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What is Climate Psychology and why do educators need to know about it?

Updated: Apr 18

 

In our Western, evidenced-based culture of logic and progress, the ‘softer’ concepts of feelings, relationships and psychology can often get sidelined or dismissed as ‘fluffy’.

 

I say this, having moved from the disciplines of physics (as a masters student then secondary school teacher), to psychology (as an educational psychologist) - the kudos factor dropped.

 

I’ve noticed a worrying tendency to believe that if something’s not measurable, we don’t need to bother so much. Curiosity, creativity and social skills are often sidelined in schools over the preference for STEM exam results.

 

The irony here, as any physicist will tell you, is that you don’t have to look far to discover the limits of STEM knowledge and measurement. We still only have ideas (theories) about the content of the universe, we are still finding new particles, and quantum physics is an accepted mystery. Just recently my son asked me what came before the big bang – an easy answer - ‘no one knows!’

 

To ignore our psychology just because it’s hard to capture and evidence is to leave us with a massive ‘blind spot’ – why behave the way we do. We like to believe that humans think rationally or logically, yet there are scores of cognitive biases and thinking errors that determine our decisions, most of them unconscious (Kahneman, 2011).


At an individual level, one might suggest that ignoring our own psychology while privileging the more quantifiable outcome of test scores might easily be linked to the mental health crisis in young people,  recently highlighted by the BBC.

 

At a global collective level, I’d make the suggestion that ignoring our personal, group, and systemic psychology whilst prioritising economic growth as the only measure of value is what has led to climate change becoming such an intractable problem.

 

Climate science isn’t enough – we need psychology

 

Climate change is arguably problem of human behaviour, motivation, and thinking – a problem of our psychology, keeping us stuck in systems that are not sustainable long term.

 

The world has known about climate change for many years, with scientific consensus now firmly established. The United Nation’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) was established in 1988 and has been producing summaries of the climate science and recommendations for action ever since. However, we are currently off-track to limit the world to 1.5 degrees C of warming.

 

It seems that science alone does not yet convince us to take the collective action necessary to mitigate the threat of climate change. In order to tackle the climate emergency, we need to understand our own psychology – how we got into this situation in the first place, how we can live well in difficult times and how behavioural and societal change might occur.

 

If the primary function of education is to prepare children to live in and create the kinds of societies we want, then we have to reconsider how and what children learn. We need to educate for social change so that our young people have the skills they will need in an uncertain future and have the hope of creating a better one.

 

This is now acknowledged by the Department for Education, who have a ‘Sustainability Strategy’ (2022) to help schools adapt their offering. Climate psychology can help in this paradigm shift at the point of learning about climate change. Let’s take a look at 5 of the key areas of climate psychology, at every stage of addressing the climate and ecological crisis:

 

1.    Psychology of denial and disconnection

Our pursuit of perpetual positivity has eroded our capacity to handle discomfort and challenging emotions.  Often, we will pick up our phones and start scrolling, rather than sit with a feeling or uncomfortable truth. In the age of information overload it’s easy to distract yourself or choose to believe something that suits us and feels familiar.

This tendency towards distraction and avoidance of feelings has led to cognitive biases that hinder collective action; our heads have often been buried in the sand. Over the years, the psychology of climate denial has evolved from questioning the science, to phenomena like ‘technosalvation’ (thinking technology will fix it) or the classic ‘bystander effect’ (‘it’s the government’s job’/ China has greater emissions). Ultimately, any time we justify inaction, we are avoiding responsibility for our part in the solution.

 

 

Another common block is the sense that individual actions don’t matter or make a difference. But individual actions are what make up societies. Perhaps if children were taught how to be with their feelings, we’d be better able to connect with ourselves, with each other and indeed with the greater ‘web of life’. We would understand that we are all connected and dependent upon each other.

 

Emphasising and celebrating the power of social connection and community is not only important for wellbeing, but also the key to building resilient communities as climate impacts worsen.

 

2.    Psychology of action and social change

 

The social psychology of collective change is, at its core, very empowering. Once children hear of case studies like the civil rights and suffragette movements, the UK indoor smoking ban and the repair of the hole in the ozone layer, they realise that it is possible to change the way we live.

 

We can use psychology to become unstuck – communicating messages that speak to people’s values. We can create behavioural nudges and leverage social psychology to create positive tipping points of change (Lenton et al. 2022). It’s important that young people understand this too.

 


Starting small in project-led learning to change local practices (e.g. a walk to school campaign) is a wonderful way to teach children that they do have the collective agency to create meaningful change, paving the way for more impactful actions. This is all the more powerful when children themselves set the agenda that they care about in their communities.

 

 

3.    Eco-emotions and psychological impacts

 

But we also need to support children and each other as the impacts of climate change increase.

