The Challenges of Climate Change Education

Nayla Naoufal November, 2015

Guest Column

Nayla Naoufal is currently a post doctoral research fellow at the Laval University and an associate researcher at the Research Center in Environmental and Ecocitizenship at the University of Quebec in Montreal currently working on ecocitizenship and peace education. She is also exploring sensory and dancing approaches to environmental education.

As noted in the scientific literature, not only does climate change degrade the environment, diminish natural resources, increase health issues and decrease quality of life, but it is also very likely to exacerbate inequalities and provoke armed conflicts in the future, due to resource scarcities and mass migrations. To mitigate these consequences of environmental degradation (it's too late to prevent them altogether) energetic national policies and free trade agreements must be radically transformed. Such measures will require a major change in the dominant sociocultural paradigm and a transformation of visions, values, behaviors and actions of citizens and their leaders. Climate change education has a major role to play in that project, including all formal, nonformal, and informal endeavours and initiatives necessary to build a massive  translocal social movement   enabling the transition towards economies based on renewable energies and and participative democracies. Inspired by the references cited in the sections that follow, a typology of challenges and obstacles to climate change education follows.

Cognitive challenges

Climate change is a global phenomenon, whose local manifestations are very diverse and unpredictable. Its present effects are often imperceptible to people because they seem distant and invisible to the naked eye (though this is increasingly less the case with climate “aberrations”, such as floods and cyclones, the impact of which on human populations and the environment can be clearly observed). Furthermore, the knowledge necessary to properly understand climate change and its biophysical and social consequences is evolving rapidly, far-reaching across several different fields (Pruneau, Khattabi and Demers, 2010).

Another cognitive obstacle has to do with the complexity of foreseeing the consequences of climate change - which are non-linear and often heterogeneous - in the future. Moreover, as the human brain can only process a limited amount of information at a time, non-specialists may have difficulties in building a mental image of the combined causal and interdependent linkages involved in climate change (Seidel, 1998)..

Therefore, many people not only lack a concrete grasp of the connections between some of our individual and collective practices and greenhouse-gas emissions, but also tend to mistrust information sources on climate change (sometimes rightly). In turn, these cognitive challenges result in other obstacles, such as helplessness and denial.

Psychological and social challenges

Challenges to better understanding climate change can also be psychological and social. Because of the diminution of natural ecosystems and a variety of socio-economic factors, many people do not have a strong connection to nature: their contact with the wilderness is rare and they tend to lose awareness of space, time and natural rhythms.

Furthermore, hypercapitalism, the pace of life due to globalization and advanced communication technologies have accelerated and deracinated many of us, making us less attentive to the environment and to others. As a result it is difficult for people to perceive or be aware of environmental and climate change.

On the other hand, even when people are conscious of potential and real consequences of climate change, some tend to become very anxious or fall back on denial. For some, it is simply easier to ignore climate change; in this case, denial can be further facilitated by the imperceptibility of some of the manifestations of climate change. Conversely, of the people who are aware of climate change, some feel helpless, do not take action and shift the blame on others (governments, companies, other countries), denying personal responsibility for climate change.

In her book Living in denial: Climate change, emotions, and everyday life, Norgaard (2011) shows that many people who are in denial regarding climate change want to avoid disturbing thoughts and emotions. In this kind of denial, people care about the environment and the public good, know about climate change, but they disconnect it from their everyday lives in order to sustain their conceptions of personal and collective identities and to safeguard their sense of empowerment.

Initiatives to educate about climate change face yet another constraining psychological and social factor: the shifting baselines–or rapid modification–in the perception of the world itself:

‘Shifting baselines’ is how environmental psychologists refer to the fascinating phenomenon that people always consider ‘natural’ the surroundings that coincide with their lifetime experience. Perception of changes in the social and physical environment is never absolute but always relative to one’s own observation standpoint (Welzer, 2012, 140).

Because current generations have a very vague idea about the state of the natural environment, their perception of not only past but also recent history–even as little as a generation ago–may fail to identify emerging changes, such as the decline in biodiversity.

By affecting perception and evaluation of risks, losses and changes, shifting baselines in relation to climate change make educating about it difficult. For example, if people do not envision climate change, its manifestations and its consequences as major changes, threats or losses, it will be difficult to mobilize them and transform their visions and actions. One should also note that, because of shifting baselines, radical impacts of climate change may provoke a radical value shift that is not perceived as such by people and could provoke outbursts of violence, for example against climate refugees (Welzer, 2012).

Behavioural challenges

If people are to mitigate the impact of climate change, transformation of visions and values is not sufficient; they must be encouraged to change their lifestyles. But research has shown that awareness of an environmental issue does not necessarily lead people to take action. In the case of climate change, many people are reluctant to change their lifestyles because they consider that it would cost them their quality of life. Another constraint to the modification of lifestyles is social norms and expectations requiring carbon-dependent lifestyles. In our capitalistic, economy-driven and focused on self-representation societies, ownership and consumption demonstrate a high social and economic status. According to this dominant sociocultural paradigm, transforming lifestyles is not an easy task.

Structural challenges

Pruneau, Khattabi & Demers (2010) have also identified situational challenges to climate change education, i.e. whether political, social or economic. Examples are: lack of resources that make it difficult, if not impossible, to implement educational activities; lack of collaboration within communities that hinder initiatives; absence of governmental agenda in favour of struggle against climate change, which leads to lack of support and funding, etc.

Some countries face political and social barriers to climate change education such as war and/or extreme poverty. Indeed, even if educational resources were present in such contexts, climate change is the least of priorities for people struggling to survive in the short-term.

Ideological and moral challenges

Climate change education is extremely tricky in our societies characterized by an industrial sociocultural paradigm and obsessed with productivity, rapidity, personal development, etc.. This mindset rationalises the rise of social and environmental injustices and legitimizes a lack of empathy towards underprivileged parts of society and humanity, i.e. people who will suffer most from climate change, whereas mitigation of climate change requires solidarity and environmental justice among all people, communities and societies.

Where to begin climate change education?

With the above challenges in mind, the centrality of climate change as the social and educational question of our time must be recognized. It should constitute a cross-curricular theme aiming to establish links uniting all groups of people in search of justice and battling for human rights. We can start this vast program here and now, in our local communities, by developing projects on our own scale-learning by doing, gardening, cooking, discussing, protesting, organising, young and old together. Thus we can block fear and denial, by connecting our daily actions to this sword of Damocles, climate change, which should be at the heart of every school and community program from an early age.

This text is based on a revised excerpt of my article “Peace and environmental education for climate change: Challenges and practices in Lebanon”, published in the Journal of Peace Education in 2014.


Pruneau, D. Abdellatif K. and Demers, M. 2010. Challenges and possibilities in climate change education. US-China Education Review 7, no 9, 15-24.

Norgaard, K. M. 2011. Living in denial: Climate change, emotions, and everyday life. United States: MIT Press.

Seidel, P. 1998. Invisible walls : Why we ignore the damage we inflict on the planet… and ourselves. Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books.

Welzer, H. 2012. Climate wars: Why people will be killed in the twenty-first century. Cambridge: Polity.

Klein, N. (2014). This changes everything: capitalism vs. the climate. New York: Simon and Schuster.