Show Summary Details

Page of

Printed from Oxford Research Encyclopedias, Education. Under the terms of the licence agreement, an individual user may print out a single article for personal use (for details see Privacy Policy and Legal Notice).

date: 06 February 2023

Youth Movements and Climate Change Education for Justicefree

Youth Movements and Climate Change Education for Justicefree

  • Carrie KarsgaardCarrie KarsgaardMary Lou Fulton Teachers College at Arizona State University
  •  and Lynette ShultzLynette ShultzFaculty of Education, University of Alberta, Educational Policy Studies Department


In 2019, youth throughout the world held global student strikes for climate, also known as Fridays for Future, during which they articulated their collective concern and frustration at political inaction on climate change, demanding climate justice. During the same period, through concrete activities on specific lands, drawing attention to the colonial nature of climate change, Indigenous land-based and climate movements have resisted extraction and development projects that fuel climate change.

Youth responses to the increasing intensification and unevenness of climate heating present a crucial moment for rethinking education. To adequately respond to the global youth climate strikes and Indigenous movements, climate change education is recognizing the need to engage issues of justice, including for children and youth in different positions globally.

Education research has long recognized the need to layer climate science education with learning about the intersecting sociocultural, political, and economic components of climate issues, along with the need to support youth as they face uncertain futures. At the same time, much historic climate change education was critiqued for its instrumentalism because it endorsed predetermined outcomes, limiting critical thought and stripping youth of their agency. By contrast, the recent youth climate strikes have spurred increased legitimation of youth voice and agency in climate issues, in addition to increasing attention to the marginalized and excluded. With the citizenship participation of youth thus legitimized, new efforts in climate change education more deeply address climate justice through a critical focus on the culpability of the Global North, supporting pedagogical interventions that support more critical learning.

At the same time, many scholars question the extent to which climate change education fully addresses the deep colonial–capitalist roots of the climate crisis, particularly because education relies on these same colonial–capitalist foundations. Furthermore, despite increased interest in climate change education, many youth remain marginal to the conversation because research is still largely situated in the Global North, to the exclusion of many young people’s realities and reflecting the ongoing coloniality of knowledge production within education. Considering these issues, decolonial climate change education offers more direct confrontation with the failures of Western modes of thought and engages with alternative knowledges. In doing so, it opens space for climate change education grounded in relationality and kinship founded in Indigenous relational ontologies, whereby humans are not the center of climate learning and decision-making but are inherent within webs of relations among all things.


  • Alternative and Non-formal Education 
  • Education and Society

In 2019, youth planet-wide walked out of school, took to the streets, and utilized technology in the global student strikes for climate, also known as Fridays for Future. In keeping with a long history of justice-oriented youth climate activism (O’Brien et al., 2018), this global youth movement has mobilized approximately 10 million people through in-person strikes in more than 260 countries (Verlie & Flynn, 2022, p. 1), through coordinated action that moved online throughout the COVID-19 pandemic (Boulianne and colleagues, 2020). Across diverse locations globally and various digital platforms, youth articulated their collective concern and frustration at political inaction on climate change, demanding climate justice. Climate justice recognizes that enormous disparities in sources of historic and current emissions are mirrored by disparities in vulnerability to climate impacts—inequities that are augmented by power differentials whereby those most at risk face invalidation, denial, and exclusion from climate politics (Kluttz & Walter, 2018; Levinson, 2012; Menton et al., 2020). In a movement that is “independent of commercial interests and political parties and knows no borders” (Fridays for Future, 2022a), young people are demanding leaders not only listen to climate science and keep the global temperature rise below 1.5 degrees but also “ensure climate justice and equity” (Fridays for Future, 2022b). Through a focus on climate justice, youth articulate a need to move past technoscientific and market-based climate solutions, instead attending to those most vulnerable to climate impacts—including youth—and ensuring the necessary systemic transformation to ensure justice for all (White et al., 2022). Despite these moves for justice, not all youth were equal participants in this global movement, which critiqued but also reiterated the intersecting oppressions facing diverse youth globally (Bowman, 2020). The participation of some was limited by intersecting factors of youth, race, and gender, as with young African women such as Vanessa Nakate (Barnes, 2021). Some youth climate action groups in New Zealand folded due to recognition of their inherent Whiteness, as well as their tokenization of Black, Indigenous, and other youth of color (Miller, 2021). Such responses were not mirrored in all sites, however, and the broader movement continues into the 2020s, albeit altered by the impacts of the pandemic.

