My students draw their emotional reactions to climate change politics

“I want you to feel the fear I feel every day. And act as if your house is on fire. Because it is.” – Greta Thunberg

This Friday 15th March, students from all around the world will be staying away from school, going on strike to demand urgent action on climate change.  As a parent and as an educator, I wholeheartedly support the student strike.

It is difficult not to get pessimistic when you seriously examine the extent of the climate change threat.  One of the challenging aspects of our subject material is the realisation that the window of opportunity for gradual incremental change to ameliorate climate change has closed.  Unfortunately the clock is ticking; we are now faced with the daunting challenge of rapidly reducing greenhouse gas emissions and adapting to climate change impacts that are already locked in by past emissions.  The implications of this failure are scary and worthy of the panic that Greta Thunberg implores our leaders to feel.

Our political leaders seem blind to the urgency.  In reaction to the previous student climate strike last November, Prime Minister Scott Morrison stated that “What we want is more learning in schools and less activism in schools.”  I can’t think of a better advertisement for getting engaged young people onto the streets than a smug patrician with an appalling record of climate change recalcitrance telling them what they should and shouldn’t care about.  What Morrison and other politicians and commentators so clearly demonstrate with these kinds of comments, among other things, is an inability to listen to young people’s legitimate fears about climate change.

The striking students offer us an alternative vision for the future.  In confronting the climate crisis provides us with a window of opportunity to make positive changes to ourselves and our communities, and do something constructive to alter the very worst aspects of our society.  We can exercise a tremendous amount of social agency at this time and play a role in shaping what comes next.

Listening to how students respond to studying climate change

I teach a third year undergraduate subject called International Politics of Climate Change at La Trobe University.  This subject is taken by a diverse cohort of students from many different degree programs across the University and from all five of our campuses across metropolitan and regional Victoria.

One of my goals for this subject is to empower students to take action, to do something constructive with the information they learn in their careers and in their communities.  I want them to come away seeing themselves as active players in international climate politics.  This is exactly what the young people participating in the world-wide student climate strike are doing, exercising political agency at a time when it could be tempting to succumb to cynicism and powerlessness.  I love it that they are standing up for their futures, not content to be the docile cogs in the wheels of economic production that some commentators would like them to be.

It is in this context that I open my International Politics of Climate Change subject with an activity that prompts students to explore their emotional reactions to the climate change threat.  The objective is draw on different epistemologies (ways) of knowing and put themselves in a flexible intellectual space to critically engage with our subject material, as well as to check in with their feelings on what is a complex and challenging topic.  I do not grade this task, that’s not the point of the activity.

Communicating our complex emotions about climate change

Emotions are now widely recognized as central to world politics.  Emma Hutchison argues that “emotions permeate the everyday practice of international relations.”  Brent Sasley suggests that emotions couple with individual experiences to condition individuals’ political behaviours as well as the collective social emotions which condition group behaviours.  Those who remain unaware of their emotional engagement with their politics are disempowered and ripe for exploitation.

With that in mind, here’s the instructions I give for students to complete this activity…

  • Step 1: Watch the content videos and read the required readings.
  • Step 2: Source a pen or pencil, piece of paper, and a quiet space to draw.
  • Step 3: Draw your picture.  You can represent your emotional reaction in any creative way you feel is appropriate.  Don’t over-think it or take any longer than 10 minutes to complete your drawing.  The importance of this activity is going through the process of creative reflection on your emotional reaction to the material, not to produce an acclaimed artwork.
  • Step 4: Take a photo of your picture and post it in our LMS forum.  Please include a 1-sentence description of your illustration.
  • Try leading friends or family through this activity and/or ask them how climate change makes them feel.

The drawing-based activity is an adaptation from a more expansive research methodology developed by my PhD student Sarah Houseman, who is exploring ecological and horizontal organisational models in her research project.  The aim of this method is to provide participants with a tactile means of communicating connections, as well as a means of articulating potentially problematic relationships in a non-confrontational manner.  The visual medium can also help the researcher identify patterns across the data set that might not otherwise be obvious from written or spoken responses.  I’ve successfully used this activity to engage audiences in undergraduate classes, during my sessions teaching the Permaculture Design Course at CERES Community Environment Park, and in communicating my research in grassroots environmental movements.

My students communicated something profound

The gallery below catalogues the drawings produced by my students, coupled with a caption describing their picture.  The drawings have been anonymised to preserve the privacy of the students.

Look closely at what they have drawn.  Carefully read their captions.  There are powerful emotions being communicated here.  Please listen to what they have to say.