Teaching Climate Change With Stories of Success

Science teachers often find teaching about climate change challenging; when they discuss the dire consequences of rising CO2, students have a propensity to shut down. The common belief has been that if people understood climate change science, they would want to do something about it. But years of speaking to students about environmental issues made it clear to me that messages of gloom and doom elicit reactions of fear, demoralization, and hopelessness. However, when I shared inspiring stories about youth actions to, for example, preserve land or clean up rivers, it allowed young people to hear the bad news because they understood they had the power to change things. Positive, solutions-oriented stories motivated students to try to make a difference. And social science research confirms the importance of a positive approach.

“Motivated avoidance” is the tendency of people to avoid learning about troubling issues and seemingly intractable problems. The 2012 study, “On the Perpetuation of Ignorance: System Dependence, System Justification, and the Motivated Avoidance of Sociopolitical Information,” published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, showed people are motivated to avoid learning more about problems that they think they can’t do anything about. People become blind to facts when confronted with disturbing scientific information. A study by the Yale Project on Climate Change (2014) corroborated this, showing that alarmist images were the least likely to motivate viewers to action.

These studies make it clear that social science must be considered when teaching about climate change; they show that environmental education and information itself does not motivate people to act. In fact, depressing environmental information delivered without the counterbalance of solutions can be counterproductive, turning some people into climate “ostriches” who bury their heads in the sand. The appeal of “ostriches” and “deniers” is that they say what people wish to be true and psychologically wish to hear—unless an alternative scenario espousing action is presented.

Realizing the power of success stories to provide inspiration and role models for young people, photojournalist Gary Braasch and I founded the nonprofit Young Voices on Climate Change. Our Young Voices for the Planet (YVFP) films showcase youth reducing C02 emissions through many creative win-win scenarios, engaging local governments, businesses, and school administrators and helping their peers develop confidence in themselves as agents of change in the world. We champion and publicize these inspirational, authentic, and positive youth-led models of social action, filling an important niche in climate education.

In teaching about climate change, it is essential to begin teaching about troubling issues with hope and inspiration. Youth success stories need to precede the teaching of climate science and other wrenching environmental issues. Stories of youth “taking the reins” provides a wonderful engagement point for teachers wanting to help students who are interested in becoming agents of change and helping to protect the planet. These relevant stories also act as a lens through which to teach climate science.

Some of the youth documented in the YVFP films include 12-year-old Alec, who erects Sea Level Awareness posts along coastal California, speaks to Congress, and advocates for putting a price on carbon; Team Marine, who helped pass bans on plastic bags; 11-year-old Olivia, who raised $200,000 to clean oiled birds after the BP spill and advocates for renewable energy; and high school students who created a healthy school lunch through their school garden and local community partners.

The most recent YVFP film, Save Tomorrow, documents the motivational power of the other YVFP films. After watching the YVFP films, nine-year old Alice founded a “Save Tomorrow” club that helped solarize her school and town and save a forest. Once they realized they, too, had power, Save Tomorrow has become unstoppable. As Olivia states, “If they can do that, then so can I.”

Youth action can act as an antidote to the fear surrounding climate change. By making the teaching of climate change hopeful and relevant, students can absorb the science that is essential that they learn, as they will inherit a warmer world and will bear the brunt of climate disruption. Studies show the importance of beginning any teaching about the science of climate change with stories of hope, empowerment, and solutions. Your students are no different from the youth in the YVFP films and can become exemplars of hope and empowerment, as well as how we all can, and must, make a difference.

Lynne Cherry is the author and illustrator of 30 award-winning children’s books including best-sellers The Great Kapok Tree and A River Ran Wild. She is also the producer/director of the Young Voices for the Planet film series: short films that champion youth solutions to the climate crisis. These films are used by institutions such as National Geographic, PBS, National Wildlife Federation, and the United Nations Foundation. Cherry emphasizes the importance of sharing hopeful messages as a way to educate people and help motivate them to take positive action regarding climate change. She has received science-writing fellowships and has been awarded a Metcalf Fellowship and the Brandwein Medal. View and learn more about the films at YoungVoicesonClimateChange.com.

This article originally appeared in the October 2015 issue of NSTA Reports, the member newspaper of the National Science Teachers Association. Each month, NSTA members receive NSTA Reports featuring news on science education, the association, and more. Not a member? Learn how NSTA can help you become the best science teacher you can be.

The mission of NSTA is to promote excellence and innovation in science teaching and learning for all.

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3 Comments

  1. Gregg Kleiner
    Posted October 8, 2015 at 2:51 pm | Permalink

    Great article, Lynne. And this is exactly why I wrote PLEASE DON’T PAINT OUR PLANET PINK! A STORY ABOUT CLIMATE CHANGE FOR KIDS AND THEIR ADULTS. The new book uses humor, watercolor illustrations, and just the right dose of climate science to inspire kids (and their adults) to start SEEING carbon dioxide in the atmosphere (as pink) and then take action. Bill McKibben, Michael Mann, Kathleen Dean Moore, and others have all lauded the book. And teachers are using it as a climate change teaching tool. More here: http://cloudburstcreative.com/pink

  2. Gretchen Hooker
    Posted October 14, 2015 at 2:55 pm | Permalink

    Lynne, I love your emphasis on the the importance of communicating hope and inspiration when teaching these subjects. Biomimicry is also great framework for teaching about environmental issues with a message of hope and agency. It changes the story from one of doom and loss, to a reverence for what we can learn from the organisms and ecosystems around us to help solve our problems.

    If you are not already familiar with the concept, or with the Biomimicry Institute, I would encourage you to check us out.
    Main site: biomimciry.org
    Biomimicry Education Network website: ben.biomimicry.org.

    And if you like what you see, let us know. Thanks 🙂

  3. Jane Jackson
    Posted October 20, 2015 at 4:22 pm | Permalink

    Thank you!
    A related resource is the four-part series that is FREE on HBO. It is called SAVING MY TOMORROW: CHILDREN’S THOUGHTS ON THE ENVIRONMENT. The series was produced in 2015; each part is almost 1/2 hour in length. Part 1 includes two experts at the American Museum of Natural History. Part 2 includes a reading by Neil de Grasse Tyson. A delightful, empowering series!

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