The scope and force of youth climate movements have seen their uptake by education researchers, particularly in the Global North, who are rethinking climate change education in relation to the emotional motivation to participate in the strikes (Bright & Eames, 2022); youth agency, creativity, and citizenship expression (Alexander et al., 2022; Bowman & Germaine, 2022; Menzie-Ballantyne & Ham, 2022; Verlie & Flynn, 2022; White et al., 2022); and the efficacy of social media in bringing youth voice into policy spaces (Boulianne and colleagues, 2020). Through the dialogue between the youth climate strikes and education, it is clear that a shift in climate change education is needed in order to address the temporally uneven, translocal, distributed, and asymmetrical causes and impacts of climate change particularly for youth, who face a future on a planet “already altered . . . within uneven conditions of past, present, and recurring violence patterned in the material work of capitalism” (Murphy, 2013, p. 6) and colonialism.

Whereas the global youth climate strikes have garnered much consideration by education researchers, less attention has been paid to Indigenous youth climate activism (Ritchie, 2021) and Indigenous land-based movements (Claeys & Delgado Pugley, 2017; Gilio-Whitaker, 2019; Indigenous Climate Network, n.d.; Whyte, 2014), such as resistance to pipelines and deforestation. Indigenous peoples have emerged as global leaders in the climate justice movement (Gilio-Whitaker, 2019, p. 109), drawing explicit connections between colonialism and climate change, articulating Indigenous knowledges, and advocating for Indigenous peoples to be heard at policy tables. Through movements of land, water, and sky protection—as the Indigenous Environmental Network refers to their efforts against carbon cap-and-trade (Sky Protector, n.d.)—Indigenous peoples draw attention to the fact that they are first among climate refugees, they face the loss of traditional knowledge due to rapidly changing ecological conditions and land degradation due to extractive industries, their cultural practices have been affected by the away-migration of their more-than-human relatives (Whyte, 2017), and defenders of their ways of life experience disproportionate levels of violence.

Rather than being positioned as climate victims, however, Indigenous peoples are taking decolonial action and drawing attention to the Western, colonial–capitalist foundations of the climate crisis—along with the means of addressing the crisis, which are often grounded in the same Western, colonial–capitalist ideologies and processes that caused the issue in the first place. For instance, Indigenous Climate Action (ICA), a movement that originated proximal to the tar sands in Canada, seeks to ensure climate policies do not “exacerbate existing economic and social inequalities” (ICA, n.d.) by ensuring Indigenous voices are heard. Through a radical undermining of colonial borders and decision-making, ICA organizes not according to colonial governmental boundaries but by biome, with one adult and one youth member representing each of the boreal forests, grasslands, mountain forests, tundra, and temperate deciduous forests that make up the land mass known as Canada. In this way, ICA disrupts constructed colonial borders and supports decision-making grounded in the land. Through such reconfigurations, Indigenous climate movements raise important questions about the coloniality of climate education and whose voices are heard in climate change education research.

Youth responses to the increasing intensification and unevenness of climate heating present a crucial moment for rethinking education. In order to adequately respond to both the global youth climate strikes and Indigenous movements, climate change education is recognizing the need to engage issues of justice, including for children and youth in different positions globally. Furthermore, considering how climate movements, particularly Indigenous-led movements, are drawing attention to the colonial foundations of climate issues, a concomitant need arises to address the colonial foundations of education, along with how climate education in privileged spaces in the Global North can be accountable to those in the Global South, as well as marginalized communities in the North. Indeed, such work is underway, and this article articulates recent research and thinking about education for climate justice while also drawing on that research to identify where climate change education may go from here.

New Movements in Climate Change Education for Justice

Since youth have taken to the streets and social media, formal education increasingly recognizes the need for a comprehensive shift in the approach to climate change in the classroom. Education research has long recognized the need to layer climate science education with learning about the intersecting sociocultural, political, and economic components of climate issues, along with the need to support youth as they face uncertain futures (Bangay & Blum, 2010; Busch et al., 2019; Jickling, 2013; Siegner & Stapert, 2020). At the same time, much historic climate change education was critiqued for its instrumentalism, as it endorsed predetermined outcomes, limiting critical thought and stripping youth of their agency (Blanchet-Cohen et al., 2003; Jickling & Wals, 2008; Levinson, 2012). By contrast, the recent youth climate strikes have spurred increased legitimation of youth voice and agency in climate issues, along with increased attention to the marginalized and excluded, including both human and nonhuman members of the planet. With the citizenship participation of youth thus legitimized, new efforts in climate change education more deeply address climate justice through a critical focus on the culpability of the Global North, supporting pedagogical interventions that support more critical learning.

