Contemporary environmental challenges require that decision-makers can think critically, integrate new information, and recognize their own biases. This manuscript focuses on the importance of case studies in facilitating critical thinking within the field of environmental studies and sciences, especially as it relates to higher education. Critical thinking skills are central to environmental problem-solving and can be improved through the use of case studies. After dissecting the construction of a particularly effective case study, the manuscript goes on to chronicle instances where case study examination could have engendered more positive outcomes. Ultimately, case studies can dislodge ourselves from our preconceived notions and open the door to a wider range of environmental solutions.

Contemporary environmental challenges require that decision-makers can think critically, integrate new information, and recognize their own biases. This manuscript focuses on the usefulness of case studies in facilitating critical thinking within the field of environmental studies and sciences (ESS), especially as it relates to higher education.

Environmental problems are rarely corralled into a single discipline, thus requiring the ability to integrate different types and sources of information. To do this successfully, environmental problem solvers need critical thinking skills. This has been widely acknowledged within academia, largely due to the nature of environmental issues themselves. Critical thinking allows students to unpack the difference between what appears to be the right decision (ethically or ideologically) with respect to how it squares with the nuances of the how the issue plays itself out “on the ground.” The value of critical thinking is that we reassess our own assumptions. Critical thinking skills are core to navigating our preconceptions about environmental problems and their solutions, hopefully leading to more effective solutions.

Case studies have been demonstrated, in the field of ESS and beyond, to facilitate active learning and critical thinking (Porzecanski et al., 2021). Ultimately, they can dislodge a phenomenon that regularly hampers environmental goals, namely preconceived notions as to the rules governing environmental outcomes, as well as the solutions that would be most effective with respect to the environment and social justice. Critical thinking means being willing to challenge our preexisting beliefs in the name of more effective problem-solving.

Case studies are powerful in facilitating an engaged learning environment and developing critical thinking skills. Case studies can frame environmental problems while recognizing the worldviews of different constituencies. More often than not, case studies demonstrate that instead of a correct answer, it’s often a matter of trade-offs. Case studies have the ability to shape thinkers who are able to grapple with the sometimes confounding nature of contemporary environmental problems and to forge a path to equitable solutions.

The need for critical thinking within the field of ESS is well-recognized (Porzecanski et al., 2021; Vincent et al., 2013). According to Ignatavicius (2001), critical thinkers are “outcome driven, open to new ideas, flexible, willing to change, innovative, creative, analytical, communicators, assertive, persistent, caring, energetic, risk takers, knowledgeable, resourceful, observant, intuitive, and ‘out of the box’ thinkers” (Popil, 2011, p. 37). Another definition of critical thinking is “a habit of mind characterized by the comprehensive exploration of issues and evidence before accepting or formulating an opinion or conclusion” (Rhodes, 2010 in Porzecanski et al., 2021). In this second definition, the problem comes first; the solutions come after a deep understanding thereof. The circumstances and needs of the case are derived from the question.

Despite the need for critical thinking skills in ESS, there remains a teaching and learning deficit. Porzecanski et al. (2021) argued in this journal, while critical thinking is central within the field, the execution is fundamentally lacking. In their study of over 200 conservation biology students, they found the use of case studies in ESS courses was broadly beneficial. One thing to note is that the authors emphasize the need for two points of contact. Critical thinking skills were hugely elevated when students were exposed to a second set of case studies, suggesting there is a learning curve with respect to the ability to intake potentially novel teaching tools like case studies. And perhaps the easiest bottleneck to overcome is the degree to which instructors aren’t educated as to the power of critical thinking, and thus don’t gain strategies to include active learning methods to facilitate accordingly.

