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Learning, Psychology, Sustainability

Context matters in climate change policy support

I tend to set up the courses I teach in ways that students aren’t always used to. I do this based on research about effective strategies and I talk to my students about that research and the reasons why I have chosen a particular approach. I find these conversations are really important because, like most of us, the students in my classes are somewhat nervous about things that are unfamiliar. They know what school “looks” like and if they are going to buy into something different then I need to let them know why.

As a result of my experience using different methods for teaching and the need to frame these and provide context for students it doesn’t surprise me that Fesenfeld and Rinscheid (2021) found that the same is true for support of climate change policies. They studied both German and US residents and found that urgency about climate change resulted in support for low cost long term policies but was not connected to support for “high-cost” plans. High-cost plans are those that involved individual “sacrifices” like reducing meat consumption or reducing use of fossil fuel powered vehicles.

The thing is, and I’ve worked for not for profits and analyzed climate change communications, it seems like there is this general assumption that if only people knew how negative the impacts of climate change will be they will be inspired to act. I have seen people use similar arguments about teaching and learning methods. Instructors make assumptions that students know it’s important to learn the material so they’ll take the necessary personal actions like pre-reading on their own. But students don’t have all the background information. They don’t just know that pre-reading is important because they are still learning. Similarly, citizens don’t have all the background information on why actions like reduced meat consumption impact climate change. They need the context.

It’s funny that the stereotype of really young kids is that they always ask why. This seems to stop as we get older but my experience teaching and this research about climate change is that it doesn’t really stop. People still want to know why, they just don’t always ask for a number of reasons from thinking that maybe they should know already to assuming that they do know and having misconceptions that they don’t know they have. As a result, people in leadership positions need to explain why from different perspectives preferably. If my experience teaching is any indication, knowing why will make a difference for not just support but participation in these high cost actions.

About Tai Munro

I am passionate about making science, sustainability, and sport accessible through engaging information and activities.

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