Teaching Climate Change at the Community College

Resources for faculty who include the topic of climate change in their PCC classes

Teaching Climate Change at Portland Community College

Image of the logo for PCC's Climate Action Plan 2021

Portland Community College is committed to the fight for climate justice, the defining challenge of our times. PCC's comprehensive Climate Action Plan 2021 establishes a new carbon neutrality goal of 2040 and provides a five-year roadmap towards climate justice. The first goal of the 2021 Climate Action Plan is Education and Outreach, which includes Strategy 1.1:  

Expand sustainability and climate justice-related curricular offerings, with a focus on high enrollment courses and an equitable approach to diversifying student, program and discipline representation.

To achieve this goal, educators must grapple with the complexities of teaching climate change, including cognitive resistance to engaging with frightening topics, political polarization, intersectional justice issues, and  concerns about managing climate grief. This guide provides resources for addressing these complexities.

Use the side navigation or these links to find information about

Find curriculum resources for teaching climate change across the curriculum in  this guide:  Climate Change Curriculum Resources

The resources in these guides were compiled as part of a professional development project by librarian Roberta Richards in Spring 2021. See below some favorite quotes about why it is so essential to teach climate change throughout the curriculum and some highly recommended resources, and read Roberta's concluding insights from her research into this topic.

Why teach climate change?

Climate change will undoubtedly impact student futures, and thus should be an integral part of their experience in higher education. If it is not, issues of relevancy will continue to further erode the prestige and enrollments of colleges and universities in the United States.
          -- Krista Hiser and Matthew Lynch, "Worry and Hope: What College Students Know, Think, Feel, and Do about Climate Change."

Climate change points to a new reality that requires a shift in perspective toward the public good, but it goes even deeper than that. It also requires that our students be equipped with an entirely new set of skills in order to better prepare them for the unexpected.... Problem-solving is no longer just about getting a competitive edge. It will increasingly be about survival. It is critical that we provide our students with the mental tools necessary to face this uncertain future.
          -- Tom Haymes, Climate Change’s Challenge for Education

[T]he preoccupations of our society are starting quickly to shift—from endless expansion to strategies for survival. And in turn that should reshape the list of things we think it’s important to learn. Scientists and engineers have much work yet to do, and so do economists and business executives: every percentage increase in the efficiency of a solar panel, every percentage drop in the price of a wind turbine, betters our chances at survival. But suddenly we need everyone else too. Psychologists to understand why we’re slow to react, and political scientists to trace the power of the fossil fuel industry through our societies; theologians and historians to mine our traditions for the nuggets that let us deal with new crises; artists to offer us the images that can spur action. Look at it this way: if we are suddenly living, as the scientists insist, in the Anthropocene, then the humanities by definition are central to the task at hand.
           -- Bill McKibben, in Teaching Climate Change in the Humanities, p. 269


We basically have three choices: mitigation, adaptation and suffering. We’re going to do some of each. The question is what the mix is going to be. The more mitigation we do, the less adaptation will be required and the less suffering there will be.
          -- John Holdren, climate advisor to Barack Obama, speaking to the United Nations


We need climate change education because we - society and ecosystems across the globe - are in peril. While we are already too late to avert a great deal of suffering and death, we can and must work for a better future.
          -- Paleontological Research Institution, in "We need to support climate change education because it works!"

Highly recommended readings and resources

Roberta's summary and synthesis

This guide compiles resources and insights from my professional leave project, Spring 2021.  I am grateful to Portland Community College for granting me 11 weeks to study the complexities of teaching what policy experts call the wicked problem of climate change. 

After reading many books and articles, following the work of pioneering educators developing emotionally-sensitive, equity-grounded approaches to teaching climate change, watching excellent webinars and TED Talks, and talking to many PCC instructors and staff, here is my synthesis of the very most important points:

Acknowledge emotions. Feelings of grief, fear, anger and despair are a natural response to the climate crisis, and are an appropriate response for anyone who knows what is at stake and cares about nature and other people. Instructors who teach climate change at PCC and other institutions report that students want to process their emotions as part of the class. Acknowledging the emotional toll of the climate crisis validates students' feelings and lets them know that they are not alone.

Focus on solutions, not 'doom and gloom'.  PCC instructors confirm what studies have shown, that students are already aware of the gloom and feel deeply pessimistic, which takes a toll on mental health. Students are much less aware of all the heartening progress and technological solutions already underway on the college, city, county, state, national and global levels. Connecting students to solutions is not a panacea for climate grief, but it is a proven strategy for helping students develop agency and sustain hope.

Focus on systemic change, not individual lifestyle issues. The magnitude of the crisis requires systemic change by industry and government; personal sacrifices by isolated individuals won't make a dent. Also, social science research shows that triggering guilt creates cognitive dissonance that may be more likely to result in disengagement rather than behavior change.

Make it local. We are most engaged when learning about the impacts of climate change on the places and people that we care about, and focusing on solutions that are being implemented locally.

Bring your expertise. While the physical mechanics of a warming planet fall in the realm of the natural sciences, the causes and consequences of climate change transcend academic disciplines. Every discipline has insights about how to survive, maybe even thrive, as we respond to shared challenges.

Use an equity lens. The impacts of the climate crisis are falling first and hardest on those who did least to cause it. The way out of this crisis cannot arise from the oppressive structures that created it. An equity lens broadens our vision to see the interconnections that will ground a just transition to the challenges and opportunities of life in the Anthropocene.

Take care of yourself. The climate crisis takes an emotional toll on everyone who engages with it. Seek support from our community, and take breaks as needed. We're in this together!