Porzecanski et al. (2021) found that there was ample space to integrate case studies into the ESS curricula to further critical thinking, and multiple studies concur (e.g., Ernst & Monroe, 2006; Jones & Merrit, 1999). Kunselman and Johnson (2004) demonstrated via surveys and open-ended responses that case studies enhanced student learning, especially in the social sciences. Students showed that they wrestled with complex issues and the relationships between competing factors. Hofreiter et al. (2007) found that in a forest issues course that taught critical thinking explicitly, case studies proved effective in improving student outcomes. While the findings are not universalizable, it’s worth recognizing that case studies, when implemented in the context of ESS, have been shown to elevate critical thinking.

What is a case study? Case studies are typically based on real-world scenarios and are meant to complexify rather than simplify. They can be disruptive, unsettled, and fuel for debate. The intention is to question a theory, not prove a point (Dowd & Davidhizar, 1999). The best case studies leave students to grapple with realistic problems that have no clear solution. That said, case studies are not intended to communicate intractability or lack of agency. Rather, through working with cases, students gain an in-depth understanding as to why cases played out in the way they did. The reader is put in the shoes of the decision-maker; MIT’s web presence states, “Whether decision-based or demonstrative, case studies give students the chance to be in the shoes of a protagonist” (MIT Sloan School of Business, n.d.).

Case studies, like any teaching medium, have their drawbacks. An effort must be made to pay attention to the generalizability of a single case, lest a reader mistake a singular incident for a universal truth (Corcoran et al., 2004). That said, research has also suggested that case studies are more generalizable than they are typically given credit for (Tsang, 2014). Another trade-off with case studies is that they use methodologies as means of communicating an approach to addressing a research question, but don’t necessarily provide sufficient detail to recreate it. This is a consequence of balancing detail with generalizability. Another critique of environmental case studies at the institutional level is that they may not be consistent with broader sustainability goals of the institution (Corcoran et al., 2004).

Case studies are associated with a number of fields, but arguably the most well-known is the business community. Case studies are widely available through sustainability or environment-adjacent programs at business schools, such as New York University Stern’s School of Business, Columbia Business School, and Harvard Business School (HBS). HBS, for example, has published a number of case study modules, covering finance, marketing supply chains, and the move to a circular economy. These provide a critical contribution within business, as the field facilitates sustainability through the greening of supply chains, life cycle analysis, and other win–win solutions. But to be clear, from within the business community the objective is to cultivate leadership and management, typically with a profit orientation. Case studies are also used in medical research, anthropology, and the social sciences among fields. This journal, Case Studies in the Environment, publishes case studies from any discipline, as long as the biophysical environment is the central focus of agency.

The 2023 prizewinning Case Studies in the Environment article was entitled How Much New Forest Land Would It Take to Offset a Coal Plant’s Greenhouse Gas Emissions? An Engineering Case Study of Georgia’s Plant Scherer by Katrina Reinhart and Emily Grubert (2022). In this section, we will discuss the broader context of this case study, why it was so effective, what lessons can be learned about the value of these types of case studies, and the implications for the environment and society.

It is widely agreed that in the pursuit of addressing climate warning, carbon dioxide emissions must be reduced while simultaneously removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. Thus, carbon dioxide removal, or CDR, is a suite way to remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and store it in the ocean, terrestrial ecosystems, or rock. The most well-known approach to CDR is forest-based CDR, though other methods include terrestrial enhanced weathering, microalgal, biochar, and others. This can take the form of afforestation (planting trees in areas previously without forest cover) or reforestation (planting trees in previously forested areas) as well as improving forest management overall. It is worth noting that it is far more beneficial to leave existing forests standing than reforesting deforested areas (Kahsar et al., 2023).

Who doesn’t support planting trees? In addition to removing carbon from the atmosphere and providing oxygen and shade, they have built-in maintenance systems, are relatively inexpensive, and fundamentally uncomplicated. Thus, it is not surprising that forest-based CDR has gained global notoriety as an accessible and uncomplicated means of providing carbon offsets. Forest-based CDR has been promoted by the IPCC, and governments worldwide have pledged to provide carbon offsets via forest-based CDR. So enthusiastic has this been, governments globally have committed to forest-based CDR on nearly 1.5 billion hectares of land (Perkins et al., 2023). Besides CDR, forest-based CDR can also preserve biodiversity and improve water quality (van Peborgh, 2021). Thus, CDR has the benefit of addressing multiple environmental goals simultaneously rather than remain limited to carbon sequestration (Kahsar et al., 2023).

