Research Summary

Climate adaptation education: embracing reality or abandoning environmental values

Environmental education should promote only the climate change adaptation strategies that protect the environment

Environmental Education Research

Environmental education (EE) encompasses a wide array of topics, such as natural resource conservation, environmental justice, and renewable energy. Although the field of EE has grown and evolved, it has maintained the values of protecting the environment and enhancing environmental quality. Given these values, it is unsurprising that, on the topic of climate change, EE has traditionally emphasized the importance of mitigation. Mitigation involves reducing greenhouse gas emissions to lessen human impact on the climate system. However, as communities begin to experience the devastating impacts of climate change more frequently, they are taking adaptive measures (as opposed to mitigation actions) to protect infrastructure and human lives. Adaptation involves adjusting to current and expected climate impacts to reduce human vulnerability. Though adaptive measures might be necessary for community safety, they are not always in the best interest of the environment. Any adaptive measures that harm the environment, however important they are for human safety, are not consistent with EE values. This paper investigated the roles that EE can play in climate change adaptation while also promoting environmental protection and improvement. Specifically, the authors investigated how EE programs responded to Hurricane Sandy, an extreme weather event exacerbated by climate change.

Climate change adaptation can take many different forms. Some adaptation strategies harm the environment (e.g., constructing sea walls), while others are environmentally beneficial (e.g., protecting and restoring coastal wetlands). The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) names three branches of adaptation, all of which include strategies that are consistent with EE values:
Physical/structural adaptations are engineered changes and/or use of ecosystem services. Examples of physical/structural adaptations that are consistent with EE values include wetland restoration and green infrastructure.
Social adaptations engage communities in adaptive work and aim to protect the most vulnerable populations. Examples of social adaptations that are consistent with EE values include community gardens and stream stewardship.
Institutional adaptations are laws, policies, and regulations that help communities adapt to climate impacts. Institutional adaptations that are consistent with EE values include environmental advocacy and land conservation planning.

Climate resilience strategies include both mitigation and adaptation and aim to help communities prepare for, recover from, and adapt to climate impacts. Climate resilience strategies are a collection of strategies that, together, serve to protect ecosystems, coasts, water resources, agriculture, the built environment, and human wellbeing. For example, a resilience plan might include expansion of solar energy farms, construction of a living coastline, integration of green infrastructure into development strategies, enactment of land conservation policies, and promotion of a sustainable food system.

This study took place in New York City. The authors conducted two rounds of interviews with EE practitioners at a total of 58 different organizations. During the first round of interviews, the authors spoke to practitioners at 44 organizations. From these initial interviews, the authors discovered an interesting trend: after Hurricane Sandy, these organizations began incorporating climate resilience strategies into their programs. For the second round of interviews, the authors identified 14 additional EE organizations whose programs also emphasized resilience to climate change. Of these 14 organizations, all engaged in climate change adaptation work: four engaged in oyster restoration, eight built and restored green infrastructure, and two focused their efforts on promoting solar power.

The authors found that the four organizations engaged in oyster restoration practiced all three types of climate change adaptation work. For physical—or ecosystem-based—adaptation, the organizations installed oyster gardens (constructed reefs with young oysters) in the estuary to help protect the shoreline against storm surges and sea level rise. For social adaptation, the organizations offered community-based education and led community-driven data collection. For institutional adaptation, the organizations cultivated beneficial partnerships with local scientists and similar organizations to advance oyster restoration goals. Of the eight organizations that built and restored green infrastructure, all increased their resilience efforts after Sandy. These organizations engaged in physical adaptation work (dune and wetland restoration) and social adaptation work (community gardening, dune stewardship, community-based GIS mapping and data collection, and community education). The two organizations that focused on solar power also expanded their programs post-Sandy. They engaged the community in solar power installation and education (physical, social, and institutional adaptation), while simultaneously mitigating greenhouse gas emissions.

These New York City programs exemplified how EE can engage in climate adaptation education in ways that are consistent with both climate change mitigation and EE values. However, this study reflects strategies that were used by a small sampling of organizations in New York City; it is not a comprehensive review of adaptation strategies. Further, it does not offer any insights into the effectiveness of these programs in terms of climate change adaptation and mitigation.

The authors assert that the immediacy and magnitude of climate change impacts require that the field of EE address climate change mitigation and adaptation through its initiatives. They caution that EE cannot teach about all types of adaptation, regardless of how critical, because some adaptation measures are not consistent with EE values. Thus, they recommend that practitioners focus on adaptation strategies that are consistent with EE values and suggest that the IPCC adaptation recommendations are a good place to start. Lastly, the authors suggest that EE can play an important role in developing and implementing resilience plans.

The Bottom Line

This paper investigated the roles that EE can play in climate change adaptation and resilience. From interviews with 58 EE organizations in New York City, the authors found that these organizations adopted a climate resilience focus following the devastating impacts of Hurricane Sandy, and most started climate change adaptation initiatives. The authors determined that all adaptation initiatives were designed to protect and improve the environment. Given their findings, the authors encourage EE practitioners to engage in adaptation strategies that align with EE values.