Green students' social dilemmas

New study reveals young students' moral dilemmas on climate change

Solid scientific knowledge isn't necessarily enough to incite action. Values and perceptions are also important. That's why research on environmental education is getting increasingly curious on what role moral plays when students are asked to solve socio-scientific issues like climate change.

In a recent article published in International Journal of Science Education, centre researcher Cecilia Lundholm and Li Sternäng from Department of Education at Stockholm University have studied how a group of 14-year old Chinese students would deal with complicated issues related to climate change.

Better them than me
The findings show that the students consider emissions from cars and factories to be the main problems causing climate change.

They argue that changes must be done first and foremost by others, not immediately themselves. In other words, the student's considerations for dealing with climate change depend on whether they are talking about themselves or others.

The students were picked out from Green Schools in China which has an explicit focus on environmental education. The students were interviewed by a female biology teacher from a Beijing university.

During the interviews, the teacher tried to stimulate the discussion by challenging what the students had said. For example, when the students argued that polluting factories should be closed and the factory owners punished, she would, after some time, revisit the topic and ask the students to assume they were the owners of a factory.

When asked to consider themselves as the owners, the students took a softer, more lenient stand towards closure and punishment:

Excerpt 1: scenario when the factory owner as someone else

Li (student): there are some small factories, aren't they? They should be, all of them, forcibly, shut down if they do not install environmentally sound equipment! ...

I (Interviewer): I'm wondering what the workers would do if the factories were shut down.

Li: Workers? They would go to farms, of course.

Excerpt 2: scenario when the factory owner was him/herself

I (Interviewer): I'm wondering if you were living in this city and you were the owner of the factory, and the government asked you to close the factory. Would you close it?

Li (student): No.

Huang (student): For sure I would not.

Fang (student): Definitely not.

I: Why?

Li: To earn money.

Fang: My own exchequer would be blocked (if the factories were shut down)

Huang: I set it up with great difficulty. It can't be shut down so easily.

I: But if the government said that you had harmed the environment?

Li: Did I?

I: Yes. What would you do?

Fang: No way out.

After the discussion, Huang, Fang and Li, rather than closing down the factory, elaborated on ways to fix the environmental damage.

They're only humans
The morally inconsistent Chinese teenagers should not be judged too harshly. In fact, research on moral reasoning and development has shown that individuals may hold widely different views simultaneously.

“The way these students reason is not unique but instead typical for people faced with environmental problems. They represent what is called 'social dilemmas' where people attach more weight to their private interests than to what is best for the common good in a long-term perspective," says co-author Cecilia Lundholm.

Dealing with these dilemmas is difficult, but Lundholm and Sternäng argue that teachers should not avoid talking about the complex issues of moral, social and societal aspects.

“We believe moral and social dilemmas are worthy of being addressed in environmental education because it would allow the students to gain knowledge of these dilemmas that we face," Lundholm and Sternäng conclude.

See whiteboard seminar with Cecilia Lundholm explaining the aspects of moral and values in environmental education:



Lundholm, C., Sternang, L. 2011. Climate Change and Morality: Students' perspectives on the individual and society. In International Journal of Science Education, Volume 33, Number 8, May 2011, pp. 1131-1148

About the centre author

Cecilia Lundholm's research interest concerns communication and learning about environmental and sustainability issues. In particular, the interest focuses on people's conceptions and learning about nature, society and the individual and the relationship between these.


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