Sustainability is More Than Science: Exploring Climate Change Education Across Cultures

Bronwyn T. Williams, Director

The weather report: Today in Louisville it is partly cloudy and 68 degrees. In Manila, Philippines it is 88 with thunderstorms. In Graz, Austria it is cloudy and 60 degrees, in Rustenburg, South Africa it 85 and sunny and in Sydney, Australia it is 63 and raining. If you are teaching a classroom of students about climate change in any of these places, their immediate experience of climate will be the transitory weather they see out the window. Yet, from the perspective of the global climate emergency, things look quite different. In Louisville and in Graz, there have been increases in flooding and heat emergencies in the summers. The Philippines continues to be battered by stronger and more frequent typhoons. The countryside around Sydney still shows scars of the unprecedented wildfires of 2020 and, in Rustenburg, increasing heat and drought conditions mean that sometimes students are sent home from school when there is no water.

Louisville students talk with South African students by video

Climate change is simultaneously global in scope, yet experienced locally in quite different ways. From the perspective of education, it can be a challenge to convey to students how what is happening to the climate is more than the immediate weather out the window, but also not as abstract as an image of a polar bear on an iceberg. Currently I’m involved in a climate change education project focused on thinking of new ways of learning – and writing – about climate change across cultures. This interdisciplinary education project is initially focused on connecting middle-school students from around the world share what they are learning – and experiencing – about how climate change affects their local communities. The researchers and teachers involved in the pilot stage of this Global Climate Change Education Project – from Austria, South Africa, the Philippines, Australia, and the US – will gather here at the University of Louisville next week for a planning conference funded by a Spencer Foundation grant. The goal of the project is to help students learn about climate change not only from the perspective of science, but also how it affects, and is affected by, history, politics, culture, and the media. We hope that making these kinds of human connections across cultures can make climate change seem less abstract and, as a result, can lead to a greater sense of empathy and an increased commitment to the behavioral change and political action required to address the climate emergency.

The project brings together teachers and researchers from the sciences, education, and social sciences, and all have crucial roles to play in our planning. But, from my perspective as a literacy researcher and writing teacher, I also see writing and communication as key parts both of how students learn about climate change, and how they will communicate with people in their communities and with their peers across cultures. Part of what intrigues me about working on this project are the interdisciplinary possibilities. The science part of it is crucial, of course, but issues of sustainability are also about culture and community. And our explorations of culture and community are through science, but also through stories, history, poetry, images, film, and more. If we are to communicate and build relationships across cultures, we need to understand more about place and identity, and how those shape both science and our daily lives. What’s more, there is substantial research that indicates that what persuades people to act on social issues is not only facts and evidence-based reasoning, but also narratives, emotions, and relationships.

So I’ve found myself thinking about how science, art, narrative, oral history, poetry, and more might be brought together in climate change education, both in this project and others. This raises questions that are shaping many of my research and teaching interests right now. How is sustainability more than science? How must we also explore and examine issues of culture, community, history, and relationships in terms of climate change? What experiences and relationships motivate people toward action in a given context? How do we promote agency in students? And how is all of that mediated through interpreting and creating texts – both in print, but also in sound, video, images and other media and modes?

In exploring these, and other questions about location, culture, and sustainability, I am also interested in how we can use digital technologies to create these kinds of texts and opportunities for communication. We’ve already been doing some pilot projects among the students involving writing, video, and other forms of communication. Down the line we may explore other ideas, such as possibly creating a digital repository of student climate change narratives, interviews, podcasts and more, where people can upload video or audio or print and then they are available to others for teaching and research. Sharing this kind of writing would be another way to get students communicating about local knowledge across cultures and, I hope, increasing knowledge and empathy.

We are in the early days of this project, but I am eager for the conversations and work we will engage in next week in the planning conference and to think about how writing and literacy will play a role in climate change education going forward. As a teacher and researcher I have always been interested in the knowledge people have in their daily lives and how we draw on that, and connect it, to issues and ideas in school. I believe that, to engage in kind of broad-based change needed to address the climate emergency we need to explore new perspectives for that are grounded in local knowledge, languages, and cultures. We’re taking what we hope will be a helpful steps next week for learning and action across communities and cultures. Stay tuned.

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