How to incorporate climate justice in the language classroom

Language teachers have a key role in ensuring that students not only engage with the climate crisis but with climate justice too.

A guest blog by Mariana Roccia

According to the World Bank, there will be around 200 million people who will be displaced due to climate change by 2050. As Goulah and Katunich highlight, this situation will unquestionably pose new challenges to the English language teaching (ELT) classroom, with more students having to learn English in often traumatic situations. With this scenario looming ahead, climate justice is a key element to include in the language classroom.

English language teachers have a key role in ensuring that students suffering from climate displacement adapt to their new community and new environments. But what is climate justice?

What is climate justice?

There are many definitions but, at its core, climate justice acknowledges that climate change is not only an environmental problem but a social and political issue as well.

Importantly, the environmental and climate crises were not created equally by everyone nor are their effects distributed equally. Climate justice is about acknowledging this imbalance and striving for not only an environmental action but also against discrimination, inequality and racism.

Environmental degradation, pollution, floods, fires and displacement disproportionately affect marginalised people and communities. Although climate change will impact everyone, it is impacting the poorest people, women, black people and people of colour and other underserved groups first and worst.

What’s more, many victims of climate change have contributed little or nothing to the problem. North America and Europe have released almost half of all cumulative emissions. Whereas the entire continent of Africa has contributed just 3%, for example.

These layers make climate justice a necessary but a complex topic to approach in the language classroom.

The Six Pillars for Climate Justice

The Six Pillars for Climate Justice break down the concept into key areas that can help us address the multidimensional complexity of the problem:

  1. Just transition
  2. Social, racial and environmental justice
  3. Indigenous climate action
  4. Community resilience and adaptation
  5. Natural climate solutions
  6. Climate education and engagement.

The sixth pillar, climate education and engagement, is particularly useful for language teachers. It emphasises that examining the roots of the cause will give us a better understanding of why we need to consume less, why we need to repurpose, reduce and generally rethink our lifestyles.

The Center for Climate Justice highlights that:

We need education not only based on climate science but also on the ways in which climate change is deeply intertwined with a range of other social, racial and environmental issues that define our daily lived experiences.”

For social change to actually happen, we need to combine efforts with other disciplines and language learning is not exempt from this task.

Why is climate justice relevant to language teaching?

There are deep historical connections between the inequalities people experience and the use of language, particularly the English language, and how it has been used to promote often aspirational and unsustainable values. For indigenous peoples, climate change is arguably a continuation of colonialism – a claim that has also been raised in the latest IPCC report.

Developing students’ understanding of these cause-and-effect connections that affect people around the world is just one of the aspects to focus on the language classroom to raise awareness of climate justice.  But this task requires working alongside other disciplines such as geography, science, and history.

To engage students and teach them the importance of cross-disciplinary collaborations, consider teaming up with other teachers for projects and involve students in decision making as much as possible.  

Incorporating climate justice in the classroom

One way to actively include climate justice in the classroom is by developing eco-critical language awareness (Eco-CLA). This means focusing on values of social justice and having explicit conversations about power relationships and language in the classroom.

Ecolinguistics can also help in emphasising how these relationships impact broader ecosystems by looking at how specific patterns of language can reinforce harmful environmental practices but also promote positive alternative stories.

Marco Micalay-Hurtado and Robert Poole outline five principles for eco-critical language awareness that can be applied to the language classroom:

Eco-CLA presents learning as bound to the physical world and its many human and nonhuman animal inhabitants.

Failing to acknowledge how deeply connected we are with nature has led us to this environmental crisis. Humans and nature are not two separate things.

Eco-CLA promotes wellbeing and sustainability as common sense.

Schools play a crucial role in developing students’ worldviews and promoting values that later become the norm. Therefore, teachers have a role guiding students in identifying damaging narratives and giving them the tools to challenge them.

Eco-CLA promotes the development of ecological consciousness by engaging students in localised sustainable thinking.

Make it about them, not you. This principle focuses on engaging with students in creative ways that invite them to reflect on their local sustainability issues, their communities and lived experiences and how climate change is affecting them.

Working and engaging with the local community is at the core of the Six Pillars for Climate Justice since solutions can arise from these interactions. Field work and collaborative ways with their communities is more relevant to the students than working with instructional materials that reflect little on their reality.

Eco-CLA advocates for students negatively affected by climate change, especially for students from marginalised communities.

This principle draws attention to exploring the intersection of social justice, environmental action and political engagement. Highlighting unsustainable practices and exposing power relationships that promote cultural and linguistic imperialism are one of the crucial elements for developing students’ advocacy.

A pedagogical application of eco-CLA promotes language instruction that presents multiple English varieties as equal.

By teaching “englishes” (plural and uncapitalised) teachers will be encouraging students to develop diverse anglophone identities and will be less likely to incorporate unsustainable practices attached to historically standardised English varieties. This is another opportunity for teachers not to be part of the linguistic imperialism issue by incorporating other types of varieties to their classroom.

Climate justice is not a straightforward item to include in the classroom. It has multiple layers and can be a complex and divisive topic. Be critical of what to include in the lesson plan and engage colleagues, students and members of the community as much as possible. Remember that involvement is crucial for supporting climate justice both at academic and civic levels and enabling social change.

Learn more

There are many resources freely accessible online. Here’s a list of some useful sites:

Watch Mariana’s presentation on climate justice for Green Action ELT in January 2023 below or view our full webinar library.

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