Resolving Tensions in Climate Change Education


Resolving Tensions in Climate Change Education

Some days, the work we do feels so rewarding, so successful, so….right. And on other days, well, it’s hard to know if we’re achieving anything. In particular, during my time as an environmental educator and communicator, I often felt tension between the environmental behaviors I recommended, and the birds-eye view I knew to be true. For example,

“Turn off lights to save electricity,” we teach, while twenty companies contribute a third of global carbon emissions.

“Reduce, reuse, recycle!” we cheer, yet less than 10% of the plastics we use get recycled. 

“Electric vehicles are the future,” we advocate, while knowing EVs also contribute to environmental destruction.

Addressing Tensions and Indulgence

In my personal life, I sometimes use these tensions to justify my own indulgences. For example, I prefer to avoid single-use plastics, but I also love a Sunday walk with iced coffee. “Amid all the giant problems of the world, does one plastic cup make such a difference?” I’m prone to wonder. I know this isn’t just me. As someone who researches solar energy, I can’t get out of my mind a story from Dr. Benjamin Sovacool at the 2023 Annual Meeting of the American Association of Geographers. He shared how households with rooftop solar often increase their energy usage post-installation. In one interview, the owners shared how they bought brand new TVs for each of the bedrooms after installing solar. You may be judging both me and these households right now, but I know you have your own indulgences too. We all do.

There is a lot of research on indulgence (mostly food studies), and they frequently simplify human behavior into two consumer choices: the indulgent (goal-conflicting) choice and the righteous (goal-aligned) choice. Tezer & Sobol (2021) find that as we lean towards indulgence, we tend to mentally exaggerate our personal problems. “These findings contribute to the growing research on consumers' tendency to create reasons to justify indulgences,” Tezer & Sobol write, “in this case at the expense of deliberately degrading one's current state to feel more deserving of indulgence.”

Frankly, I think a little indulgence now and then is just normal human behavior. But there are also ways in which we can fine tune our teachings to factor into account both indulgence and the tensions of encouraging individual and community behaviors, while addressing the challenges that are so gigantic in scope.

A Formula for Encouraging Effective Action

Dr. Kaitlin Raimi, a social/environmental psychologist and public policy professor at University of Michigan, looks at how individuals sometimes use their pro-environmental behavior to justify a reduced interest and investment in climate policy. Our emphasis on individual behaviors may be crowding out pertinent political engagement.

In her article, “How to encourage pro-environmental behaviors without crowding out public support for climate policies,” Raimi offers a formula that can be useful for us as a curriculum development and evaluation tool. To summarize briefly, SESH stands for:

S: Push for specific high-impact behaviors. “Choose behaviors that have the most impact, and are most likely to be adopted,” Raimi recommends.

E: Accurately convey the behaviors’ effectiveness. “Tell the audience how a target behavior’s effectiveness compares with that of other approaches,” Raimi explains. Essentially, demonstrate how this behavior is better than other comparative behaviors, even if it won’t solve climate change tomorrow.

S: Promote behaviors similar to desirable policies. Make that tie between personal practice and public policy!

H: Frame desired behaviors as steps toward a higher goal. Raimi suggests two ways of doing this: 1) provide successful case examples, and 2) use the birds-eye view of climate change action as encouragement for why we need to act.

This is just one guide, of many, that can help us as educators and communicators accommodate for tensions and indulgences as we engage in climate change education. Do you think you’ll use the SESH formula? Do you have others you recommend? Let me know what you think of it, and how you resolve tensions in your line of work!

About the Writer

Elisa Mattson is a master's student in Communication at University of Illinois Chicago. She studies climate change communication in the media, in policy, and in planning processes. Her thesis looks at media coverage of utility-solar development in the rural US from an energy justice lens. She can be reached at

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