Paper - Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, Harvard Kennedy School

Reinventing Climate Change Education

| October 2021


This paper will review the changing world of climate change education and opportunities for adopting innovative pedagogical approaches such as immersive technologies, participatory methods, and art-based learning. It will also point out examples of how institutional collaboration and support from policymakers can facilitate climate change education and make a great impact. It concludes with a pilot project on increasing engagement in climate change education at Harvard Kennedy School. The lessons learned offer three main considerations when designing climate change education: 1) allow students to experience climate change instead of just asking them to read about it, 2) prioritize creative, cross-curricular, and participatory methods, and 3) improve the systemic support and involve policymakers and educational institutions to collaborate.

1. The Growing Climate Challenge

The Arctic is changing. It is warming at least twice as fast as the rest of the globe, seeing some of the world’s first climate-displaced communities. Ultimately, what happens in the Arctic does not stay in the Arctic. As the top of the world melts, everyone feels the impacts. The phenomenon of climate change is complex and cross-curricular by nature – it is one of the wicked problems of our times (Incropera, 2016).

The nature of climate change also poses a challenge to educators: How can we raise awareness of the urgency of this issue and all the effects that will follow? How can we become better at responding and adapting to climate change in an uncertain future?

The first challenge for climate change education is the complexity of the topic. Climate change involves addressing not simply scientific and environmental issues but also social, cultural, and political issues (Gibb, 2016). Our understanding and response to climate change is socially constructed, with each person having their own perspective (Lehtonen et al., 2019). Students need to interpret numerical data, links, connections, and consequences, and educators need to find effective ways to support their learning.

The second challenge is the long time horizon. For other environmental problems, the effects are sometimes near-term, if not immediate. In contrast, the effects of today’s emissions are not felt today, but over time, taking decades before they are revealed (Incropera 2016). Today, communities experience the consequences of historic emissions. Therefore, it might be difficult for students to understand the urgency and the impact of climate change on their own lives, especially in regard to their own contributions.

The third challenge is that climate change is neither a regional nor a national problem – it is global (Incropera, 2016). Often, heavily impacted regions, such as the Arctic region, may feel far removed from a student’s own location if they are not in the Arctic. That is why building empathy for the transformations occurring in other communities impacted by climate change can be difficult. In fact, climate apathy may cause students to be less likely to take a course on climate change in the first place (Reimers, 2021).

Finally, students might also feel that there is no hope or that they are powerless to help the situation with their own actions. More than two-thirds of the US adults have at least a little “eco-anxiety” or worry about climate change and its effects, and nearly half of 18-34-year-olds say that their lives are affected by the stress caused by climate change (APA, 2020). People say they would do more to reduce their contribution to climate change, but they feel they don’t have enough resources or skills to make necessary changes (APA, 2020).

To learn to mitigate and adapt to climate change, people need to navigate through these challenges. Therefore, there is a great need to improve the skills that are required on this journey. Impactful and innovative climate change education can help narrow this learning gap.

For the complete paper, see the PDF and flipbook below. 

For more information on this publication: Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation: Hemminki-Reijonen, Ulla and Halla Hrund Logadóttir. “Reinventing Climate Change Education.” Paper, Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, Harvard Kennedy School, October 2021.

The Authors

Ulla Hemminki-Reijonen headshot