Climate change should be framed as both an environmental and a social justice issue

Stapleton, S. R. (2019). A case for climate justice education: American youth connecting to intragenerational climate injustice in Bangladesh. Environmental Education Research, 25, 732 - 750.

Climate change messages often focus on ecological impacts, such as melting ice caps and vanishing species. However, ecologically focused messages do not resonate with everyone. For some, these types of messages have been overused and lack the influence they once had; for others, they are too politically polarizing or lack relevance. Because mitigating the impacts of climate change will require tremendous individual and collective efforts, multiple messaging strategies should be used to reach as diverse an audience as possible. The author suggests that reframing climate change as a social justice issue—climate justice—in addition to an environmental issue may be one way to reach new and broader audiences. Climate justice emphasizes the differential impacts of climate change. The poorest and most vulnerable communities are the smallest contributors to climate change but are often impacted most. This study investigated the experiences of American high school students who travelled abroad to participate in an international climate change education program in Bangladesh. The author was primarily interested in how the program's climate justice frame impacted participants.

World Savvy, an international education nonprofit, ran the climate change education program that was the focus of this study. The program offered American students the opportunity to participate in a four-week service-learning experience in Bangladesh, a country profoundly impacted by climate change. Program participants were selected by World Savvy staff based on demonstrated leadership, age (15-17 years old), and location (within 100 miles of New York City, Minneapolis, or San Francisco). The selection process, which considered many demographic factors, aimed to admit a diverse group. Participants were required to complete pre-travel online learning modules and participate in multiple orientations before traveling overseas. Upon their return from Bangladesh, they were also required to design and complete a social action project in their communities. While in Bangladesh, program participants spent two weeks in the capital city Dhaka, where they lived with host families, visited slums, spoke to organizations serving people living in slums, and attended lectures about climate change. They spent another week in the Sundarbans, which is the largest contiguous mangrove forest in the world. During their final week, they lived in either a rural area or an urban slum, where they participated in service-learning projects in communities impacted by climate change.

Of the 30 program participants, 13 (10 girls, 3 boys) agreed to participate in the study. Despite the small number of participants, they were racially and socioeconomically diverse, and they represented a spectrum of knowledge and opinions about climate change. To determine the aspects of the program that were most meaningful to study participants, the author conducted phone interviews with each of them. These interviews lasted 30-70 minutes and took place 3-6 months after the trip to Bangladesh. Once all 13 interviews were complete, the author analyzed the data by identifying themes.

While the program focused on more than climate justice, many of the themes that emerged from the analysis of the interviews were related to climate justice. First, participants indicated that their time in Bangladesh really highlighted the differential impacts of climate change, with the poorest areas bearing the brunt of the impacts. Prior to the trip, participants were unaware of such stark differences, and they were moved by their interactions with climate refugees—people forced to leave their homes and livelihoods because of flooding, salinization of soil, etc.—and others impacted by climate change. Second, participants spoke about the power of putting a human face to climate change. They suggested that framing climate change as a social justice issue might resonate with people for whom climate change is an abstract or removed issue. Third, participants also stated that they witnessed extreme gaps in wealth, privilege, and climate impacts. Their visit to Bangladesh and their work in different communities made the glaring inequities more tangible. Fourth, most participants implicated themselves in both the problem and the solution. They spoke about how the people most responsible for climate change are also the least likely to experience its impacts and vice versa. Fifth, participants spoke about their shift in thinking about climate change in distant or abstract terms to recognizing it as a real problem. Sixth, participants reiterated the power of personal connection. Connecting with people in Bangladesh who had experienced the impacts of climate change made participants truly think about the consequences and significance of their actions, made climate change a more urgent issue, and made them want to act. In short, personal connection made climate change a more personal issue for each of the participants.

This study was limited by its small sample size and context-specific results. Because of these limitations, the results of this study cannot be generalized to other populations or other types of programs.

The author acknowledged that replicating this program on a larger scale to include more people would be logistically and financially impossible and environmentally counter-productive. However, they suggest that this study offers some important takeaways that can help engage more people around the climate change issue. The author recommends that practitioners make climate change real by emphasizing personal, human impacts. Climate justice messages can be powerful if they tell stories of individuals and families impacted by climate change. By extension, the author recommends cultivating connections to people who are experiencing the impacts of climate change; this study suggests that such personal connections inspire people to action. The author cautions, however, that a human focus should not detract from or be at the expense of the environmental impacts; climate change should be framed as both an environmental issue and a justice issue. Finally, the author recommends focusing climate change education on action, as this can help mitigate feelings of despair or desire to avoid the issue. She suggests that people need to know what kinds of actions they can take and that their actions make a difference.

The Bottom Line

<p>This study investigated the impacts of an international climate change education program in Bangladesh on 13 American high school students. Participants forged personal connections to people profoundly impacted by climate change and witnessed the disparities associated with these impacts. These experiences inspired participants to take climate action. The author recommends that climate change educators emphasize the environmental and human/social justice aspects of climate change and that they focus on how to take climate action. She also recommends that practitioners frame climate change messages in ways that emphasize human impacts and climate justice.</p>

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