Systems Thinking in Climate Education

This blog post was written by our Climate Educator Stacy Taylor Brown.

As an attempt to reduce carbon emissions and combat the climate crisis in the early 2000s, Western countries, led by the U.S., passed laws encouraging vegetable oil use in fuels. As a result, palm oil cultivation accelerated in Indonesia. Large areas of peatland forests were slashed and burned to make space for palm oil farms, releasing a huge amount of trapped carbon into the atmosphere and leading to the largest single-year global increase in carbon emissions in two millennia. The region's palm oil boom emboldened corporations to use their wealth and power to silence critics, abuse workers, and buy up more land to produce more palm oil. 

OilPalm_DSC_9183.JPGThe palm oil disaster is an example of what happens when we ignore systems thinking, when we solve for part of an issue without considering the full, global scale.

We often teach climate topics as distinct subjects - population and consumption, energy policy, land use, forestry - when we should be looking at these topics as an interconnected web; adjustments in one area will absolutely impact the others. The present state of the climate has been hugely shaped by the intersection of history, culture, policy, power, biology, geochemistry, and economics, and we need to include all of these in climate education. 

We Need to Teach Systems Thinking to Students

stacy NYA classroom.jpgStacy teaching a class of high schoolers.Before coming to ReVision Energy, I taught high school social studies. As a teacher, I believed the critical thinking skills I taught were the most important because these skills could apply to all aspects of students’ lives. My students broke down historical events and ideas to see the whole as a sum of its parts. Systems thinking, on the other hand, asks students to see topics through a wider lens, and understand what external forces have led to their development.

For example: Critical thinking means breaking down the Civil Rights era into small parts like ending segregation and obtaining voting rights. Systems thinking means looking at the Civil Rights era in the global context, and understanding that systemic racist policies are deeply embedded in American society, and are part of a much larger colonial legacy that continues to impact the entire world.

Most topics covered in schools are dynamic and complex, so we need a more holistic approach to understanding them; we need to teach systems thinking across curriculum. When systems thinking is applied to any political, economic, or social system, we shift the way we see the world.

Systems Thinking in Climate Education


MicrosoftTeams-image (7).pngNew England schools’ climate education curriculum has been rated highly by several environmental education non-profits including the North American Association of Environmental Education. This is encouraging because it means students in our region are learning that climate damage is one of the most pressing challenges of our time, with far-reaching implications for the future of our planet and its people.

However, many students still struggle to understand the complexities of climate change and the various factors that contribute to it. This is where we need systems thinking. By taking a holistic approach to climate education, we can better equip students with the knowledge and skills they need to tackle this urgent issue. 

I want students to see the world for how it truly is: a dynamic, chaotic, interconnected array of relationships and feedback loops. This is why systems thinking is a core aspect of my education goals at ReVision Energy, and why I want to encourage my fellow educators, regardless of teaching subject, to try to incorporate systems thinking into curriculum. 

Use interdisciplinary approaches.

By bringing together experts from different fields, such as climate science, economics, and social sciences, we can better understand the ways in which these different factors interact and develop more effective solutions.

Emphasize the interconnectedness of real-world issues.

Climate change is not just an environmental problem, but a social and economic one as well. By emphasizing the ways in which these different factors are interconnected, we can help people to see the importance of addressing all aspects of the problem.

Highlight feedback loops and tipping points.

Feedback loops and tipping points are important concepts in systems thinking that can help people understand the potential consequences of many societal issues. By showing how changes in one part of the system can have far-reaching consequences, we can help people understand the urgency of addressing the problem. See below for some great resources on how to incorporate these models into your curriculum.

Use case studies and real-world examples.

Case studies and examples like the palm oil story above can be powerful tools for helping people understand the complexities of issues and the importance of systems thinking. By showing how different factors interact in real-world situations, we can help people see the importance of taking a holistic approach to climate solutions.

For more information about the critical role of systems thinking in understanding and finding solutions for the world’s most intractable problems, including the climate crisis, please refer to these amazing resources:

Systems Thinking ( ​​
Iceberg Thinking, part 1
Causal Diagrams 
Thinking Tools Studio

Tools for Systems Thinkers: The 6 Fundamental Concepts of Systems Thinking
Tools for Systems Thinkers: Getting into Systems Dynamics… and Bathtubs 
Tools for Systems Thinkers: Systems Mapping