There are those who argue that forest-based CDR is insufficient in living up to its carbon mitigation promises (Kings College London, 2023). One core issue is that there is a discrepancy between the carbon sequestration of a mature forest and one that was just planted, and no guarantee that a young forest will reach maturity. The long-term management of forests for carbon sequestration is a more significant investment than the commitment involved in a short-term reforestation scheme. Another issue is that, despite the demands of mitigation bankers, forest cover may not be the ideal ecosystem in all places, depending on desired outcomes. But climate change may prove the largest uncertainty. As forest communities gradually shift north, this raises a number of questions as to how designated offset regions should be modified over time to meet their original objectives. But by far, the critique most often lobbed at forest-based carbon offsets is their land-use needs. Perkins et al. (2023) calculated that if the commitments of the world governments to 1.5 billion hectares of carbon offsets were fulfilled, it would be nearly equal to all cropland on earth.

Are these land-use requirements practical? Are they the best approach to emissions mitigation? How does one reconcile these competing perspectives? On one hand, forest-based CDR projects are straightforward, accessible, have beneficial ecological side effects, all of which make them widely popular among governments. They make a great of intuitive sense. On the other hand, critics worry about several aspects of forest-based CDR, but most of all its land-use requirements. How might readers, often students, understand how navigate a conclusion in a similar situation?

In How Much New Forest Land Would It Take to Offset a Coal Plant’s Greenhouse Gas Emissions? An Engineering Case Study of Georgia’s Plant Scherer, Reinhart and Grubert (2022) put the land-use requirements of forest-based CDR to the test in the context of corporate carbon emissions mitigation. They focus on a coal-fired power plant in Georgia, which as of 2019 was the highest capacity coal plant in the United States. In the manuscript, they provide a robust methodology for calculating both the emissions and the land area needed to offset those emissions, providing a flowchart for students to execute a similar study. Also included is discussion as to the uncertainties which could contribute to different outcomes, such as tree growth rate, forest management approaches, and the cost–benefit of other types of land use. Their calculations showed that 1 year of offsetting emissions would require permanent forestation of all non-forested or industrialized land in the county. They clearly eluded to the fact that offsetting the emissions of this power plant at the local scale is essentially impossible. They deduce that due to its land-use requirements, CDR has value, but only for resources that are extremely challenging to decarbonize. In their conclusions, they expand the conversation by evaluating the benefits and drawbacks of other CDR strategies such as DACs. They also discuss some of the environmental justice implications of CDR, in terms of present competing priorities for land use and evolving intergenerational values. Case study questions included by the authors for classroom use ask students apply this study to their own community, compare forest-based CDR to other CDR techniques, and cover the spatial disparity between industrial facilities and mitigation sites.

What makes this case study an excellent case and teaching tool? For one, it challenges traditional dogma, in this case that tree planting is always good. However it doesn’t attempt to do so because of a particular agenda or a priori objective. The researchers entered the study with an open mind and the same carbon-sequestration goals as supporters of forest-based CDR. The study also recognizes the broader technical, political, and spatial impacts in which this mitigation project is situated. The manuscript guides students through the process of objectively evaluating the data, demonstrating versus attempting to persuade readers of a certain outcome. At the same time, they don’t claim to profess that the conclusions they find are universal. Readers are invited to apply the same methods to similar situations, because the outcome is understood to be historically and spatially specific. The case also recognizes the broader social justice space in which these technical calculations occur, and acknowledge that even if the spatial requirements of CDR in this project were less, there would also be other questions raised about appropriate land use and community engagement. The case also includes detailed teaching notes to guide the instructor through the material. The case offers readers with an active-learning experience that improves their ability navigate the difficult choices in the reduction of carbon emissions through the use of systematic analysis.

