The emotions of climate change

The debate about climate change has, since its inception, been accompanied by feelings of loss, fear and tragedy. This may be the wrong starting point and should be reconsidered, at least for the sake of education, says Associate Professor Noah Feinstein.

There aren't many areas in the field of science which are as hotly debated as climate change. Everybody has an opinion about climate change and maybe rightly so. It is a serious business which is starting to affect all life on this planet. But for most people it also resonates with the feeling of being witness to an ongoing and prolonged tragedy on spaceship Earth.

A possible metaphor for the debate might thus be 'the five stages of grief' - also called the Kübler-Ross-model in psychology. The model states that people go through five emotional stages after losing something they have cherished. The five stages are denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance.

»If that is true,« says Noah Feinstein, »If it is true that we have been talking about climate change in terms of loss, and that people go through the five stages of grief, then the question is: can we learn to think about climate change in a different way?«
The American environmental movement has been criticized for being too focused on condemnation and crisis and doomsday rhetoric.
This is a big challenge, says Noah Feinstein, but it might exactly be the right thing to do. Feinstein is a faculty member at the Department of Curriculum and Instruction and the Department of Agronomy at UW-Madison School of Education, and got the somewhat daunting task of summarizing the state of education for sustainable development in the United States for a report to be published by the International Alliance of Leading Education Institutions, IALEI, later this year.

»The American environmental movement has been criticized for being too focused on condemnation and crisis and doomsday rhetoric. And I think that what the Danish group wants to do is to think more in terms of empowerment and action competence. That is a very different way in thinking about things - not how we stop the world from becoming worse, but how to create the change we like.«

According to Feinstein, there has been relatively little implementation of such a positive education for sustainable development in the public schools in the US - at least not under that name. On the other hand, the US has been the cradle of the (closely related) environmental education movement, mostly through programs outside of schools. It is through the work of educators and activists that work outside of schools that environmental education has progressed - and it has slowly become more mainstream.

»For instance, let's look at a little thing like recycling, or the new abundance of fuel-efficient cars - although now this fashion is fuelled by the high price of gasoline, originally there were people who thought it was worthwhile to pay a little extra for them. And that is the result of dedicated educators and activists - mostly outside of the normal school settings. The next challenge is to figure out how to bring the goals and values and the problem solving strategies of sustainability into the school setting.«

Do you wish to achieve that through action research and learning by doing?
»I would say that if anything is emerging out of this international collaboration, it is the insight that it is not enough to teach people about climate change and to expect them to infer from that what they should do. If you wish to make change, you have to empower people, and the way you do that is by showing them they are capable of making a difference.«

Work place-based education
So, one has to try to embed science in practice. But for Feinstein it is not just a matter of science. Education for sustainability balances environmental concerns with economic development and social equity. »When we think about what we have to weave together in sustainability education, it certainly includes science, but also things like economics and social values,« says Feinstein.

»One of the examples I like to give is a program called BioSITE, which is run by a children's museum in the city of San Jose in California. They teach young children to use water monitoring equipment to measure and collect data, which is used by the local authorities. For me this is a lovely example of education for sustainable development, because it involves learning scientific inquiry skills and contributing to a socially valuable purpose. Students gain a deeper appreciation of their local environment and a sense of empowerment related to their capacity to foster positive environmental change. They make a real difference by collaborating with environmental scientists.«
It is not enough to teach people about climate change and to expect them to infer from that what they should do. If you wish to make change, you have to empower people, and the way you do that is by showing them they are capable of making a difference.
Some people call this kind of work place-based education, says Feinstein, because it focuses on helping people understand their local environment - both the ecological and social context - and on working together with other people in their community.

»Another thing we have learned is that education for sustainable development is different for different people around the world. Sustainability is a value, and the way this value fits in will depend on social and cultural differences in different countries. In the US we have very strong traditions of local democracy, and I think this is our greatest resource for sustainable development: helping people engage in local decision making that enhances sustainable living in the long term.«

Theories without emotions
From a theoretical point of view, Noah Feinstein draws from both situated learning theory and some established cognitive frameworks, citing people like James Greeno, Lev Vygotsky and Jean Lave among others.

»The core value from the more recent research, though, is that people understand things in ways that are deeply social, and that sometimes the best way to understand who they are and what they know is to look at what they do and are capable of doing in a social context.«

Feinstein's sociological approach to his work has also brought him close to the field of Science and Technology Studies (STS), which focus on how social, political, and cultural values affect scientific research and technological innovation, and how these in turn affect society, politics, and culture.

One of the lessons of STS is that certain approaches to public engagement in science seem to do better than others. For instance, the deficit model - the idea that public understanding should always be measured against what scientists know - has been widely discredited. Also, public debates about cloning have shown many unexpected secondary effects from almost any choice of communication strategy. This certainly seems to be the case also for the climate change debate.

Sociologists like Ulrich Beck and Bruno Latour have for instance used climate change directly to discuss the interrelations between science and society, but Feinstein finds their work incomplete:

»Science and Technology Studies has responded to the entrenched idea that science is rational by arguing that science is social. But another possible alternative to rational is emotional. I think that we are less adept at seeing that than we are at seeing the social aspects of science and technology.«

For Feinstein, there is an inevitable but often hidden undercurrent of emotions in public engagement with science. We are willing to talk about misunderstanding and risk, but not about grief or anger. He argues that STS attaches insufficient importance to emotion.

