There’s no denying it: Sino-American relations have suffered in recent years. But one issue on which China and the U.S. have atrack record of successful cooperation—climate change—retains great potential for future collaboration. And the need for it couldn’t be greater. Though Chinese and Americans have recently grown more distant from one another due to the pandemic and political rifts, our collective futures are growing ever more closely intertwined—and imperiled—by our collective climate crisis. In the face of this collective threat, a multinational team of environmental educators at Cornell University’s Civic Ecology Lab have been using online courses to link citizens of China, the U.S., and other nations, and inspire them to take action against climate change. Harnessing the power of the internet and social media, this innovative effort illustrates both the opportunities and obstacles of online education and environmental activism at a time of social and political distancing.
Although environmental education is typically associated with outdoor, in-person experiences, it can also be effectively practiced online, particularly when training educators. In fact, online environmental education began well before the onset of the recent pandemic. Led by environmental education specialist Dr. Marianne Krasny, Cornell’s Civic Ecology Lab began offering online courses in environmental education in 2011. Then, in 2017, Dr. Yue Li, a Chinese research associate in Krasny’s lab, dramatically expanded Chinese participation in those courses. To complement the lab’s funding from the U.S. EPA, Dr. Li secured additional support from China’s Paradise Foundation and The Nature Conservancy, which supported developing and teaching online courses for a global audience. Dr Li also assembled a team of ten Chinese language assistants who provided translation, interpretation and facilitation to assist the course’s Chinese participants. In the first course that was introduced to China, Chinese citizens accounted for more than half the participants. Since that time, Cornell’s online courses have continued to attract large numbers of Chinese, who on average now constitute a full third of the total participants (U.S. students account for a further third, with the remaining third hailing from approximately 50 other countries, mostly in the global South). Lab members attributed the high number of Chinese participants to “the large interest in and demand for environmental education training in China.”
Dr. Li herself is an example of this interest. As an undergraduate in Soil and Water Conservation at Beijing Forestry University, Li took part in an environment-focused student club which introduced her to a range of environmental NGOs (ENGOs). While doing her Masters in Natural Resources, she interned with one such ENGO, Jane Goodall’s Roots and Shoots, which inspired a passion for environmental education. That was a decade ago; at the time, Li knew of no Chinese graduate programs where she could pursue this passion. Instead, she went online—and found Dr. Krasny’s lab at Cornell.
As a PhD student at Cornell, she would continue to explore the power of the internet to facilitate environmental education. When Li arrived at Cornell in 2011, Krasny had just received a major grant from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to develop professional development opportunities for North America-based environmental educators, and some of that training took the form of small online classes. After experimenting for several years with this small-scale format, in 2016 Krasny decided to go global by offering a hybrid professional development course to a much larger international audience of environmental educators. The course was a tremendous success, attracting more than 2,000 participants from around the world, and it led to an ongoing series of such courses, including a course entitled Network Climate Action: Scaling Up Your Impact. During the courses, Krasny and her colleagues found students eagerly embracing the use of social media such as Facebook, WhatsApp and WeChat as platforms for informal interaction and community-building. In fact, many students stayed in touch with one another through social media even after the course had finished. In response, Krasny and her team developed the Network Climate Action course to teach students how to utilize their networks of social media and interpersonal interactions with family and friends as means of motivating climate action.
Li sums up the advantages of online learning in three words: flexibility, equity and community. The online format gives students flexibility and convenience. In addition, online courses enhance equity in access to resources. The courses now feature students from over 50 countries, in many of which access to formal environmental education training opportunities is limited or nonexistent: the Cornell classes make the course fee optional for qualifying students. Finally, the online format enables students around the world to build a global community of environmental educators across cultural and national boundaries. Community is created in multiple ways, including interactive discussion boards, social media groups for informal interaction, weekly webinars with chats, and student capstone presentations.
In the recent network climate action course, community was also important as a site of action. As Dr. Li puts it, “We ask participants to take action, but also ask them to influence their networks to take action with them.” As they learn about concepts such as complex contagion of behaviors, social networks and social marketing, participants are putting them into practice in their personal networks of family and friends by becoming nodes of influence for action to mitigate climate change. According to Dr. Li, “It’s pretty cool to see the ripple effects and see them spread across different networks.”
To be sure, obstacles to community building and collective action remain. Since Chinese participants can’t access WhatsApp, the course organizers ended up creating a separate platform for them on WeChat. And with the recent increase in Sino-U.S. friction, Chinese participants’ access to the course platform has become unreliable, and it has become harder for Chinese participants to interact with their classmates using the discussion board. However, the course organizers have made the course materials available on a separate Chinese online course platform, and the weekly webinar remains a key site of interaction, with a very active chat. And the group of volunteer Chinese teaching assistants helps facilitate participation by translating and keeping Chinese students up to speed with the larger class discussions.
At a time of heightened bilateral tension and diminished direct interaction, it is critical to bear in mind our shared humanity, and our common future. As we anticipate greater amity and interaction in the near future, there are already areas in which China and the U.S. have common cause and a motivation to collaborate. Climate change mitigation is just such an area, and it is heartening to witness the potential for the internet to serve as a site of community-building as we confront the greatest global threat that humankind has ever faced. In the coming years we will need everyone to pull together, and online fora can certainly play a critical role in building and coordinating that collective will.