Climate Change Education: From a ‘Business as Usual’ to Transformative Agenda

David Selby & Fumiyo Kagawa - November, 2009

Guest Column

David Selby is Founding Director of Sustainability Frontiers, an international alliance of global and sustainability educators. He is also an Adjunct Professor at Mount St Vincent University, Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada. Email:   Fumiyo Kagawa is Research Coordinator at the Centre for Sustainable Futures, University of Plymouth, United Kingdom. Email:

There is widespread consensus across the scientific community that climate change is happening and is, for the most part, human induced (Oreskes 2007). From government, media, the corporate sector, educational institutions and the public comes a presenting acceptance, oftentimes fulsome, of the severity of the looming crisis coupled with an ill-preparedness to follow through in terms of confronting the deep personal change and societal transformation needed to have any chance of staving off the worst effects of climate change.

Where educational institutions and systems have responded to climate change, there has been a focusing on the scientific, technical and managerial, implicitly or explicitly conveying a ‘business as usual’ message that the road to a secure future lies with a combination of better management, technological efficiency and innovation, sustainable development (for which read sustainable growth) and responsible (for which read global marketplace friendly) citizenship. While there is much reference to saving ‘our way of life’, there is very little encouragement of radical analysis and critical discourse around how that ‘way of life’ is fundamentally culpable in fuelling the looming crisis. There is a tendency throughout the present genre of climate change educational materials to characterize the global heating crisis in terms of overtly presenting cause, that is, as a CO2 problem curable within largely present terms of reference, rather than as a problem arising out of the crisis of an ethically numb, inequitable, and denatured human condition (McIntosh 2008).

Proponents of education for sustainable development are claiming climate change education as part of their remit. But mainstream renditions of the field tacitly ally themselves with orientations at the roots of global heating: economic growth, globalization, consumerism, and an instrumental valuing of nature as resource with its correlative denial of the intrinsic value of the natural world. Taking a predominantly ‘technical fix’ approach to climate change, mainstream education for sustainable development argues for ‘sustainability skills and competencies’ as the way forward while more or less sidestepping values engagement. There is an axiological deficit here. Given these tendencies and orientations within the field, we argue that approaching climate change through an unreconstructed education for sustainable development lens is tantamount to administering ‘disease as cure’. (Selby & Kagawa 2010).

Below we offer some propositions for a transformative educational response to runaway climate change.

Proposition 1: Given the climate crisis that is already upon us, and given the looming prospect of it deepening still further, silently and incrementally but also abruptly and fickly, climate change education needs to confront denial and address despair, pain, grief and loss.

It is a fallacy, perhaps born of western absorption with the idea of progress, that ‘gloom and doom’ thinking is widely held to be disabling and disempowering. We argue that working through despair is a powerful progenitor of new vision and commitment. Truly transformative learning requires a conscious and thoroughgoing progress by individuals, groups and communities through despair, into empowerment with healing and renewal. The ‘Great Turning’, as Macy and Young Brown (1998: 17-22) call it, involves breaking through denial to confront the pain of the world, heroic holding actions to stop things getting worse, analysis of the structural causes of the damage wreaked by the ‘Industrial Growth Society’, allied to the nurturing of alternative institutions and, most fundamental of all, a cognitive, spiritual and perceptual awakening to the wholeness of everything.

Proposition 2: Given the ‘powerful wave of neo-liberalism rolling over the planet’ (Jickling and Wals 2008: 2), destructive of ecosphere and ethnosphere, climate change education needs to offer alternative conceptions of the ‘good life’, combat consumerism, and help learners explore and experience alternatives to a growth economy.
For the peoples of the metaphorical North and elites in the South who have taken on the western worldview, it is important that an education in ‘voluntary simplicity’ (Elgin 1981) is made available, the term connoting frugal consumption, ecological awareness, connectedness and community, and personal growth based upon evolving material and spiritual aspects of life in harmony.

Dovetailed with the promotion of ‘voluntary simplicity’ within such populations should be anti-consumerism education. Defined as ‘consumption beyond the level of dignified sufficiency’ (McIntosh 2008: 180), consumerism not only violates the indentured slave, the sweatshop worker and the natural environment but also enslaves the consumer herself (McGregor 2003: 3). Consumerism, McGregor avers, ‘is an acceptance of consumption as a way of self-development, self-realization and self-fulfillment. In a consumer society, an individual’s identity is tied to what he or she consumes’ (2). Anti-consumerism education, then, has the twin goal of protecting the ecosphere and ethnosphere while liberating the individual from the thrall of consumerism for a journey of self-discovery and self-growth.

As a backcloth to this proposition, it is vital that climate change education for all provides age-appropriate windows for engaging with ideas for transition to a global slow-growth or no-growth economy (Victor 2008), concretizing those ideas through learning-in-community experimentation and practice.

Proposition 3: Reversing the predominant, instrumental and exploitative ‘nature as resource’ philosophy, climate change education needs to embrace a philosophy of intimacy with and embeddedness in nature not least through the cultivation of the poetic.

It was in the time of Galileo, says the poet T.S. Eliot that ‘a dissociation of sensibility’ set in from which the West never recovered (cited in McIntosh 2008: 154). This ‘breaking up of the ability to feel and relate to life’, according to McIntosh (112), ‘lies behind the ‘mindlessness that underlies anthropogenic climate change’. Following from such an insight, it would seem evident that a thoroughgoing climate change education should also help learners cultivate a sense of oneness with and enfoldment in nature through poetic and spiritual ways of knowing such as attunement, awe, celebration, enchantment, intuition, reverence, wonder and an oceanic sense of the oneness of being. Education for sustainable development has given barely any space to the poetic and the numinous in its reliance on scientific rationality. There are questions to be asked about rationality ‘in resolving issues as complex, subtle and multidimensional …as environmental concern’, especially given how rationality has proved so effective a tool in the exploitation of the environment (Bonnett 1999: 321).

