“An Existential Toolkit for Climate Educators,” a Workshop at the Rachel Carson Center for Environmental & Society

In July, 2020, with Elin Kelsey and Jennifer Atkinson, I am co-convening a pedagogy workshop with educators from around the world to share best practices for teaching in times of crisis and coping with climate change anxiety and dread. 


As feelings of environmental grief, nihilism, eco-depression and climate anxiety become more common within the Climate Generation (including current college-aged students), educators across disciplines need the knowledge and resources to help those students deal with these emotional impacts. Many educators in the environmental sciences and studies (ESS), however, persist in communicating the scale and urgency of our unfolding crisis without adequately addressing its affective consequences on students’ ability to learn, much less address and adapt to climate change. Our challenge today is to ensure that students have the emotional resilience and existential tenacity to stay engaged in climate solutions for the long haul.

This workshop will curate materials and presentations that address the following question: how can educators, activists, and community leaders help students navigate the emotional impacts of ecological degradation and social injustice in the age of climate disruption? Our aim is to develop a practical toolkit for educators, students and activists across disciplines and professions, with potential emphasis on pedagogical applications, curricular implications, and even co-curricular connections (counseling and wellness, student life, etc).

Our workshop will explore the following questions:

  • What emotional, spiritual, psychological, and existential skills are needed by the Climate Generation as they prepare to take up the difficult work ahead?
  • What are the affective implications of our instructional content and methods?
  • What are the implicit or explicit affective outcomes of our work with students?
  • How might we ethically translate tools of social movements into our pedagogy?
  • What might a “climate justice pedagogy” look and feel like, to us and to our students?
  • How do we teach the navigation of the “doom-and-gloom” of environmental disaster and injustice?
  • As students increasingly experience climate change first-hand, how do we address climate trauma in our teaching?

The workshop will also be a resource for instructors navigating the affective terrain of teaching about power, privilege, identity, epistemological diversity, climate justice, and environmental grief. We recognize that many of us working in environmental fields have only recently begun to confront emotional impacts that have long been taking a severe toll on historically marginalized and frontline communities, and particularly encourage proposals that center these questions around environmental justice and privilege.The gathering seeks to build on the momentum and work begun at RCC’s 2017 workshop on Radical Hope: Inspiring Sustainability Transformations through Our Past and “Beyond Doom and Gloom,” the RCC Perspectives publication edited by Elin Kelsey. While the collaborations at RCC that led to these resources explored ways to encourage hope for the future and foster human resilience in the face of environmental degradation, our 2020 workshop will explicitly take up problems in teaching.

The Fire Adapted Communities Learning Network is launching a quarterly book club to support peer learning, connection and skill building among our members and those working in domains relevant to our purpose of increasing community resilience and improving fire outcomes across the US. They are identifying books that are “fire adjacent,” (covering resilience, connection to place, culture change, natural process management, social science, etc). They have selected “A Field Guide to Climate Anxiety” as the inaugural book to feature in their book club.

UC-CSU Knowledge Action Network for Transformative Climate Education and Action

In 2016-17, I served as the CSU leader of the UC-CSU Knowledge Action Network for Transformative Climate and Sustainability Education and Action, a collaborative effort of UC and CSU educators to scale and intensify California students’ literacy in climate change, climate justice, carbon neutrality/greenhouse gas emissions reductions, and sustainability. Both the University of California (UC) system and California State University (CSU) system have placed great emphasis on sustainability education, community engaged scholarship, and carbon neutrality in recent years, and this project seeks to merge those efforts for the mutual advantage of California students.

By design, strategy informing the network’s process is emergent and dependent upon collaboration, from both UC and CSU faculty. In its first year the KAN brought together UC and CSU faculty and teaching staff in four area teams to collaborate virtually in addition to meeting once at different campuses across the state. During these in-person site visits each area team learned about existing sustainability and climate education activities at a designated campus, surfaced challenges and opportunities, visioned toward the future, assessed what is needed to operationalize the vision, and identified and prioritized actions for their area team, all with a lens toward faculty engagement in transforming the education of all California students in climate change issues. Area teams participated in a culminating virtual conference and KAN summary report to mobilize the network into collaborative action, which you can view here.

NXTerra: Transformative Education for Climate Action

In 2018-2019, I was the CSU lead, along with John Foran (UCSB, Sociology) and Richard Widick (UCSB, Orfalea Center for Global and International Studies) to extend the KAN’s work to develop a website of resources for teaching climate change and sustainability.  UC-CSU NXTerra is a Knowledge-Action Network (KAN) and digital platform for climate educators, developed by faculty from the University of California (UC) and California State University (CSU) systems.

A group of 13 University of California and California State University-based educators curated our best interdisciplinary, open access teaching resources on NXTerra. NXTerra produces, curates, and delivers climate change, critical sustainability, and climate justice education resources for teachers and students of every discipline—from the arts and humanities to the human and social sciences and the natural sciences—with the aim of sharing resources to accelerate climate education and action in California and beyond.

College-level educators in all fields who wish to enable and empower their students to apply their knowledge in innovative ways to real-world problems will find resources on NXTerra to support them in teaching and collaborating with their students. 

These resources emphasize:

  • the most up-to-date science describing the urgency of the unfolding climate crisis
  • solutions-oriented and critical sustainability studies that foreground the need not merely for a quick transition to clean energy and development, but for a just transition to a better world
  • under-represented voices from every sector of global society — those on whom the heaviest burdens of climate change are already falling (thus climate justice studies)
  • UC carbon neutrality in a just transition;
  • deep culture shift in UC-CSU education through integration of the climate crisis, critical sustainability, and climate justice studies across the disciplines;
  • elevation of the humanities, fine arts, and film and media studies within the emergent discourses of climate change, critical sustainability, and climate justice studies