Youth Voice and Agency in Climate Justice Education

Whether or not they mobilized for climate action, young people in various locations globally have long been concerned with climate change (Berse, 2017; Tanner, 2010). However, youth continue to be largely excluded from climate decision-making (Thew, 2018; Thew et al., 2021), despite the fact that they have much to contribute and will be impacted to a far greater extent than decision-makers (Gibbons, 2014). Even when they have been included, youth have endured “tokenistic treatment in adult-dominated processes” (Narksompong & Limjirakan, 2015). Young people are considered to have limited capacities for contribution to what are construed as adult fora (Gordon, 2007), where youth are instead constructed through hegemonic Romantic notions of childhood (Bowman & Germaine, 2022) that are both “anticipatory and protectionist . . . [and] disregard the ways children purposefully engage in prefigurative activism and exercise agency to circumvent their exclusion from formal politics” (Alexander et al., 2022, p. 97).

By contrast, researchers increasingly recognize the legitimate contributions of youth creativity and citizenship expression to climate action, with implications for education. Youth assert their agency and counter intergenerational divides through imaginative and creative climate-oriented work—such as blogs, literature, video games, and speculative fiction (Bowman & Germaine, 2022; Rousell et al., 2021)—reflecting a “complex literacy that eschews the deficit model and the functional competencies imposed . . . by the school curricula” (Bowman & Germaine, 2022, p. 79). By attending to youth culture and narratives emerging in response to climate change, particularly by youth in various social positions, Bowman and Germaine (2022) assert that it is possible to tap into alternative epistemologies. In this way, youth are not conceived as possessing merely instrumental capacities but also alternative ways of knowing and envisioning alternative futures. Creativity and activism are therefore linked through youth expression, as “the political and the creative are mutually constitutive dimensions” (Bowman & Germaine, 2022, p. 81), and creative expression, including on digital media, may not only reflect but also “generate emergent forms of political subjectivity and agency” (Rousell et al., 2021, p. 2). In response, education may support more critical and creative futures-casting, where youth may illustrate the limits of existing imaginaries while also envisioning alternatives (Wilson, 2018).

In addition to offering important perspectives based in their particular epistemological positioning, youth also possess significant political efficacy, despite their exclusion from formal politics. Some youth express a “critical science agency” (White et al., 2022) to take action on injustices linked with their learning of science. In other cases, youth take up social media to make up for their lack of access to formal policy spaces. Boulianne and colleagues (2020) assert that social media supports participation by nonvoting youth, noncitizens, and those who are vulnerable to climate change but who have no efficacy in global agreements. Through Twitter, for example, youth are able to raise and facilitate global discussion about climate policy issues, documenting and circulating their discontent, including through tweets that directly address influential leaders (Boulianne and colleagues 2020). Indeed, youth involved in climate justice action are developing crucial knowledge of justice issues, along with key life skills through climate organizing that they do not learn in school (White et al., 2022). In response to existing youth citizen participation through youth climate strikes, education may arguably respond by increasingly attending to youth expression and researching alongside youth (Verlie & Flynn, 2022; White et al., 2022), as well as by deepening learning about climate change and democratic participation, rather than denying and restricting citizenship by limiting youth participation in climate strikes (Alexander et al., 2022).

While legitimizing youth knowledge, voice, and political efficacy, climate change education research also identifies the unevenness of whose voices are heard, with the impetus to more expansively attend to those marginalized and excluded in climate discussions, including both human and nonhuman planetary relations. Indeed, climate change education as grounded in mainstream environmentalism may problematically reflect uneven positioning of human actors in climate conversations according to race (DeLuca & Demo, 2001; McCreary & Milligan, 2018), class (Gómez-Pompa & Kaus, 1992), and body size (Russell et al., 2013), as emphasized by environmental justice scholarship (Bullard, 1990; Bullard & Wright, 1990; Čapek, 1993; Gilio-Whitaker, 2019; Whyte, 2017). In climate justice education, an intersectional lens that addresses dehumanization and attends to the ways certain bodies are excluded from climate discussions is necessary. Such an approach includes working to confront systems of oppression and “critically analyze the (re)production of privileged bodies in environmental [and climate] education” (Russell et al., 2013, p. 28).

In this vein, posthumanist approaches attend to “how young lives are experienced and conditioned differently within particular assemblages of place, race, class, gender, culture, sexual difference, multi-species relations, and technical mediation” (Rousell et al., 2021, p. 3). Such attendance may include not simply recognition of learner embodiment and positionality but also how diverse young people also possess and construct crucial climate knowledge—and this knowledge may be brought into climate change learning to the benefit of the most marginalized. For instance, for those facing immediate climate impacts, such as young children in the Philippines, co-construction of knowledge about climate change risks among experts and children is necessary for survival (Casas et al., 2021). Through an anti-hierarchical and relational approach, children can co-create, share, and employ knowledge that is necessary for their life, health, and adaptation. In this vein, Wals (2020) asserts that foundational to climate education is a critical, emancipatory, and relational approach that not only recognizes the voice and agency of young people but also offers opportunities to connect to the environment, to nonhuman species, and “other humans . . . those not in sight, those thinking differently, having different socio-economic, cultural, etc. backgrounds” (Wals, 2020, p. 826). In this way, climate change education does not only recognize agency and voice, including of the most marginalized, but also sets up dialogue and relations.

