Who am I in a Changing Climate?

Karen Litfin, Department of Political Science, University of Washington
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In my "Global Environmental Politics" course, students study climate change from a range of levels of analysis: local, regional, national and international. As students become aware of the gap between the scientific consensus regarding what would be required to stabilize Earth's climate and actual policies, they inevitably experience varying degrees of anxiety, frustration, and even guilt for their own complicity. Rather than evading these emotional responses, I endeavor to make space for them in the classroom - without compromising the intellectual content of the course or engaging in group therapy. My approach to climate change is informed by my general approach to teaching international relations, which I call "person/planet politics." Rather than seeing the causes of and responses to climate change as merely happening "out there," students are encouraged to bring the material home by engaging with it through minds, hearts and bodies.

Learning Goals

This exercise reflects my general approach to international relations, an approach I call "person/planet politics." The central question entailed with respect to any subject - loss of biodiversity, fast food, the Arab Spring, etc. - is, "Who am I in relation to this?" My intention is to overcome the sense of abstractness that can often come with the study of large-scale, far-flung issues. In my experience, when people have a greater sense of connection to any "object" of study, they enjoy a greater sense of inner connection. This practice is especially valuable for college students, for whom the developmental task is to discover who they are in the world.

This particular exercise is aimed towards developing students' capacities for self-inquiry, self-awareness and integrative learning. I have intentionally designed this exercise to be fairly open-ended, without narrowly circumscribed learning objectives. Each time I take students through this guided meditation, I am surprised by the kinds of insights that it catalyzes for the students.

Context for Use

One of the ways that I create a sense of intimacy in my large-lecture courses is by incorporating contemplative exercises. While I generally use this exercise with upper-level undergraduates after spending two weeks on the science and politics of global climate change, it could be adapted to other global or seeming abstract issues.

The exercise takes 15-20 minutes and requires no special equipment. I generally offer my more deeply personal contemplative exercises, such as this one, at the end of an 80-minute class period. This gives students who do not wish to participate the opportunity to leave if they wish. Over the years, I have found that one or two students will leave when I first begin introducing contemplative exercises, usually in the third or fourth week of the quarter, but eventually they all choose to participate.

Description and Teaching Materials

Who am I in a changing climate?

Grappling with the Overwhelming through Guided Self-Inquiry

[Invite anybody who does not wish to participate in this exercise to leave.]

Sit in a comfortable yet alert position. You may wish to close your eyes. If you leave them open, please have them downcast so as not to make others feel uncomfortable. Feel yourself in your chair and take a couple of deep breaths as you feel increasingly settled.

We have spent the last two weeks studying climate change, and you have learned that there is a strong scientific consensus that our Earth's climate system is being destabilized by human activity. Take a moment to let this information sink in. Notice any reactions that arise. Notice any emotions. Notice what happens in your body as you sit with this information. Simply observe.

We also learned that people living in developing countries, people who are already living on the edge but whose greenhouse gas emissions are minimal, will be most dramatically affected by global climate change. Again, notice what happens in your body as you sit with this information. Just notice.

Also notice any aversion in your mind or body to sitting with this information. If your mind wants to run in another direction, just notice. And breathe.

We've also learned that some people's lifestyles are responsible for emitting far more greenhouse gases than others. As Americans, we emit (on average) about four times the global average. Again, sit and watch whatever arises.

Now take breathe into your belly and simply relax. There's nothing you need to do, nowhere you need to go. This is your time to simply be.

Into this empty space, allow yourself to return to these big issues around climate change, and introduce the question very gently but with focus: Who am I in relation to all of this?

Introduce the question into the silence: Who am I in relation to global climate change? And simply observe what arises, and take note.

[Repeat this a few times]

Consider that the world you are entering as a young adult is a very different world than the world of any previous generation. Our species has embarked upon a planetary experiment and you will be living in the results of that experiment. Who are you as you enter this world?

Just welcome whatever comes as a guest: images, emotions, ideas, sensations. Simply be an open field of perception, asking yourself who you are in relation to the issue of global climate change.


As you prepare to bring your focus back into the classroom, take note of what has transpired and any reactions you might have to your own experience.

Now take a breath and open your eyes slowly.

Take a few minutes to gather the harvest by writing whatever notes you might wish to write to yourself.

Teaching Notes and Tips

This exercise should not be rushed: I recommend a minimum of 15 minutes, including a few minutes at the end for gathering the harvest. Long pauses of about a minute can help to deepen the students' self-inquiry; with longer pauses, some students' minds will wander.

If you want to give students the opportunity to share their insights, a quick and effective way of doing this in a large-lecture setting is to ask each student to say one word that best encapsulates their experience. I start at the back of the room and move to the front, switchback style, repeating each word and conveying its emotional tone. This ensures that each student's word is heard by the entire class. This final piece, which can be a very satisfying way of creating a greater sense of collective intimacy, requires an additional 5-10 minutes. I am always surprised by the diversity and intensity of the students' words.


The first time I used this exercise in class, I invited my students to complete an online assessment. The results were as follows:

I gained important insights about myself from this exercise: 29%
I enjoyed taking a break from my busy day 67%
I wish I had left when I was invited to do so in the beginning 4%

The personal feedback I've received from students has made an even greater impression on me. Some have recalled childhood memories that suggest a career path they had not previously considered. Some who never said a word in class have shared their experience of the class with me after this exercise. One student, a veteran who had just returned from Iraq and who had expressed a good deal of anger and frustration in class, spoke with me privately after class and tearfully thanked me for this exercise.

References and Resources