Teaching climate change communication in the (virtual) undergraduate classroom

Jill Hopke's picture

As an IECA Educator Fellow it is a pleasure to share my experience teaching climate communications. If you are thinking of developing university coursework focused on climate change communication or climate journalism, I would love to chat with you.

I developed and designed an undergraduate climate change communication course at DePaul University, which I first taught for the first time in winter 2018. I most recently taught an Honors Program version of the course in DePaul’s winter term.

The nuts and bolts of teaching climate communication

Climate change communication is a subject that lends itself well to university core liberal studies requirements. At DePaul my course fills a general education Social, Cultural and Behavioral Inquiry requirement in the university’s Liberal Studies Program. This also helps bring interested students to the course who otherwise might not be able to fit it into their course schedules.

Screenshot of my concluding lecture on what research suggests about the role of emotions in climate messaging.Since my course is cross-listed between the Journalism and Communication Studies programs, the class does not have any required prerequisites. It also fills an environmental communication requirement for environmental studies and sciences students, in addition to being included in Environmental Communication and Climate Change Science and Policy undergraduate minors. As such, my classes have drawn students from a wide range of academic background and majors. In addition to communication students, the class attracts students majoring in environmental studies and sciences, as well as hospitality studies, marketing, theater and art, among others.

Even though my course is a communication one, I have found that it is important to provide the students with a common grounding in the basics of climate science and policy. While some of my students have come to the class with a solid background in climate science, the majority do not.

As we do introductions at the start of the term, students often share that they feel overwhelmed about climate change and don’t feel they know much about it. Wanting to get better at having conversations with family and friends about climate change is an oft-stated motivation for taking the course. Therefore, I spend the first week of each term giving an overview of the basics of climate science and the history of international climate negotiations. Students will need to understand a lot of UN-jargon to be successful at understanding course readings, e.g. IPCC, UNFCCC, net zero.

In shifting the course to an online format during the coronavirus pandemic, a hybrid course structure worked well in my most recent offering. For each weekly module I created pre-recorded lectures, usually two per week at 15-20 minutes each.

Module topics I cover in a 10-week quarter include:

  • Worldviews, Perceptions of Climate Science and the Politics of Climate Denial
  • The Case of Exxon and Debunking Misinformation
  • Reporting on Climate Change as a Crisis
  • Reporting on Climate Impacts and Solutions
  • Climate Change in Popular Culture and Developing New Climate Narratives
  • Climate Visuals and Climate Change Advocacy Campaigns

I also bring discussions of environmental racism and climate justice into my teaching. I give particular attention to environmental justice issues in Chicago, such as community activists longtime work to shut down two coal-fired power plants and the botched demolition of one of these former plants early in the COVID-19 pandemic. In my most recent class we had a visit from a Chicago-based environmental justice reporter which students appreciated the chance to hear from. We talked over the course of the term about parallels in the disproportionate impacts of the coronavirus pandemic and climate change on communities of color.

Course readings and project ideas

For course readings, have opted not to use a specific textbook. Rather, I assign a mix of academic book chapters and peer-reviewed articles, along with a few articles from the Oxford Encyclopedia of Climate Change Communication and online articles (e.g. from the New York Times climate desk).

Since students in a course like this one likely come, as mine do, from a variety of academic backgrounds, it is a good idea to build choice into the major assignments. For the final project in my classes I have moved away from assigning a traditional academic research paper. Rather, I give students a couple of tailored final project options each term.

Final project prompts I have used are:

  • A communication strategy analysis of an organization or individual’s public climate messaging with their recommendations for improvement.
  • A journalistic long-form article that is an in-depth piece of original reporting investigating an angle related to local climate impacts or solutions.
  • A re-imagining social life essay that asks students to imagine a carbon-free, sustainable future in 2050 (an idea I got from my intrepid DePaul colleague Dr. Barb Willard).

Helpful resources for getting started

Screenshot of Climate Outreach’s searchable database of climate visuals. One of the exciting, and sometimes challenging, aspects of teaching to a students from a wide range of academic disciplines is that at times it can be challenging to hit the right mix of specificity (for example explaining core communication concepts such as framing theory) in a way that gives students who do not come from a communications background, or with prior coursework in climate change science, the framework they need to succeed while keeping the interest of students who come to the course with a strong background in these topical areas.

A few of the resources I have found helpful in designing my course:

Teaching history and hope in climate communication courses

In my experience, students are very interested in learning about the history of climate denial in the United States. The first time I taught climate communication I covered climate denialism towards the end of the term. However, I found the theme came up throughout the term as we discussed other topics, and in student questions. Students come to courses like these having experienced polarization on climate issues in their families and are curious as to why things are this way. Now I cover the history of climate denial in week two of my course. I have found that many of the later topics we cover build off of this historical background.

In addition, as I have learned from the mentorship of my colleague Dr. Willard, it is critical to give students a space to be hopeful about the future, and their own futures, on our shared changing planet.

In reflections at the end of the term, my recent cohort of honors students shared what gives them hope about climate change. The themes in their responses included talking about youth activism and sensing a cultural shift, coming away from the class feeling empowered that they have the power to make a difference and realizing that climate change is not just a scientific problem but in the words of one student is “an everything problem.” Students also commented that being able to take classes like this one gives them hope.


About the Author: 

Jill Hopke is an Assistant Professor of Journalism in the College of Communication at DePaul University, where she teaches climate change communication. She is currently researching climate journalism newsletters and started her own, which you can check out at: https://climatechangecommunicated.substack.com/