Relations with nonhuman members of the planet are also increasingly recognized as crucial to justice-oriented climate education. Climate change education literature tends to reflect an anthropocentrism that denies accountability to nonhuman relations, along with the reciprocal nonhuman impacts on learning in climate change classrooms. Moving away from sustainability narratives that prioritize the development aims of (some) humans, youth in Australia have instead “gravitated towards vitalist concepts of coexistence that de-centred human agency and superiority and (re)connected with more than human elements of the earth’s biosphere and climatic systems” (Cutter-Mackenzie & Rousell, 2019, p. 100). Such reconnections include learning from nonhuman beings and elements in climate education. Recognizing the “embodied, material, local, interpersonal and political dimensions of the changing climate children are growing up in, educational research and practice can experiment with ways of learning with children in wild weather for climate justice” (Verlie & Blom, 2021, pp. 10–11), bringing changing atmospheres directly into the classroom. As an example, Verlie and Blom (2021) acknowledge the material agency of forest fire smoke in Australian classrooms, as it confronts children with the death of human and nonhuman relatives, refuses climate denial, creates atmospheres of discomfort and disease, interferes with established behaviors, and profoundly affects children’s classroom climates. Rather than disregarding such nonhuman elements as forest fire smoke, climate change education may instead recognize the vulnerability and agency of nonhuman beings and elements, both as they are directly encountered in the classroom and as they remain invisible. In such ways, climate change education is beginning to develop more multigenerational, intercultural, and nonhuman collaborations, and it is facing important ethical questions about an interrelated planet.

Sociocultural, Political, and Economic Elements in Climate Change Education

The shift away from solely scientific climate change education, along with the improved attendance to marginalized perspectives, has been accompanied by climate change education that increasingly addresses uneven responsibilities for and responses to climate change in relation to its intersecting sociocultural, political, and economic elements. Attending to systems, structures, and interrelationships, transformational and justice-oriented approaches to climate education seek to “[challenge] systems of entrenched power that continue to maintain status quo conditions that have created the issue in the first place” (Busch et al., 2019, p. 964), particularly through critiques of the culpability of the Global North in contributing to climate injustices. Such approaches rely on pedagogical interruptions that support holistic, cross-curricular, and transformational learning that seeks to mitigate climate change and address related vulnerabilities and injustices.

Largely situated within social studies, humanities, or interdisciplinary contexts, more critical approaches to climate change education directly confront culpability of the Global North in inter- and intragenerational injustice, along with interspecies justice (Waldron et al., 2019). Counter to neoliberal frameworks that focus on sustainable development, which have been critiqued for their anthropocentrism (Kopnina, 2012), colonial and universalizing approaches (L. Sund & Öhman, 2014; P. Sund, 2015), and for normalizing individualist and consumerist responses to climate change (Jickling & Wals, 2008), more critical approaches to climate change education support learning for climate justice by examining systems, structures, and processes and by encouraging individual and collective action to mitigate climate heating and address related vulnerabilities (Waldron et al., 2019, p. 898). Foundations for more critical expressions are found across Freirean critical pedagogy, environmental justice, political ecology (Svarstad, 2021), and global citizenship education (Karsgaard & Davidson, 2021; Waldron et al., 2019), which support students to address assumptions, biases, contexts, power imbalances, and injustices associated with climate change, as well as to take informed and responsible action. Rather than prescribing actions for young people, such climate learning supports young people with crucial learning to make their own decisions. As an example, Eisenstadt and MacAvoy’s (2022) undergraduate textbook, Climate Change, Science, and the Politics of Shared Sacrifice, connects the scientific and social scientific elements of climate change with policy gaps, ethics, and issues of climate and environmental justice, detailing complex case studies for student investigation and critique. Offering complex and intersectional analysis of climate issues (Kaijser & Kronsell, 2014), such approaches lay the groundwork for solidarity within complex dynamic global relationships that include the future inheritors of present actions.

