Climate crisis: The educational challenge

Frans Verhagen - April, 2007

Creating Sustainable Communities

Frans C. Verhagen, M. Div., M.I.A., Ph.D. is a sustainability sociologist, co-founder of Earth and Peace Education International (EPE), and director of its sustainability education and research program. He is also the founder and president of the International Institute of Monetary Transformation.

             "Action does not spring from information, but a readiness for responsibility.”    Dietrich Bonhoeffer

The year 2007 is shaping up as a pivotal one in this first decade of the 21st century. The UN’s International Panel on Climate Change, consisting of scientists and representatives of over one hundred nation-states, have come to an agreement on the fundamental causes and consequences of the climate crisis in our carbon-constrained globalizing world. At the same time, Al Gore’s film, An Inconvenient Truth, has led to a grassroots awakening to the urgent challenge of dealing with the climate crisis, evident in the United States by the demand that Congress take action, notwithstanding the President’s unresponsive and incurious position on global warming, and in the over 1400 rallies and actions in all fifty states on April 14—the National Day of Climate Action, organized by author Bill McKibben and his students in Vermont. Then, on April 17 the UN Security Council focused on the security aspects of climate change, particularly the emerging conflicts it is causing on all levels of social organization. Though the Council got into an impasse the next day, the significance of this session is that, for the first time, climate change is being considered in terms of security—ecological security has been put on the UN agenda. It also shows that, at the highest levels of international politics, climate change is considered a crisis, thus transforming a physical challenge into a social and political challenge.

How are educators in the global North and South to respond to this climate crisis and educate for sustaining futures of their communities, locally, regionally, and nationally?

Educating individuals and communities to realistically deal with the challenge of the climate crisis is not only a matter of providing information about what is happening and making suggestions of what is to be done, but foremost it is a matter of making them ready to respond to the challenge by engaging in effective action. This requires an education that integrates the physical, historical, social and political dimensions of the crisis and a moral education based upon an explicitly developed belief system that integrates social and ecological values. An example of a framework to guide such education can be found in the Earth Charter, which represents a democratically developed vision for sustaining futures shared worldwide. (See  and

   There are many ways of fostering an understanding of the climate crisis that would connect the physical facts of global warming and the resulting climate change with its social and political consequences. First of all, the use of the term climate crisis rather than the technical term climate change makes the connection linguistically. A crisis is generally understood to have a social, cultural and political dimension. Secondly, gaming about the climate crisis often brings many dimensions together as is done in the recent educational game by Starbucks and Global USA. Though the game is oriented to the global North, people in the global South can learn how educators in the industrialized and CO2 debtor nations, like the USA, are raising awareness about the consequences (or threat) of the climate crisis. They can also learn about the various climate crisis-reduction techniques that may soon be necessary in their countries, particularly in the ever-increasing number and size of their urban areas.

  Thirdly, role playing about the causes and consequences of global warming, such as the weird weather patterns with their floods and droughts, the disappearing or endangerment of species such as the polar bear, food and water shortages, especially with their harsh impacts on the poor and on fragile species, can inform and prompt action to drastically reduce global warming.

  Fourthly, short case studies based on the experience of the climate crisis in student’s own communities can be developed. Useful in this regard would be a framework of questions based on Earth Charter values to analyze the case studies. (See this website's section on Value Based Learning for an example.) All these educational activities foster an integrated understanding of the climate crisis, though they may not necessarily lead to effective action based upon attitudinal transformation.

 How, then, can attitudes be transformed? What are ways of educating young and old in both formal and community based educational settings to increase their ‘readiness for responsibility’ in the face of an ever-deepening climate crisis? As noted above, education in response to the climate crisis must also include a moral dimension based on an integrated set of values, an approach giving rise to the following questions.

  That is, what values or whose values have to be selected? How are educators to go about finding out and clarifying the values that are held in the community? Are they to be accepted as held or should they be developed in order to better serve the sustaining futures that the community is pursuing? What is the role of outside agents? To what extent has the pursuit of values to include a national or global perspective?

  As regards values clarification, given the nature of the climate crisis, it is essential to probe for values related to sustainability, sustainable development and sustaining futures. As Australian biologist and ecologist Aidan Davison suggests: “…..We are required to probe: What truly sustains us? Why? And how do we know? Conversely, we must ask: What are we to sustain above all else? Why? And how may we do so?" (2001:p.64) This set of six questions could be used to initiate a values discussion among young people in educational settings and among concerned citizens who seek to plan to mitigate the climate crisis in their community. Such a discussion would also seek to determine whether values held by these groups are related to the social and ecological values espoused by the Earth Charter as basic to facilitating the development of sustainable communities, e.g. ecological sustainability, nonviolence, social justice, participatory decisionmaking. And if not, the question of including these values as a guide to understanding the climate crisis and planning to mitigate it can be considered.

  Following values clarification comes the challenging task of prioritizing the values to be followed by educational activities that facilitate the process of goal setting though the inclination of educators and community planners maybe to start with the latter. Perhaps this is because values are abstract, not readily available to consciousness, and therefore difficult to discuss. This further highlights the need for values clarification and prioritization if education is to foster attitude change, personal transformation and, in last instance, societal transformation.

   In addition and closely related to this value-based moral education is the need to nurture the development of a spirituality that informs and inspires—this is the task of religious communities. It is the vital role that they must play in addressing the climate crisis because without strong spiritual underpinnings, humankind will not have the strength to enact the changes fundamental to coping with the climate crisis.

  In sum, then, the educational challenge posed by the climate crisis is moral and spiritual. It is insufficient to provide an understanding of the multidimensionality of the crisis and technical suggestions to mitigate or adapt to it. Each person is to be challenged to increase his or her ‘readiness for responsibility’ and to extend the scope of that responsibility to the whole community of life of which the human community is a member— if they are to contribute to rather than hinder the advent of sustaining futures whereby people and planet not only survive, but also thrive.