As discussed, case studies have the ability to help us reflect on our own preconceived ideas. Often we, as educators, intellectuals, and practitioners, come to the classroom with biases about how environmental problems are framed, the role of technology and policy, models of social change, and other factors (Nisbet, 2014). Environmental studies syllabi have been shown to overrepresent certain conceptualizations of how to solve environmental problems over others (Kennedy & Ho, 2015). Today’s ESS students are tomorrow’s environmental decision-makers, and ignoring case studies as a means of challenging our own assumptions has real-world consequences. So what if we don’t challenge our assumptions as we pursue climate and environmental goals?

Two cautionary tales are discussed: (1) the shift to 100% organic agriculture in Sri Lanka and (2) the closure of Indian Point nuclear power plant in New York State.

Organic agriculture is widely perceived to be more environmentally friendly and sustainable than conventional alternatives (Varanasi, 2019). Conventional agriculture incorporates chemical pesticides and fertilizers, while organic agriculture relies on inputs like manure and plant waste, often employing crop rotation, cover cropping, and other practices. These improve soil fertility and increase biodiversity, while reducing potential water pollution and protecting human health (United States Department of Agriculture, n.d.).

In 2021, the president of Sri Lanka banned fertilizers and pesticides and declared that the country would immediately transition to organic agriculture. This was advocated for groups who wanted to stop fertilizer subsidies, as well as those who hoped that organic farming would create positive outcomes for the nation’s people and environment (Nordhaus & Shah, 2022). But this unphased transition had devastating consequences on the country’s agricultural sector. Rice production dropped 33%, and tea dropped dramatically as well. There were domestic food shortages and social unrest. Farmers were eventually allowed to use synthetic fertilizers on their crops, but not until the economic and agricultural damage had been done.

Nuclear power has long been stigmatized by environmental groups as risky, dangerous, and associated with nuclear weaponry (Greenpeace, European Renewable Energy Council, 2007), though opinions are changing. Despite nuclear being the lowest-carbon emitting source of energy and the safest (Ritchie, 2024), a bias remains. At the urging of environmental groups like Riverkeeper, Clearwater, the Sierra Club, and the Environmental Defense Fund, Indian Point Power plant in Buchanan, New York was closed in 2021. It went from providing one-third of the state’s power to one-fifth, and despite the hopes of environmental groups, solar and wind were insufficient in making up for the discrepancy. Instead the state turned to gas, and carbon emissions increased. Ben Furnas, quoted in Perkins et al. (2023), stated “From a climate change point of view it’s been a real step backwards. This has been a cautionary tale that has left New York in a really challenging spot.” While cautionary tales are not the same thing as case studies, they provide similar opportunities to acknowledge our own preconceptions against the reality played out on the ground.

In addition to providing cautionary tales about what might happen when we put ideology in front of analysis, what both of these cases also do is to show the way in which data-driven analysis intersects with social context. Science cannot be taken out of the context of the humans that create, interpret, and apply it. As case studies are inherently disciplinary, they facilitate the integration of data-driven analysis and the social context in which it exists.

Oftentimes the biggest barrier toward making progress toward environmental goals is our inability to recognize the solutions we reject without our own awareness. Case studies have demonstrated the ability to engender the type of self-reflection, critical thinking, and engagement needed to reason about today’s pressing environmental problems. They are interdisciplinary, facilitate active learning, inquiry, and analysis. They encourage independent, critical, outcome-driven thinking. They complexify preexisting theories.

Given both the pressing nature of climate change and the unprecedent amount of financial and societal resources at our disposal, there is no better time to cultivate the type of critical thinkers the planet urgently needs to address climate and the environment. Case studies can help develop environmental leaders who have the self-reflection skills to better understand our internal biases, and learn from others as to how to make decisions to achieve outcomes that further our understanding and protection of the natural environment. To navigate environmental challenges successfully, we must honestly take stock of where we are, and allow the widest range of tools on the table. Case studies can suggest which tools will prove most effective.

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