Various pedagogical interventions link climate with its sociocultural, political, and economic components, although some are more justice-oriented than others. Beginning with science, Ranney and Velautham (2021) promote the integration of small “information hunks” about climate change, which can be connected to socioemotional learning and social justice in order to counter climate denial and cultivate resilience and hope among learners. Situated within the humanities instead of science, Siegner and Stapert (2020) recognize the role of narrative, storytelling, and community projects in climate learning. Indeed, community-based learning is frequently turned to as a way to connect environmental and social components of climate mitigation and adaptation in citizenship education (Krasny & DuBois, 2019). Place-based learning that connects climate to immediate local experiences may support increased “knowledge, responsibility, hope, and behavioral intention regarding climate change” (Khadka et al., 2021, p. 10), as students can conceptualize action within their local contexts. Community-based learning may be paired with digitally connected learning (Field, 2017) in order to promote equity rather than simply enhancing existing advantages through a solely local focus. Through dialogue and deliberation with others, along with critical examination of societal “knowledge basis, interests, and values” (Ohman, 2009), students are provided the opportunity to think critically and make decisions about how to act to create just futures.

With the increasing focus on students’ emotional responses to climate change (Akiva et al., 2017; Brown, 2016; Jones & Davison, 2021; O’Brien et al., 2018; Ojala, 2012), some pedagogies directly confront climate emotions as a space for critical learning. Against a neoliberal privatization and individualization of emotion, such pedagogies draw on emotion as a means to scrutinize dominant culture through pedagogies of discomfort (Bright & Eames, 2022; Ojala, 2021). By facing such emotions as apathy, anxiety, and anger, as well as by “evaluating the intersection of their future hopes, their place in history and society’s values” (Bright & Eames, 2022, p. 21), youth are able to “‘see differently’ and consider the change they wish to see” (p. 21). Inquiry into climate emotions also supports investigation into the colonial and industrial causes of climate crisis and the resultant accountabilities that demand particular responses.

Innovative pedagogies are clearly proliferating in response to the complexity of the climate crisis, as educators and researchers layer onto climate science a broader sociocultural, political, and economic critique within climate education. At the same time, climate change education is still limited in its pedagogical approaches (Monroe et al., 2019), particularly with regard to climate justice (Stapleton, 2019). Deep consideration of Indigenous decolonial movements and the biome-based approach of Indigenous Climate Action raises important questions about the extent to which climate change education in the 21st century is largely innovating within existing education structures without transforming the very colonial foundations of the education system. In this way, might even climate education be complicit in climate change?

Educational Obstruction and Alternative Foundations

Although educational interventions address the interconnected sociocultural, political, and economic elements of climate change, many scholars question the extent to which climate change education, as it stands, fully addresses the deep colonial–capitalist roots of the climate crisis, particularly because education itself relies on these same colonial–capitalist foundations and is impacted by neoliberal policies. Furthermore, despite increased interest in climate change education, many youth remain marginal to the conversation because research is still largely situated in the Global North, to the exclusion of many young people’s realities and reflecting the ongoing coloniality of knowledge production (de Sousa Santos, 2007; Tlostanova & Mignolo, 2012) within education. Considering these issues, decolonial climate change education offers more direct confrontation with the failures of Western modes of thought and engages with alternative knowledges, toward reconfiguration of political, economic, cultural, and material relations. In doing so, it opens space for climate change education grounded in relationality and kinship, whereby humans are not the center of climate learning and decision-making but are inherent within webs of relations among all things.

Much mainstream education itself is complicit in the ongoing climate crisis due to the infusion of Western colonial–capitalism and modernity, although of course this infusion has not been universal where Indigenous and African cosmologies persist in influencing learning. At a concrete level, mainstream education is directly impacted by neoliberal policies and practices—such as teacher quality standards, assessment and accountability measures, and risk assessments—that obstruct transformational learning and collective action on climate, which tend to question these policies and practices (Dunlop et al., 2021; Eaton & Day, 2020). Where education prioritizes workforce supply for economic growth, it inevitably contributes to ongoing climate crisis by delusionally treating the planet as an infinite resource and by deprioritizing other ways of envisioning life (Common Worlds Research Collective, 2020). The increasing influence of industry in education under neoliberalism, informed by the “petro-industrial complex of colonial–capitalism” (Verlie & Flynn, 2022, p. 4), also means that fossil fuel companies, in conjunction with hegemonic oil cultures, can directly impact learning in ways that promote fossil fuel interests (Dunlop et al., 2021; Eaton & Day, 2020), to the detriment of more critical and transformational learning. Although more critically minded climate change educators may seek to deconstruct and undermine the impacts of neoliberalism, the bounds of the system profoundly limit the kinds of learning—and action—that are possible.

