FRANS C. VERHAGEN, M. Div., M.I.A., Ph.D. is a sustainability
sociologist, President of Earth and Peace Education Associates International
(EPE), and director of its sustainability education and research program.

Transitions 2(1) pages 2-5, May 2007

CLIMATE CRISIS: The Educational Challenge

“Action does not
spring from information, but a readiness for responsibility.”

Dietrich Bonhoeffer

The year 2007 is shaping up as a
pivotal one in this first decade of the 21st century. The UN’s International
Panel on Climate Change, consisting of scientists and representatives of over
one hundred nation-states, have come to an agreement on the fundamental causes
and consequences of the climate crisis in our carbon-constrained globalizing
world. At the same time, Al Gore’s film, An Inconvenient Truth, has led
to a grassroots awakening to the urgent challenge of dealing with the climate
crisis, evident in the United States by the demand that Congress take action,
notwithstanding the President’s unresponsive and incurious position on global
warming, and in the over 1400
rallies and actions in all fifty states on April 14—the National Day of Climate
Action, organized by author Bill McKibben and his students in Vermont. Then, on
April 17 the UN Security Council focused on the security aspects of climate
change, particularly the emerging conflicts it is causing on all levels of
social organization. Though the Council got into an impasse the next day, the
significance of this session is that, for the first time, climate change is
being considered in terms of security—ecological security has been put on the
UN agenda. It also shows that, at the highest levels of international politics,
climate change is considered a crisis, thus transforming a physical challenge
into a social and political challenge.

How are educators in the global
North and South to respond to this climate crisis and educate for sustaining
futures of their communities, locally, regionally, and nationally?

Educating individuals and
communities to realistically deal with the challenge of the climate crisis is
not only a matter of providing information about what is happening and making
suggestions of what is to be done, but foremost it is a matter of making them
ready to respond to the challenge by engaging in effective action. This
requires an education that integrates the physical, historical, social and
political dimensions of the crisis and a
moral education based upon an explicitly developed belief system that
integrates social and ecological values. An example of a framework to guide
such education can be found in the Earth Charter, which represents a
democratically developed vision for sustaining futures shared worldwide. (See

There are many ways of fostering an
understanding of the climate crisis that would connect the physical facts of
global warming and the resulting climate change with its social and political

First of all, the use of the term
climate crisis rather than the technical term climate change makes the
connection linguistically. A crisis is generally understood to have a social,
cultural and political dimension. Secondly, gaming about the climate crisis
often brings many dimensions together as is done in the recent educational game
by Starbucks and Global USA. Though the game is
oriented to the global North, people in the global South can learn how
educators in the industrialized and CO2 debtor nations, like the USA, are raising awareness about the consequences
(or threat)
of the climate crisis. They can also learn about the
various climate crisis-reduction techniques that may soon be necessary in their
countries, particularly in the ever-increasing number and size of their urban
areas. Thirdly, role playing about the causes and consequences of global
warming, such as the weird weather patterns with their floods and droughts, the
disappearing or endangerment of species such as the polar bear, food and water
shortages, especially with their harsh impacts on the poor and on fragile
species, can inform and prompt action to drastically reduce global warming. Fourthly, short case studies based on the
experience of the climate crisis in student’s own communities can be developed.
Useful in this regard would be a framework of questions based on Earth Charter
values to analyze the case studies. (See the questions on p.6 of this issue for
an example.) All these educational activities foster an integrated
understanding of the climate crisis, though they may not necessarily lead to
effective action based upon attitudinal transformation.

then, can attitudes be transformed? What are ways of educating young and old in
both formal and community based educational settings to increase their ‘readiness for responsibility’ in the face of
an ever-deepening climate crisis? As noted above, education in response to the
climate crisis must also include a moral dimension based on an integrated set
of values, an approach giving rise to the following questions.

That is,
what values or whose values have to be selected? How are educators to go about
finding out and clarifying the values that are held in the community? Are they
to be accepted as held or should they be developed in order to better serve the
sustaining futures that the community is pursuing? What is the role of outside
agents? To what extent has the pursuit of values to include a national or
global perspective?

regards values clarification, given the nature of the climate crisis, it is
essential to probe for values related to sustainability, sustainable
development and sustaining futures. As
biologist and ecologist Aidan Davison suggests: “…..We are required to probe: What truly sustains us? Why? And how do we
know? Conversely, we must ask: What are we to sustain above all else?
Why? And how may we do so?"
(2001:p.64) This set of six questions could be used to
initiate a values discussion among young people in educational settings and
among concerned citizens who seek to plan to mitigate the climate crisis in
their community and to adapt to its present physical consequences. Such a
discussion would also seek to determine whether values held by these groups are
related to the social and ecological values espoused by the Earth Charter as
basic to facilitating the development of sustainable communities, e.g.
ecological sustainability, nonviolence, social justice, participatory
decisionmaking. And if not, the question of including these values as a guide
to understanding the climate crisis and planning to mitigate it can be

Following values clarification
comes the challenging task of prioritizing the values to be followed by
educational activities that facilitate the process of goal setting though the
inclination of educators and community planners maybe to start with the latter.
Perhaps this is because values are abstract, not readily available to consciousness, and therefore difficult to discuss. This
further highlights the need for values clarification and prioritization if
education is to foster attitude change, personal transformation and, in last
instance, societal transformation. In
addition and closely related to this value-based moral education is the need to
nurture the development of a spirituality that informs and inspires—this is the
task of religious communities. It is the vital role that they must play in addressing the climate
crisis because without strong spiritual underpinnings, humankind will not have
the strength to enact the changes fundamental to coping with the climate

In sum, then, the educational
challenge posed by the climate crisis is moral and spiritual. It is insufficient
to provide an understanding of the multidimensionality of the crisis and
technical suggestions to mitigate or adapt to it. Each person is to be
challenged to increase his or her ‘readiness for responsibility’ and to extend
the scope of that responsibility to the whole community of life of which the
human community is a member— if they are to contribute to rather than hinder
the advent of sustaining futures whereby people and planet not only survive,
but also thrive.

“Where there is no vision, people perish.”

Proverbs 29:18