Climate Change: Hope's Role in Pro-Environmental Behavior

Ojala, M. (2015). Hope in the Face of Climate Change: Associations With Environmental Engagement and Student Perceptions of Teachers' Emotion Communication Style and Future Orientation. The Journal Of Environmental Education, 46, 133 - 148.

As climate change becomes more serious, the need for environmental education (EE) and education for sustainable development (ESD) for young people and in schools is increasingly relevant. Traditionally, EE has aimed to help students better understand causes, impacts, and solutions to environmental issues and inspire critical thinking around ethical issues, conflicts, and uncertainties.

Recent research has identified that such education also involves consideration of emotions because of the gravity of the topics involved. Hope is one of these important emotional aspects, yet research on hope has revealed mixed views about its role and influence on environmental engagement and actions. This study aimed to examine different sources of hope related to climate change through surveys of high-school students in Sweden. The author suggests that there are two types of hope: one associated with engagement and the other associated with less pro-environmental behavior.

To address mixed views about hope and its role in environmental behavior, the author identified two sub-scales of hope concerning climate change: constructive hope and hope based on denial. The author defined constructive hope as relating positively to pro-environmental behavior, and hope based on denial (such as the gravity of climate change) as relating negatively to pro-environmental behavior. In this study, the author aimed to construct a reliable scale for understanding hope based on denial to replicate her previous study on hope and environmental engagement. She also sought to understand the relationship between the hope subscales and how students perceive EE and ESD in their schools, whether gender plays a role in the hope subscales, and any relationship that might exist between hope and self-efficacy.

The study consisted of a convenience sample of 624 high-school students (59% girls) from 22 communities. The students completed an online survey that addressed topics related to the environment as well as science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM). Specific survey areas included environmental engagement (for example: “If I had extra money, I would give some to protect the environment.”), political engagement (“The political party I will vote for should work for sustainable development.”), self-efficacy (“I have good opportunities to influence my own life-situation.”), teachers' acceptance or dismissal of attitudes toward negative emotions (“Think about how your teachers talk about societal issues and environmental issues in the classroom.”), future orientation in school (“What can I do to influence our common future?”), and pathways to sustainable development (“What can I do to contribute to sustainable development?”).

The author used factor analysis to create the two hope subscales (constructive hope and hope based on denial). In this way, the author confirmed that the hope questions indeed measured a construct of hope within the two subscales. Next, the author used correlation analyses to examine how the hope subscales related to environmental engagement. The results confirmed that the more constructive one's hope, the more likely one is to engage in pro-environmental behavior and vote for a sustainability-focused political party. Conversely, the author found a significant correlation between hope based on denial and lower levels of engagement in pro-environmental behavior. The correlations showed that students with more constructive hope had more self-efficacy, viewed teachers as being more accepting of their negative emotions in relation to climate change issues, and had more “solution-oriented styles.” Students with hope based on denial were associated with opposite results: less self-efficacy, feelings of dismissal by teachers, and a negative outlook.

The results of the statistical analysis also showed that boys were more likely to base their hope on denial than were girls, and that self-efficacy is an important predictor of boys' hope base. This effect only occurred, however, when students perceived their teachers as being dismissive toward negative emotions. Boys, more than girls, viewed their teachers as being more dismissive and, therefore, experienced hope based on denial to a higher degree.

This study clarifies the mixed views around hope: hope can be positively or negatively related to environmental engagement, depending on the base or source of hope. It is the first study to elucidate the relationship between EE/ESD in school and the hope subscales, illustrating the importance of promoting constructive hope through discussing a common future and pathways for sustainable development in schools. Most importantly, the study shows the potential impact of teachers' responses to their students' negative emotions while discussing climate change.

The Bottom Line

<p>To address the sources and feelings of hope that students might bring to discussions of climate change, and also to encourage pro-environmental behaviors and positive environmental engagement, educators should be aware of their own reactions to students' negative emotions. This study's findings emphasize the importance of considering students' emotions seriously, using opportunities around feelings of hope—and lack thereof—as teachable moments, and communicating about such issues in a solutions-oriented way to promote constructive hope among students. Additionally, the study highlights the importance of supporting educators to address climate change, and similarly challenging, large-scale issues, in an emotionally aware, sensitive, empowering way within the classroom.</p>