Furthermore, despite the increasing integration of youth perspectives and agency, along with a widespread understanding that those bearing the least responsibility for climate change are most adversely affected, climate change education research is still largely conducted in the Global North (Busch et al., 2019; Krasny & DuBois, 2019). Rarely does research attend to those most marginalized, such as climate migrants, Indigenous youth (MacKay et al., 2020), and those most in need of immediate climate adaptation education for survival (Casas et al., 2021; Krasny & DuBois, 2019). Indeed, education largely seems to reflect the racial media bias that saw Ugandan activist Vanessa Nakate cropped out of an image of European school strikers (Evelyn, 2020). Of course, some international empirical studies have attended to the perspectives of diverse youth globally; for example, one study drew on perspectives of 99 youth from 14 countries to inform an Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change conference on the role of youth, schools, and cities in climate mitigation and adaptation (Hall & Dowdell, 2018; Karsgaard & Davidson, 2021), and another gathered 450 pieces of artwork by youth in 44 different countries to inform educational policy on climate change (Anayatova et al., 2022). Although these studies indeed offer much-needed contributions from youth in diverse national contexts, the young people represented are largely from privileged groups, with access to digital technologies, art supplies, and free time that support their participation. Thinking about climate change is still predominantly shaped in relation to youth perspectives in the Global North, to the exclusion of millions of young people facing immediate and future climate impacts in ranging contexts globally—and who will increasingly move across borders into different education jurisdictions, posing new questions for educators working within national school systems and conventional notions of national citizenship. As climate migration accelerates and becomes more widespread, both numerically and geographically, education will need to find ways to attend to the up to 250 million environmentally displaced persons that are expected by the end of the century (Marshall, 2016, p. 1), including by addressing not only mitigation but also crucial learning for survival and life in unpredictably altered futures.

Critiques in the 21st century are increasingly addressing the fundamental complicity of education systems in climate change, as well as the need to engage the knowledges and perspectives of the marginalized, advocating for decolonial climate change education. Tracing the negative interactions between the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) focused on education (SDG 4) and climate change (SDG 13), Komatsu et al. (2020) reveal how countries with higher levels of “quality education”—highly ranked according to global standards based in normative conceptions of economic growth, technological advancement, human exceptionalism, and liberal individualism—tend to have more detrimental impacts on climate change, with higher carbon emissions per capita. Indeed, it seems that “education is not part of the solution, but part of the problem” (Verlie & Flynn, 2022, p. 2) of climate change. Such findings indicate a necessary move away from the Western, individualist, and neoliberal foundations of education, including their “delusional, human-centric and exceptionalist preoccupations” (Common Worlds Research Collective, 2020, p. 3), that artificially separate and prioritize humans above the rest of the planet. Clearly, new frames are necessary if humans are to release ourselves from modernity (Andreotti, 2021) and learn to live responsibly and respectfully on a damaged planet (Tsing et al., 2017) in a way that recognizes relations and supports all members of the planetary community.

Decolonial approaches to climate change education (Karsgaard & Davidson, 2021; Lobo et al., 2021; Stein et al., 2022) offer deep confrontation with the violence of modernity that has led to the hierarchical positioning among humans and nonhuman life. Decolonial education supports analysis of the hierarchies of knowledge systems that have led to the climate crisis, attendance to alternative epistemologies, and a more relational way forward. Confronting Western modernity involves coming face-to-face with systemic colonial violence as it intersects in climate issues; the ecological unsustainability of the dominant system, according to normative conceptions of development, growth, and consumption; and the condition of human and nonhuman entanglement, which negates artificial conceptions of individualism, autonomy, and utility that presently shape relations and actions in climate change education (Stein et al., 2022). In addition to questioning Western, colonial–capitalist thought, decolonial climate change education also engages with knowledge systems defined as “pre-historical” or “unqualified” in Western terms but may offer other “ways of relating to and with land/nature/one another on terms that are other than, or more-than modern” (Tilley & Parasram, 2018, p. 306). By delinking from the naturalized colonial–capitalist vision of society in this way, climate change education therefore foregrounds a “silenced and different genealogy of thought” (Tlostanova & Mignolo, 2012, p. 34) from outside coloniality by meaningfully and respectfully engaging with marginalized knowledges or the “undercommons,” including Black, Indigenous, feminist, Dalit, Islamic, Eastern, and Southern knowledges (Lobo et al., 2021). In tandem with engaging marginalized thought, decolonial climate education addresses material realities by calling into question ways that education justifies theft and occupation of Indigenous land, along with the transformation of people and land into property (Tuck et al., 2014)—even for climate mitigation and adaptation strategies. In addition to considering various human knowledge systems, education can increasingly support learning not about but with the earth (Common Worlds Research Collective, 2020), overcoming the subject/object divide through education that legitimizes nonhuman agency. Learning together with the earth and from marginalized knowledges therefore becomes the basis for more relational learning.

