Emotions in climate change education – why are they so important to consider?

Person displaying anxiety about rising global temperatures.

The severity of global sustainability problems tends to evoke worry and anxiety in young people, and climate change education can amplify these feelings. While worry and anxiety might negatively affect students’ well-being, they can also be a motivating force for learning and taking action. Do teachers know how to best approach these complex feelings when teaching about climate change, to best accommodate the needs of their students?

In an article published in Educational Philosophy and Theory, CESSS affiliate Maria Ojala argues for the importance of educating teachers about critical emotional awareness and suggests how this can be applied to climate change education. Critical emotional awareness means to critically reflect about how emotions are experienced, coped with, and acted upon. Research has shown that although teachers play an important role in how students cope with climate-related emotions, teachers sometimes lack evidence-based knowledge on how to best handle the existential and emotional problems that students might experience as part of climate change education. By providing teachers with the tools to both identify and critically reflect about the emotions young people experience about climate change, teachers will be better equipped to help their students cope with the pressing threat of climate change in more constructive ways.

To achieve this goal, Ojala outlines important ways in which emotional aspects of climate change should be considered in the classroom, based on emotional theories from multiple disciplines. For example, instead of viewing emotions as irrational and obstructive to education, they can be seen as valuable sources of discomfort that motivate young people to critically reflect on their own opinions and behavior. This can in turn motivate information seeking, problem solving, and climate change action. It is also important to carefully consider how emotional aspects of climate change are introduced in the classroom, to avoid labelling emotions as “right” or “wrong” and thus undermine students’ own critical reflections. Lastly, Ojala raises the importance for teachers to critically reflect upon social and cultural norms about emotions and how these norms might shape how climate-change emotions are viewed and coped with.

Ojala, M. (2022). Climate-change education and critical emotional awareness (CEA): Implications for teacher education. Educational Philosophy and Theory. Read the full article here.


Image by vectorjuice on Freepik