Proposition 4: Climate change education needs to draw upon insights from nonviolence/peace education, social justice education and emergency education.

Runaway climate change can be perceived as the outcome of hubristic and doministic violence done to the planet by an exploitative globalization process. Also, given the huge population displacements that can be expected as runaway climate change sets in, with all the tensions that will bring, fields concerned with justice, conflict avoidance and resolution, confronting and unpacking negative and enemy images of the ‘other’, and processes and outcomes of structural violence will have a vital contribution to make.

Specifically, the issue of climate change justice needs opening up. While countries in the South of the planet are held to account for their financial indebtedness, there is so far no commensurate holding to account of countries of the North for their ecological indebtedness arising from their polluting of the atmospheric global commons. The effects of climate change are falling and will continue to fall in a hugely disproportionate way on nations and communities of the South (Global Humanitarian Forum 2009; Tutu 2010). Education needs to be directed to realizing a global ethic of climate justice.

As runaway climate change increases in severity, insights from the field of emergency education, that is education in crisis or disaster contexts occasioned by armed strife and/or environmental cataclysm (Kagawa 2005), will be of vital importance. As the world moves ever more inexorably into multiple crisis syndrome, education for climate change will need to take on learning in aid of disaster risk reduction tailored to local conditions, as well as post-trauma social and psychological rebuilding, while also being responsive to the debilitating effects on social morale and resilience of frequent and fickle climate change impacts.

Proposition 5: Climate change education also calls for a localization of focus.

Within a weaning off consumerism in the name of ‘voluntary simplicity’ and a (re)learning of intimacy with self and nature, the bioregional and deep ecological notions of habitation and re-inhabitation of place have an important bearing; that is, being or becoming native to place, internalizing its particular natural and associated cultural characteristics, and shaping needs and livelihoods according to the land (Traina and Darley-Hill 1995: 4). For Plumwood (1993: 297), ‘deep and particularistic attachment to place’ is not only identity forming, but expresses itself in ‘very specific and local responsibilities of care’. For Shiva (2005: 82) giving enhanced attention to local nature and restoring value to local sustenance cultures and economies calls for ‘living democracy’, a de-emphasizing of (consumer-fuelled) representative (at-a-distance) democracy by giving greater weight to local participatory democracy based on a keener, immediately lived, appreciation of the ‘interdependence between nature and culture, human and other species’. Learning for and in close-at-hand democracy does, however, raise the specter of the climate change equivalent of the gated community in places of privilege, which is why a concomitant educational commitment to a global climate justice ethic is vital.


Bonnett, Michael. 1999. ‘Education for sustainable development: A coherent philosophy for environmental education?’Cambridge Journal of Education, 29(3), 313-24.

Elgin, Duane. 1981. Voluntary simplicity: Toward a life that is outwardly simple and inwardly rich. New York: William Morrow.

Global Humanitarian Forum. 2009. The anatomy of a silent crisis. Geneva: Global Humanitarian Forum Human Impact Report.

Jickling, Bob and Arjen Wals. 2008. ‘Globalization and environmental education: Looking beyond sustainable development’ Journal of Curriculum Studies, 40(1), 1-21.

Kagawa, Fumiyo. 2005. ‘Emergency education: A critical review of the field’, Comparative Education, 41(4), 487-503.
Macy, Joanna and Molly Young-Brown. 1998. Coming Back to Life: Practices to reconnect our lives, our world. Gabriola Island (BC): New Society.

McGregor, Sue. 2003. Consumerism as a Source of Structural Violence. [Accessed: 15 March 2009]

McIntosh, Alastair. 2008. Hell and High Water: Climate change, hope and the human condition. Edinburgh: Birlinn.

Oreskes, Naomi. 2007. ‘The scientific consensus on climate change: How do we know we’re not wrong?,’ in DiMento, Joseph, F.C., and Doughman, Pamela (eds). Climate Change: What it means for us, our children, and our grandchildren. Cambridge (MA): MIT Press.

Plumwood, Val. 1993. ‘Nature, self, and gender: feminism, environmental philosophy, and the critique of rationalism’, in Michael J.E. Zimmerman, J. Baird Callicott, George Sessions, Karen J. Warren and John Clark (eds). Environmental Philosophy: From animal rights to radical ecology. Upper Saddle River (NJ): Prentice Hall. 291- 314.

Selby, David and Fumiyo Kagawa. 2010. ‘Runaway climate change as challenge to the ‘closing circle’ of education for sustainable development’. Journal of Education for Sustainable Development, 4(1), forthcoming.

Shiva, Vandana. 2005. Earth Democracy: Justice, sustainability and peace. London: Zed.

Traina, Frank and Susan Darley-Hill. 1995. Perspectives in Bioregional Education. Troy (OH): North American Association for Environmental Education.

Tutu, Desmond. 2010. ‘The fatal complacency’, in Fumiyo Kagawa and David Selby (eds). Education and Climate Change: Living and learning in interesting times. New York: Routledge.

Victor, Peter. 2008. Managing Without Growth: Slower by design not disaster. Cheltenham: Edward Elgar.