Relationality and Kinship in Climate Change Education

In place of individualist and human-centric Western foundations for education, land-based Indigenous relational ontologies that find expression in Indigenous climate movements offer ways forward for climate change education, particularly when education situated in non-Indigenous contexts carefully attends against appropriation of Indigenous knowledge and the reassertion of deeply entrenched power relations in education systems invested in colonial relations and thought. Returning to Indigenous Climate Action’s biome-based climate organizing, we may ask: What does it mean for climate education to begin with the land? Although the scholarship in this area is vast (Barker & Pickerill, 2020; Burkhart, 2019; Cajete, 2016, 2020; De Line, 2016; George & Wiebe, 2020; Marker, 2018; Todd, 2016; Watts, 2013), Burkhart’s (2019) Indigenizing Philosophy Through the Land offers a philosophical argument that uncovers the problems of Western thought while introducing Indigenous ontologies. Although Burkhart does not offer the sole grounds for moving forward, nor a climate education solution to be extracted and transplanted without any shifts to colonial systems, he articulates one vision for environmental ethics grounded in land-based relations. In this way, he lays foundations for Indigenous land-based and relational pedagogies that can inform climate change education, as long as careful attention is paid to power relations at the interface of Western and Indigenous ontologies.

Dialoguing Indigenous knowledge with the history of Western philosophy, Burkhart (2019) centers “locality” as

the manner in which being, meaning, and knowing are rooted in the land. Locality as a root of being is part of each of us and speaks through us and from our historical and geographical place in the world regardless of how our identity is constructed in relation to culture or nation. (p. 16)

Although Western, Cartesian thought attempts to delocalize or abstract thought from the land—and humans from nature—such abstractions are superficial and indeed false; rather, relations remain despite Western attempts to remove them. Here, humans are not above or outside of the planet but are instead deeply enmeshed in webs of relations—not central to these relations, but part of everything within a multiplicity of relations. Due to the interrelations of all things, “everything has all the value there is. Everything is sacred” (Burkhart, 2019, p. 250). In a very rooted sense, therefore, humans are on an even plane with all else, in horizontal kinship relations that require consideration of all in decision-making, rather than basing environmental decisions on artificial, hierarchical attributions of value (e.g., that weigh humans above all else). Relationships therefore define how humans act, and not in an abstract sense. Only in actual relations—in kinship with those living and nonliving beings actually around, including nonhuman life, tools, objects, and energies—may humans make moral decisions according to respect and reciprocity, for the perpetuation and care of their kin. Decision-making according to kinship relations is neither abstract nor prescriptive; instead, it requires responsiveness, dynamism, movement, and evolution as relations shift and generate new expressions of the world (Barker & Pickerill, 2020).

Indigenous relational ontologies such as those articulated by Burkhart find expression in land-based education (Bang et al., 2014; Nxumalo, 2017; Paperson, 2014; Simpson, 2014; Tuck et al., 2014; Wildcat et al., 2014), which foregrounds relationality in ways that address many of the critiques and gaps surrounding climate change education. Land-based education begins at a fundamentally different ontological position from much climate change education, not only by disrupting colonialism but also by centering Indigenous onto-epistemologies, ensuring the futurity of Indigenous peoples, and supporting the restitution and return of land (Tuck et al., 2014). Unlike place-based education, which centers the land but without raising questions of power or epistemological positioning, land-based education refuses appropriation of Indigenous knowledges within colonial narratives that promote techno-scientific or market-based solutionism. Instead, it supports learning against extractive and nonconsensual colonial use of the land that typifies Western pedagogy, even within climate education (Simpson, 2014, p. 15), recognizing a need “to address ecological debt and drive a deep transformation of relations of production on a global scale” (Lobo et al., 2021, p. 1495). In land-based education, land is understood as material and more-than-material, urban, terranean and subterranean, and relational—and indeed as a teacher (Tuck et al., 2014). Land-based pedagogies meaningfully engage with land-teachers and knowledge, treat human bodies as part of ecosystems, and refuse place as a backdrop for human activity. As an example, Donald (2021) describes walking as a pedagogy for re-recognizing the “enmeshment within kinship relations that connect all forms of life” (p. 55), according to the Cree concept of wâhkôhtowin. Counter to colonial education, which finds expression in “knowledge and knowing in written, objectified, desacralized, despatialized, and sedentary forms” (Donald, 2021, p. 60), according to a standardized, factory model of teaching, walking on the land supports types of knowing that are relational and in motion. In this way, walking is both a refusal of colonial learning and a concrete pedagogy for re-establishing kinship. In so establishing relations, land-based learning provides foundations for climate change education that undermine the Western, human-centric, and colonial “belief that humans can endlessly act upon the rest of the world with impunity—either to exploit its resources or to ‘improve’ upon it at will” (Common Worlds Research Collective, 2020, p. 3).

