefs.

Children in Reno, Nevada learn about solar panels during a 2012 field trip to the the Children’s Cabinet nonprofit. Photo credit: Jessica Reeder/Black Rock Solar (CC BY 2.0).

To teach climate hope we need to understand the emotions that our changing environment sparks in students of all ages. Anger and fear are disempowering. We need to teach about climate solutions without sugarcoating the challenges.

Where we can find renewed hope on climate change is in talking about what we love that is impacted by climate change, as well as understanding how individuals come to their beliefs about global warming.

Let’s start with what we can agree on.

A New Narrative Is Needed

In my teaching I emphasize that the majority of people in the United States are potentially reachable on climate issues. In fact, less than one in 10 U.S. adults are actively dismissive, according to research from George Mason and Yale Universities.

What’s more, even a majority of Republicans support increased research funding for clean energy technology, teaching climate change impacts and solutions in schools and that the country should use more solar and wind energy.

What we need to do is change the narrative about who supports climate action in the United States. We need to talk about climate change in a way that connects to everyday lived experience. In a new handbook for IPCC scientists, the UK-based charity Climate Outreach recommends telling human stories and speaking to shared values.

At the end of my course, one of my students reflected on seeing Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Sequel: Truth to Power at a local environmental film festival. The student wrote about how the film had sparked a conversation with his partner, who he described as doubtful, about climate change.

These are kinds of conversations we all need to be having. We need to talk more with those who don’t agree with us. We need to open dialogue on finding common ground, rather than the politics of climate change that may divide us. That is a way to find hope on climate issues.

Teaching climate hope is hard. It matters more now than ever.

Jill Hopke is an Assistant Professor of Journalism in the College of Communication at DePaul University, where she teaches climate change communication. She researches communication on climate and energy issues.