How to educate young people about climate change? We can start with this comic

We know young people are “angry, frustrated and scared” about climate change. And they want to do more to stop it.

However, the school system is not designed to help them address their concerns and get the information they seek.

There is no explicit mention of climate change in the Australian primary school curriculum and it is mainly taught in STEM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics) subjects in high school.

Read more: How well does Australia’s new curriculum prepare young people for climate change?

More broadly, the main ways we talk about climate in the community and the media are centered around science and economics. They tend to involve abstract ideas such as “the planet is getting warmer” or “rainfall is more unpredictable”. While these are important elements, they overlook the social, cultural and psychological ways in which people around the world are affected by climate change.

So how can we better support schools and teachers to address climate change in a way that matches the interests and concerns of young people?

Our comic

We are geography and environmental researchers who have written a comic about how people around the world are experiencing climate change. This is aimed at high school students, but will also appeal to academics and the general public.

Called Everyday Stories of Climate Change, it examines the ways low-income families have had to adapt to climate change in five countries on three continents.

It begins with a student waking up in Australia and heading to school. Here the teacher notes that climate change is impacting people all over the world, “today we are going to explore some of these places”.

The comic introduces students to the global effects of climate change through the everyday stories of people around the world – starting with one very close to their own.
Gemma Sou/Author Provided, Author provided

For example, in Bangladesh, sea level rise has contributed to the salinity of the local river. The women therefore have to walk for hours to draw fresh water from another river. In Puerto Rico, after Hurricane Maria, people are struggling to get nutritious food and the streets are too dirty for children to play outside. In Barbuda, the government is trying to move people off their land, so that private companies can build luxury hotels after Hurricane Irma.

Gemma Sou, Author provided

The characters in the comics are fictional, but their stories are based on research – via interviews and surveys – that the comic book writers have done about people’s experiences with climate change in Bolivia, Puerto Rico, Barbuda, South Africa and Bangladesh.

The importance of stories

Researchers have long argued that we need to put a human face on climate change and communicate in ways that people resonate with. This means we need to do more than present a graph or churn out statistics.

Comics are an effective way to put a human face on issues because they allow us to show first-person stories and experiences. This can create both an understanding of the issues and instill empathy in readers.

Gemma Sou, Author provided

The comic is deliberately engaging and accessible. By showing real people going about their business, it also challenges condescending ideas about people and places affected by climate change in the so-called “global south”, which often paint them as “helpless” victims.

The comic also allows people to see the concrete, day-to-day ways in which people around the world are experiencing, responding to, and adapting to climate change.

For example, the family in Puerto Rico raises their own chickens and grows their own vegetables so they can eat the food they want during the food shortages after Hurricane Maria. In drought-stricken Cape Town, people are saving bath water for the garden and planting drought-tolerant aloes.

Real-world problems (and solutions) help students understand the impact of climate change and how those affected are already adapting.
Gemma Sou, Author provided

Showing these solutions is important because research suggests it gives people a sense of agency and hope that they can adapt to climate change.

Parents, teachers and students can download the comic for free here and here.

Everyday Stories of Climate Change is a collaboration between Gemma Sou (RMIT University), Adeeba Nuraina Risha (BRAC University), Gina Ziervogel (University of Cape Town), illustrator Cat Sims and the Geography Teachers’ Association of Victoria.

Teresa H. Sadler