For those embedded in colonial systems, land education presents “difficult terrain in working both with Indigenous and non-Indigenous learners: to acknowledge and include Indigenous knowledge and perspectives but in non-determined ways that do not stereotype Indigenous knowledge or identities” (Tuck et al., 2014, p. 11). Certainly, climate education policies and practices present warnings about potential tensions emerging in decolonial approaches to climate education. As an example, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization and the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change’s (2016) Action for Climate Empowerment promotes Indigenous knowledge as crucial to climate education. At the same time, the document objectifies Indigenous peoples, depicting them as vulnerable to climate impacts while possessing knowledge with use-value for resolving climate issues. For instance, the example action plan for climate education in Namibia references the “wide range of indigenous knowledge on coping mechanisms. All this knowledge needs to be exploited” (p. 40, emphasis added). Such utilitarian discourse reflects a problematic appropriation of Indigenous knowledge within existing colonial–capitalist systems and concomitant normalization of Indigenous peoples as objects—a policy move that can be mirrored in classrooms. The contested interface of traditional ecological knowledge with Western science is well documented, including the appropriation of Indigenous knowledge for particular environmental and educational agendas (Agrawal, 1995; Davis & Todd, 2017; Simpson, 2004), as well as the depoliticization of knowledge production through the erasure of the destructive effects of industrial and extractive processes on land-based Indigenous knowledges (Nadasdy, 2005). Further to appropriating knowledge, the policy document frames Indigenous people through a deficit discourse that shrouds the colonial causes of existing inequities while highlighting the agency and advocacy of Western-based organizations. Examples such as this therefore raise important questions for how climate education may support non-Indigenous peoples to engage with alternative knowledges and form new relations to the land. For example, educators might ask, “In a world of epistemic violence, political turmoil and growing levels of uncertainty and cynicism, how might we nourish justice and a commitment to plurality? . . . These are not only ethical and political but also pedagogic challenges” (Lobo et al., 2021, p. 1493), with implications for how decolonial climate education must work to unpack hegemonic knowledge systems but also affective investments in the status quo.

In this context, following Indigenous relational ontologies and learning from the land does not mean that the unevenness of human relations is tabled. Rather, land-based learning can support the future life and thriving of those most marginalized by colonial systems—and most vulnerable to climate impacts—by calling into question systems that support only the futures of some at the expense of others through deep engagement with alternative knowledge systems (Tuck & Gaztambide-Fernández, 2013; Tuck et al., 2014). Careful work is therefore necessary to ensure climate education does not

repeat colonial patterns of consumption and appropriation . . . [that] tend to result in extractive engagements with marginalized knowledge that are then instrumentalized back into whitestream frames to affirm perceived colonial entitlements, securities, and certainties (Ahenakew, 2016). No single knowledge system contains “the answers” for how to face ongoing but intensifying social and ecological crises. We will need to learn to discern the gifts and limits of every knowledge system, as well as the gifts and limits of knowledge in general for confronting the task in front of us, which is no less than surrendering an old colonial mode of existence, and opening up new possibilities for existence. These contributions invite us to do this work with both intellectual and relational rigour.

Here, the concept of ethical relationality is helpful in supporting a relational understanding of how people may learn and act together from various positions, including in relation to the causes and impacts of climate heating. Ethical relationality is

an ecological understanding of human relationality that does not deny difference, but rather seeks to more deeply understand how our different histories and experiences position us in relation to each other. This form of relationality is ethical because it does not overlook or invisibilize the particular historical, cultural, and social contexts from which a particular person understands and experiences living in the world.

(Donald, 2009, p. 9)

Significant boundary-crossing and relationship-building are necessary to such work, particularly considering the coloniality of many education systems, which has separated, hierarchized, and individualized learning. At the same time, through climate learning grounded in ethical relationality, there is potential for healing and regeneration through everyday practices and reconnections with land, water, humans, and nonhuman relatives.


Attending to the youth climate strikes and Indigenous land-based climate and anti-fossil fuel movements in tandem opens new possibilities for reconsidering climate change in a period when it is increasingly evident that technological visions alone are insufficient to address the social and cultural elements of futures-building toward more equitable life on an already altered planet. Drawing on learning from both research and social movements, educators have a crucial task of developing climate change education that supports students to critically and creatively imagine futures that address issues of intra- and intergenerational justice, including multispecies justice, where all carry differential responsibilities for building those futures across diverse yet interconnected contexts (Gilio-Whitaker, 2019; Whyte, 2018). Moving outside a modern-colonial imaginary that “forecloses possibilities for alternative worlds to emerge or regenerate” (Stein et al., 2022, pp. 274–287), education for alternative futures may support decolonial imagining of “the end of the world as we know it” (Silva, 2014; quoted in Stein et al., 2022). By grounding climate education in Indigenous relational ontologies, there is potential for education to move past its impasse as a persistent contributor to climate change and to re-create itself toward healthier planetary relations.

Further Reading