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Disempowering emotions: the role of educational experiences in social responses to climate change

journal contribution
posted on 2023-05-20, 19:28 authored by Charlotte JonesCharlotte Jones, Aidan DavisonAidan Davison
The process of learning about climate change is not simply cognitive. It is also an emotional encounter that may have enduring effects. To date, little research has attended to the emotional significance of childhood learning experiences of climate change in adult lives and in social responses to climate change. We report a qualitative study exploring the variety, complexity, and the post-school significance of affective experiences of climate change schooling. We interviewed 21 young adults (18-24 years) in Tasmania, Australia, with diverse educational backgrounds and diverse levels of interest in and opinions about climate change. Applying an interpretivist framework, we analysed the tangled and interrelated emotions evident in participant reflections on educational encounters with climate change. Three overarching themes were identified: 'stripped of power', 'stranded by the generation gap' and 'daunted by the future'. In contrast to discourses of education as empowering, a majority of participants (n = 16) told of feeling disempowered by their educational encounters with climate change. They described being overwhelmed by an experience of limited agency and power. Participants also identified a generational gap that left them feeling abandoned by older adults, with associated feelings of anger and betrayal. Finally, affective experience of climate change schooling had ongoing significance for participants as they sought to make life choices in the shadow of a frightening future. These findings provide insight into the interaction of facts and feelings in public engagements with climate change. A lack of integration of cognitive and affective experience in climate change schooling may have lasting effects in adult attitudes and behaviours, and related social dynamics of distrust and division, related to this issue. In this study, young adult participants recounted childhood experiences of being powerless, betrayed and afraid in learning about climate change as significant formative encounters in their ongoing understanding of climate change.


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School of Geography, Planning and Spatial Sciences


Pergamon-Elsevier Science Ltd

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The Boulevard, Langford Lane, Kidlington, Oxford, England, Ox5 1Gb

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Copyright 2020 Elsevier Ltd.

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Socio-economic Objectives

Understanding climate change not elsewhere classified

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