Sarah Wolfe is a professor in the School of Environment and Sustainability, and Steve Grundy is professor emeritus, at Royal Roads University. This work is supported by Ms. Wolfe’s SSHRC Partnership Development Grant.
Climate change endangers our ecosystems, economies and health. Wildfire smoke, extreme temperatures, intensified storms, and food and water insecurities acutely threaten our well-being.
Canada needs a lot of expertise to fix these problems, and employment estimates project there will be more than 50,000 new environment-related job openings and nearly 200,000 job replacements required in the field within the next decade. But our work force is aging toward retirement, and the fast-moving realities of environmental management and science demand continuous educational upgrading.
Yet, just when we need new environmental experts the most, student numbers seem to be declining. We spoke to a few colleagues across the country on the matter: At one Ontario university, the incoming undergraduate environment studies numbers are down by more than 50 per cent. At a British Columbia university, the graduate environment enrolments would be flat if not for the international student intake. An East Coast university shows flat graduate environmental-policy enrolments, while environmental science numbers are down by over 30 per cent since 2018. Other Canadian universities won’t share their numbers.
When enrolments decline, university administrators often point to things like demographics and labour-market strength as culprits. Such factors may help explain general declines, but environmental programs seem particularly hard hit. Why?
University programs that are focused on environmental and climate issues seem to be uniquely susceptible to enrolment declines. We’ve identified three interrelated factors. First, today’s potential students have already been inundated – even overwhelmed – by climate content. This voracious, media-consuming generation grew up with Fern Gully’s rain forest loss, Avatar’s mining villains, and Thanos’s nihilistic, pseudo-environmentalist population-control strategy in the Marvel “cinematic universe.” Their kindergarten-to-high-school curriculum was infused with climate issues, albeit inconsistently across the provinces. These same students have come of age seeing or experiencing the horrible effects of climate change as their communities have flooded and the skies have been saturated with wildfire smoke.
Second, potential students have watched as environmental issues have become dangerously politicized. Wind power in Texas offers a telling example. As the Nobel Prize-winning economist Paul Krugman notes, wind power offers economic, health and climate benefits, yet hostility to wind installations has devolved into rage. The state’s anti-wind movement hasn’t arisen primarily from ignorance or even the influence of the fossil-fuel industry. Rather, it’s an angry “anti-woke contagion.” Only the most ideologically committed students would intentionally build careers in such toxic, socially divided real-world and online spaces.
Third, decades of psychology research help explain not only this anger and polarization, but another key source of students’ reluctance to pursue degrees in environmental studies. Researchers in a field called Terror Management Theory have learned that when people are implicitly or explicitly reminded of their unavoidable future deaths, they use predictable defences to repress that awareness. These fear defences include denial, rationalization, distraction, self-esteem building, consumerism, hardening one’s worldviews (“I’m right, you’re wrong”), and antagonism toward groups defined as “other.” Unfortunately, climate change is a pervasive mortality reminder for everyone on the planet.
Mortality defences draw upon pre-existing worldviews and entrenched identities. This means that universities recruiting for environmental programs are now tapping a smaller pool of young people already deeply committed to environmental causes, rather than the larger pool of those who have general interests.
Persistent mortality reminders also realign students’ priorities: those who are disillusioned, burnt out by youth activism, or immobilized by fear about the world’s state are likely enrolling in different programs. They’ll pursue an education that’s self-esteem driven and culturally valued – for example, medicine, engineering, finance, or law. And those who still want to act decisively against climate change are now too impatient to sit in a classroom. They’ll strengthen their pre-existing, pro-environmental identities elsewhere – we see this with the rise of civil disobedience campaigns like the Extinction Rebellion, corporate naming and shaming campaigns, and increasingly assertive youth environmental activism.
If we are to train the next generation of climate scientists, technicians, policy- and culture-makers, what’s to be done?
First, when we’re teaching, we need to acknowledge the emotions evoked by environmental issues – and not just climate anxiety, but all of the emotions associated with climate uncertainty, including joy, awe, shame and guilt. Second, we must recognize the power of our fear defences in polarizing and derailing environmental learning, collaboration, and progress, counteracting these processes by offering students more outdoor education, program exchanges, field courses, and project-based learning.
And lastly, we must help students build their pro-environmental identities and sense of agency. Theories are great, but practise is better. With strong support from universities and teachers, we can model an all-hands-on-deck effort to fight the climate crisis.