Derek Gladwin is an Assistant Professor in Language & Literacy Education, a UBC Sustainability Initiative Sustainability Fellow (2018-2021), and Senior Editor, Oxford Encyclopedia of Environmental & Sustainability Education. 

This story originally featured on July 28, 2021, in the Oxford University Press's blog 'Academic Insights for the Thinking World'.

As citizens of this planet, we remain at an impasse when it comes to drastically changing the course of our environmental futures. At the heart of this impasse is climate change and the future of human and more-than-human survival. And yet, a significant key to potentially resolving climate change revolves around how we communicate with and relate to others.

Dismantling knowledge deficit models of education

Advocacy for climate change justice must pivot away from an assumption that people simply lack knowledge about the issues. Or, worse, that people should be shamed for being ignorant. While it may be true that people aren’t often educated about environmental risks caused by human behaviour, deficit educational models nevertheless present an unsustainable path forward.

Information or knowledge deficit models are built on the belief that increasing knowledge can be a primary motivator of social change. Deficit framing arose historically out of an attempt to sway public scepticism toward supporting scientific and technological advances. If people can simply remedy their lack of knowledge, according to this didactic approach, then they will eventually change their behaviour and attitudes.

In environmental education, this tactic has been a common misstep. It’s easy to see why the deficit model has been the primary mode of environmental communication since the 1980s and remains so to this day. There is some linear logic to it—filling educational gaps in knowledge can solve the problem. However, the evidence continually suggests that it doesn’t work.

Shifting attitudes and beliefs about climate change must do more than unilaterally telling social groups, often different from our own sociocultural backgrounds, that they are wrong. This deficit model uses a top-down flow of knowledge and creates an inherent hierarchy between the expert (knowledge holder) and audience (empty container). Rather than perform its intended outcome of motivating social change, the deficit model intensifies polarization and hostility.

As researchers have pointed out for decades, economic status, geographical location, and racial identity affect a person’s or group’s access to education. In other words, education can be significantly inequitable and so can the ways knowledge might be transferred and understood within deficit models. Labelling deficit or lack on any one individual or group only generates more animosity and division because of these systemic sociocultural dynamics.

Regardless, the deficit model remains a primary strategy for climate justice communication and other forms of environmental education in institutional and public contexts. Even if we can agree to move on from this model, where might we go from here?

Activating empathy

Research indicates that people view climate change through political affiliation more than science. Communicating through what politicians now excel at—speaking to perceived values and beliefs more than policy and facts—might be a significant indicator of how to reach people. A way to do this could be by promoting pro-social programs of empathy education that activate shared values.

Professor Pat Dolan, who is the UNESCO Chair in Children, Youth, and Civic Engagement, shows that empathy arises from both static forms (identifying with people) and active forms (acting on the feelings of static empathy to activate change) of engagement. “Empathy isn’t sympathy,” as Dolan says in The Irish Times. “It’s about valuing, respecting and understanding another person’s view.” Without understanding social, cultural, economic, or racial differences, we cannot fully engage in or promote static and active empathy.

Deficit models of education and learning are built upon the Western paradigm of individualism, where individuals alone are responsible for their lack of knowledge. This approach to education isn’t only ineffective and inequitable, it also contributes to creating a civic society rooted in discord and opposition. The culture of deficit is a central reason contentious issues often remain deadlocked.

Empathy education, in contrast, is built on reciprocity and relationships; it’s forged by connection and belonging through relational models. Empathy is ultimately created through social conditions, informing a person’s interactions or the ways people understand and respond to each other.

Research highlights how activating empathy can deter anti-social acts, such as racism, violence, or climate denial, and enable pro-social behaviours. Empathy also increases cooperation and participation on collectively shared issues.

The practice of empathy, which is a product of a social situation as much as an individual’s response to social dynamics, requires establishing relationships across social divides. Empathy education allows people to build on overlapping values and relate to each other. Only through relational learning will we build empathy and overcome divisive communications about climate change and other environmental or social issues.

Finding consensus

When activating empathy rather than deficit, the key ingredient isn’t necessarily absolute agreement. Despite a seeming trend to focus on absolute agreement, whether it’s in politics, social media, professional contexts, or in our own families, what may be more important is remembering how we can build consensus. This leads to finding places of intersection on collectively held pro-social issues.

Building empathy in social and civic contexts relies upon a commitment to consensus more than complete agreement. Empathetic approaches to climate justice might just lead to greater social change as well as a more connected society.


Derek Gladwin is the author or editor of several books, including Ecological Exile (2018) and Rewriting our Stories (2021), and serves as Senior Editor for Environmental & Sustainability Education in the Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Education.