Fellowship - Adolescents' representations of climate change: Considering implications for climate change secondary education in the UK

Project: Research council

Project Details


Climate change is the defining issue of the age and the need for far-reaching action is unequivocal. Climate change is
an intergenerational injustice because it will have a disproportionate impact on the young and unborn (Hansen et al.,
2013), yet they have minimal ability to effect change. Several studies have examined the rise of eco-anxiety,
particularly amongst young people (Hickman et al., 2021). However, whilst climate change is undeniably serious and
alarming, focusing on anxiety may reduce agency or induce paralysis rather than engagement (Ojala, 2012). It is
therefore vital to support and empower young people to foster adaptive responses to climate change.

A common and understandable response to risks such as climate change is to withdraw from the threat. My doctoral
research used qualitative methods to foreground participant voices and Social Representation Theory (SRT)
(Moscovici, 1961) as a theoretical framework. SRT is concerned with how people make sense of abstract and complex
issues. The value of the approach is that it privileges everyday meaning; it is not concerned with whether
understandings of an issue are aligned with objective reality, but rather, with the ways it is depicted and discussed in
everyday discourse. Social representations have implications for action because they may be constructed to situate
threats and responsibility for managing them with others rather than with the self (Joffe, 1999). My doctoral research
shows that adolescents share representations of climate change that facilitate their withdrawal from climate change
engagement. They present climate change as a problem caused by others, by blaming industrialisation in China or
corporate greed in America. They depict climate change as more of a problem for distant peoples and places and
project more serious impacts into the future. They place responsibility for resolving climate change with governments,
science and scientists, and older generations. This leads to a minimisation of the relevance and importance of their
own actions, individual or collective. The thesis concludes that climate change education could help adolescents feel
more empowered and agentic, by making climate change more personally salient and fostering the development of
critical thinking skills. It suggests incorporating climate change across the whole curriculum rather than focusing only
on the scientific aspects of it in Geography and Science and introducing the topic to pupils earlier than is currently the

The fellowship will provide the opportunity to explore the implications of my doctoral research for climate change
education in the UK. Educational governance is devolved in the UK. A new curriculum is being implemented in
Wales and a draft strategy for climate education in England is under review, making this fellowship very timely. I will
disseminate my doctoral research, review climate change education in four devolved nations of the UK and produce a
policy brief and journal article. I will establish effective networks and organise an academic symposium and
stakeholder seminar, all supported by integrated communications campaigns. These activities will inform a future research
proposal that will help me to build an established academic career. Being situated in both the Department of
Psychology and the Institute for Policy Research at the University of Bath will enable me to maximise opportunities to
effectively connect with policy makers and non-profits, while the mentorship of Professor Lorraine Whitmarsh - a
world-leading scholar - will provide expert guidance, and introductions to academics and policymakers in her
expansive network.
Effective start/end date1/10/2230/09/23


  • Economic and Social Research Council

RCUK Research Areas

  • Climate and climate change
  • Education
  • Climate & Climate Change


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