»For instance: I think that Ulrich Beck's 'risk society' is a bit too rational. His work is still influenced by this odd notion from economics that ... people are somehow optimizing. Perhaps you can say that risk is a polite word for fear, or for anger.«

Feinstein believes that Peter Galison's idea of trading zones is a much more useful metaphor for the public engagement with science. »For instance, I have done some research about parents with autistic children. One thing that becomes quite obvious when you work with a group like that is that a word like 'autism' has a very particular meaning for them. It is a meaning which is intrinsically emotional and deeply connected to their experiences. The word has a very different meaning for autism researchers. And therefore, for parents to be interested in the science of autism, they have to negotiate the difference between their own understanding of the word and the researchers understanding. Autism in this sense becomes a metaphorical trading zone.«

Emotional metaphors
It might be more effective to teach about climate change if we understood the role of emotions in public engagement, or if we knew the critical 'trading zones' that enabled scientists and citizens to communicate about global climate. But there is not much theory to draw upon. Neither do we have much practical experience, except maybe indirectly through the heated ups and downs of teaching evolution in certain parts of the US.

Feinstein is uncertain about the analogy between evolution and climate change. »I don't know. I think that climate change teaching is quite different from teaching evolution here in the US, because at this point the evolution controversy has very little to do with science. On one side are people who promote teaching evolution in schools because they think that it is important to teach this aspect of science, and on the other are people who oppose it because they think evolutionary science is somehow damaging or corrosive to religious belief. Not many people actively engage with the science.«

It seems that there are many people who really oppose climate change as a matter of values and emotion, because it requires us to abandon of a lot of cherished privileges we humans have acquired through history. For instance: If we accept the science of climate change, we implicitly admit that unlimited growth is not going to work.

»The science does not say that unlimited growth doesn't work, because the idea of something 'working' for society is not really about science. Unlimited growth has certain consequences, but the idea that these consequences are bad, that's a matter of values. Whether something is good or bad, or whether we should or shouldn't do something, that's dealing with value. Climate science doesn't tell us what to do - it tells us what will happen.«

Is sustainability a value thing?
»Sure. Climate change scientists are experts on climate change, but they have relatively less authority about social values. They are certainly entitled to have a certain opinion. And there will continue to be a very lively debate about what to do about it.«
If we measure economic prosperity, should we only look at the gross domestic product or are we also interested in things like the level of poverty? The way we choose our road to sustainability involves questions of value.
Aren't there many people who would say: 'No, sustainable living is not a value. It is a necessity in order to sustain human life on this planet'?
»Sure. But sustainability always involves value questions. When we talk about environmental sustainability, we have to choose between things like, say, the preservation of a landscape, and sustainable energy. Here in Wisconsin, for instance, we have debates about wind turbines. Wind turbines provide renewable energy, but they also kill birds, especially when they are positioned in a place where migratory birds fly. So the turbines provoke a question about values. Even for those of us who support environmental sustainability we still have questions of value - what environmental sustainability means. The same thing is true for economic sustainability, particularly for the balance between economic prosperity and social equity.«

»For instance: If we measure economic prosperity, should we only look at the gross domestic product or are we also interested in things like the level of poverty? The way we choose our road to sustainability involves questions of value. There is no sense of sustainability beyond those questions of value. What sustainability means will be determined by the decisions we make and what we value. If you were to ask a 100 people who work in sustainable development to envision what sustainable living looks like, you would get a 100 different answers.«

»I think that one of the great challenges in the public engagement of science is learning to understand the difference between the questions that science can answer, and the questions that science can't answer. Science is good at telling us the results of our actions, but we have to decide how good or bad that is and what we are willing to sacrifice for our future,« Feinstein says.

One thing which is particularly interesting about climate change is that science cannot really say anything 'for sure'. How can you convey the implications of a finding which is 95 % probable where you still have to point out that it might not happen anyway?
»My personal view on probability and statistical interpretations of the world is that they need to be taught very early. We avoid it because probability is complex. I wonder if there are ways to start thinking and talking about chance and odds in the elementary grades, because those concepts underlie so many political, social and scientific decisions. So much of what you read in newspapers, what you see in television and online, is swamped by statistics. It is a critical skill.«

It is definitely important to translate scientific concepts of risk and chance to psychological concepts which support empowerment and action competence. But are you sure that this 'positive translation' will have the necessary results?
»Any change in that we make in our society will have some advantages and some disadvantages. For instance, if we travel less - Americans move a lot - then this would also create advantages for us all. The word 'co-benefits' in the climate change discussion is sometimes used to describe such social changes in these positive terms.«

The proposal of self-empowerment and sustainable life still preserves the central idea of self-determination which nobody wants to give up. But maybe we will have to give it up. Maybe we won't be allowed to have more than 1.5 children?
»Of course there is a push-pull between the things we want to do and the things we have to do. But in any democratic society, the things we have to do will be determined by the people we choose. So if we think about any sorts of catastrophic legislation, they will depend on which government we have installed. So in terms of education it is a matter of tuning people to make the big decisions - or to choose people who will make those decisions.«