Debunking False Climate Solutions in Our Classrooms

By Tim Swinehart

Illustrator: Andy Singer

Climate “solutions” are often included as the requisite finale to books, films, or stories about the climate crisis — and for good reason. When confronting one of the biggest challenges to face humanity it’s comforting to hear that we have solutions.

In the 20 years I’ve taught about the climate crisis, my students have studied and discussed a wide, and sometimes confusing, variety of “solutions,” ranging from the individual actions listed at the end of climate documentaries or carbon footprint calculators, to the beneficial climate effects of La Vía Campesina’s global food sovereignty movement. But not all climate solutions are created equal, and it’s been an ongoing discussion to help students parse legitimate attempts to address the crisis, as compared to so many false solutions that are, upon closer examination, greenwashed practices or products designed more to protect polluting industries’ profits than to protect humans and the planet. 

One resource I’ve found helpful is Hoodwinked in the Hothouse: Resist False Solutions to Climate Change, a booklet created by a consortium of grassroots climate and environmental justice organizations. Hoodwinked is a 60-page booklet (freely available online) filled with art, photos, cartoons, infographics, and links to grassroots environmental justice organizations, along with text organized into mini-chapters debunking 12 identified “false solutions” and presenting six principles for developing “real solutions.” I appreciate Hoodwinked’s principled and clear-eyed analysis rooted in the experience of frontline climate organizers. It calls out the fallacy of market-based climate solutions — like carbon pricing, offsets, or cap-and-trade systems — that cynically propose to fix problems caused by an extractive capitalist economy by further commodifying the natural world, thereby prolonging the harm done to frontline communities. Hoodwinked’s authors argue these false solutions “all claim to address the climate crisis while avoiding the very underlying drivers that got us into this mess in the first place: economies of greed and hoarding; endless growth; corporate enclosure of land; erosion of biodiversity; and the exploitation of life.”

Hoodwinked is an unapologetic rebuke of mainstream environmentalism and climate policy. This is not the “all of the above” approach to climate policy characteristic of the Obama and Biden administrations, mired in contradictory attempts to combine fossil fuel industry incentives with emissions reduction targets. Instead, Hoodwinked looks critically at solutions often promoted as part of the “green economy,” including carbon pricing, “nature-based solutions” (like forest carbon offsets), biofuels, natural gas, hydrogen, waste incineration, nuclear power, hydroelectric, and carbon capture — and even wind and solar energy. A common theme throughout is the failed opportunity to truly solve the ecological and social injustices of the climate crisis — especially in the case of wind and solar — if we simply swap one extractive, industrial energy system based on fossil fuels for a different extractive, industrial energy system based on the rare earth metals required to cover the landscape and coastlines with large-scale wind and solar farms.

Hoodwinked’s analysis is always based in the lives of the majority BIPOC communities who experience the greatest negative impacts, not only of the climate crisis, but of technologies and practices presented as solutions as well. Carbon offsets, for example, central to most carbon pricing systems, allow industries to keep polluting by paying for offsets, or “allowances,” that are directed toward supposedly climate-friendly projects elsewhere. The Hoodwinked authors explain that this perpetuates environmental injustices in at least two ways: Companies don’t have to clean up pollution “in areas disproportionately populated by communities of color and poor communities,” and the carbon offset projects themselves “are often exploitive and restrict land sovereignty and rights of Indigenous Peoples as well as land access of Black people and other People of Color and low-income communities.” 

Instead of market-based solutions, Hoodwinked authors argue for a climate justice solutions framework that “does not reduce the climate crisis to a puzzle simply focused on counting carbon.” Instead they urge us to follow the lead of the “grassroots, community-led movements around the world [that] look across the economy — at the exploitation of land, labor, and living systems; at the erosion of seed, soil, story, and spirit, and seek to lift up real solutions around us every day.”

Hoodwinked in the Classroom

I’ve used Hoodwinked in my environmental justice class in an end-of-year unit on “just solutions.” Students spent time researching the false solutions identified in Hoodwinked to prepare for a “research-based mixer” with classmates. Because I love the format of role plays that get students out of their seats, moving around the room and teaching one another through storytelling, I try to replicate the mixer process whenever possible. Students researched one false solution and one principle for real solutions from Hoodwinked, and then responded to prompts to prepare for the one-on-one conversations with classmates during the research mixer.

I asked students to take notes as they researched their chosen false solution: “What are important vocabulary terms, facts, and/or historical context that will help you tell the story of this false solution to your classmates? What arguments in Hoodwinked are most important for explaining why this is a false solution? What questions or thoughts are you left with after reading about this false solution?” I was glad to have included the last question, because students raised legitimate questions about whether some of the false solutions identified in Hoodwinked — a carbon tax, for example — could be implemented as short-term improvements.

If Hoodwinked focused only on critiquing false solutions, it would be a disempowering narrative for students to confront, but the authors chose to conclude with six principles to guide genuine solutions to the climate crisis. 

As students prepared for our mixer, they also chose one guiding principle for real solutions from Hoodwinked, and took notes in response to two prompts: “What’s important about how this principle is described or explained? What example(s) are given of how this principle has guided action in the world?” One student, Chloe, researched the fourth principle that “real solutions must replace economies of greed with economies that serve ecological and human need,” and chose to share with other students that this principle promotes “concepts of caring, sharing, solidarity, and mutual aid that are brought to life in organizations like the Indigenous land cooperative Tierra Y Libertad and the Detroit Black Community Food Security Network.” 

During the research-mixer, conversations were lively as students collected information from their classmates about two additional false solutions and one additional real solution. During discussions with one another, I heard more than one student wonder aloud “What can we do, if all these solutions are supposed to be false?” And in our debrief conversation after the mixer, students asked for more concrete “real” solutions than those offered in the climate justice guiding principles in Hoodwinked, which is a fair criticism, given that some examples provided feel a bit removed from climate justice organizing. 

But in the end, students seemed grateful for the opportunity to consider a different perspective on so many of the climate “solutions” they had taken for granted prior to the lesson. Addison shared what she saw as the main difference between false and real solutions in her final reflection: “I find it interesting that a lot of false solutions are super technologically advanced or reliant on big corporations. The real solutions are more about creating community and using local practices in order to create new systems.” 

Tim Swinehart ( teaches at Lincoln High School in Portland, Oregon. He co-edited A People’s Curriculum for the Earth: Teaching Climate Change and the Environmental Crisis.