 

For those privileged enough to not yet experience the direct impacts of climate change, even confronting the situation can lead to overwhelm and helplessness. With 72% of young people in the UK expressing fear about the future (Hickman et al., 2021), this concern cannot be dismissed.

 

Moreover, the perceived inaction from ‘adult systems’ can sometimes exacerbate a young person’s sense of distress. Can children see the adults around them taking the problem seriously and taking action to safeguard their futures?

 

 

Children need our support and help to navigate these difficult feelings. Crucially, they need to feel heard and understood by adults who won’t become overwhelmed themselves.  We need to shift from a culture of silence and ‘not enough time’ to one that prioritises time to talk, share, and connect.

 

4.    Direct impacts and climate justice

 

While eco-anxiety might affect us all, there are populations in the UK who are feeling climate impacts more directly (e.g. flooding), requiring ongoing and additional psychological support. Climate change exposes and exacerbates existing inequalities, as those with fewer resources are often more exposed and less financially resilient to climate impacts (Paavlova, 2017).

 

There are also many people in the UK with relatives in the most affected areas, (parts of Africa, Asia, and small island nations) - largely those areas with the least historical emissions. Understanding the broader climate justice agenda is necessary for systemic changes needed to transition to a sustainable economy that benefits everyone. 


 

We also need to acknowledge the adverse mental health and cognitive impacts of heat and pollution (e.g. Mullins & White; Powdthavee & Oswald, 2020). With a 20% drop in test performances between a 20ºC and a 30 ºC day (Wargocki, et al., 2019), should we really be assessing children in the heat?

5.    Skills for resilience

 

The world is changing and so must we. Given the pace of A.I. and uncertainty around the future, I argue that we need a different type of ‘curriculum’ to prepare young people for adulthood. One which focusses on:

·       critical thinking and oracy rather than content

·       empathy and connection rather than competition

·       creativity and ‘flow’ rather than expectations and outcomes

·       embracing uncertainty and change as opportunity 



The old maxim of ‘teacher /parent knows best’ is no longer helpful – we are learning and growing together. We, the educators and parents, need to listen to the young people before can we expect them to listen to us.

 

 

To summarise, climate psychology is a field that delves into the emotions, social dynamics, and mental processes intertwined with the ecological and climate crisis. While it might be tricky to evidence the long term impacts of including such topics in our education, this cannot be an argument for its omission.  If we care about the mental health, resilience, self-efficacy and indeed the futures of our young people, these conversations must be a part of our culture and education.

 


Dr Louise Edgington, March 2024

Louise is a chartered Educational Psychologist, working on bringing climate wellbeing into education via her independent practice ClimatEdPsych and the British Psychological Society’s Climate and Environment Action Coordinating Group.

Louise consults on national projects for climate wellbeing and eco-anxiety and offers workshops and training for professionals.

 

References

Department for Education (2022). Sustainability and climate change: a strategy for the education and children’s services systems. https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/sustainability-and-climate-change- strategy/sustainability-and-climate-change-a-strategy-for-the-education-and-childrens-services-systems

Hickman, C., Marks, E., Pihkala, P., Clayton, S., Lewandowski, R. E., Mayall, E. E., ... & van Susteren, L. (2021). Climate anxiety in children and young people and their beliefs about government responses to climate change: a global survey. The Lancet Planetary Health, 5(12), e863-e873. https://doi.org/10.1016/s2542-5196(21)00278-3

Jeffreys, B. (2022). Children's mental health: Huge rise in severe cases, BBC analysis reveals - BBC News https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/education-60197150

 

Kahneman, D. (2011). Thinking: Fast and Slow. Farrar, Straus & Giroux.

 

Lenton, T. M., Benson, S., Smith, T., Ewer, T., Lanel, V., Petykowski, E., ... & Sharpe, S. (2022). Operationalising positive tipping points towards global sustainability. Global Sustainability, 5, e1. https://doi.org/10.1017/sus.2021.30

Mullins, J. T., & White, C. (2019). Temperature and mental health: Evidence from the spectrum of mental health outcomes. Journal of health economics, 68, 102240. https://doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.3457647

Paavola, J. (2017). Health impacts of climate change and health and social inequalities in the UK. Environmental Health, 16(1), 61-68. https://doi.org/10.1186/s12940-017-0328-z

Powdthavee, N., & Oswald, A. J. (2020). Is there a link between air pollution and impaired memory? Evidence on 34,000 English citizens. Ecological Economics, 169, 106485. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ecolecon.2019.106485

Wargocki, P., Porras-Salazar, J. A., & Contreras-Espinoza, S. (2019). The relationship between classroom temperature and children’s performance in school. Building and Environment, 157, 197-204. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.buildenv.2019.04.046

 

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