With the UK hosting the 26th Conference of the Parties to the international climate negotiations in 2021, its increasingly important that our children understand the changes they face. This year should see governments increasing their ambition for action, with new targets due under the international climate change agreement. The original plan under the Paris Agreement was that five years after signature, governments would have to rachet up their national climate plans and ambition to get on track. These plans need to cover all the areas and Articles of the Paris Agreement and that includes climate education under Article 12 of the Agreement.
Nick Nuttall, deputy spokesperson Earthday.org, says “Since 1992, when governments agreed the first climate treaty (UNFCCC) and included climate education as being important, the response has been patchy and climate education and environmental literacy generally have been the Cinderella topics in the UN climate negotiations. It is time to right this wrong and take climate change education seriously as essential for every child’s future.”
Climate change puts children’s most basic rights at risk, seriously affecting their access to health, food, water, clean air, education and protection. We know that children take climate change seriously – just look at Greta Thunberg and Fridays for the Future, ZeroHour, The Child Movement amongst many children’s groups. Their concern about climate change impacts, both direct and indirect, is also something which causes anxiety, fear and depression.
Haldis Holst, Deputy General Secretary of Educational International, agrees that teachers are reporting that many young pupils are showing signs of fear and of anxiety about their futures. He says, “A commitment to put climate education into the core of curricula is thus not just about equipping youth with the skills and the knowledge they will need as adults. It is also about healing, hope and engagement in the solutions that can, if the world steps up ambition, solve this crisis in time.”
No child at school today will be able to face the challenges of adult life without an understanding of the science behind changes in the natural world, technology, energy, business, data and more. The world our children will graduate to face is one that is likely to markedly different from the one we know well. We need to start to think about systems, about how interconnected every part of nature, economies and societies are. Climate education can also help foster a new generation of citizens with the interest and the skills needed for jobs in a growing green economy, to make better, sustainable consumer choices and to hold governments — both national and local — accountable for their decisions.
Patricia Espinosa, Executive Secretary of UN Climate Change (UNFCCC) said, “We need to better educate our children and youth on the science and the risks, but also the excitement of building a better world; generating more good jobs in sustainable businesses and the benefits of being greener consumers and more active citizens. I welcome this global initiative and look forward to it stimulating excitement and enthusiasm among all governments and all sectors of society.”
In 2019 Italy and Mexico called on all countries to commit to climate and environmental education to ensure that the next generation have the knowledge, awareness and skills to address climate change. In Italy that new curriculum was launched in September 2021. Called civic education, it has three branches consisting of the Italian constitution, sustainable development and climate literacy, and digital literacy. As Professor Massimiliano Falcone, climate ambassador - EDN advisor, says, “Climate change and sustainable development are fundamental topics for the citizen of the future.”
Whether we’re talking about climate change, or a green new deal, there has never been a more critical time for children to become engaged in learning about what climate and carbon mean to them. “We need to equip future generations with the knowledge, skills, and enthusiasm to survive and indeed thrive in the decades to come. And that begins in school,” said Sharan Burrow, General Secretary, International Trade Union Confederation.
The importance of education in addressing climate change is increasingly being recognised. A recent analysis from PNAS suggests that business as usual and technological change are not going to be sufficient to address climate change, but that certain tipping points can trigger large scale system changes in society and the economy. Out of six, two were educational – climate literacy in schools and universities, and general awareness of the carbon impacts of our choices.
A survey by World Wide Views, conducted in close to 80 countries before the 2015 Summit that adopted the landmark Paris Climate Change Agreement, found that close to 80 percent of those questioned thought climate education was the strongest policy for reducing emissions followed by action to protect tropical forests. In September 2020, the UK citizens climate assembly announced the results of its debate on how the country could achieve net zero emissions by 2050. While proposing direct measures from taxing frequent flyers to reducing red meat consumption, the overarching recommendation was information and education.
In September 2021 EarthDay.org launched a coalition of organisations urging governments to step up and require compulsory, assessed climate education with a strong link to civic engagement. To date over 350 organizations, ranging from trades unions, teachers and green groups, to women’s groups like Australia’s 1 Million Women and Parents for Future Global have signed up to call on all governments by COP26 to make climate education ‘compulsory, assessed and linked to civic engagement ‘. Support is coming from so many disparate groups because, as Kathleen Rogers, President, EARTHDAY.ORG says, “Climate education will prepare youth across a range of positive fronts– from stimulating a rapidly growing global green economy to holding their officials accountable. Indeed, I am convinced that competitiveness in the 21st century will increasingly be linked to the quality of environmental literacy among a nation’s citizens.”
In a crowded curriculum, it will be probably important not to create a standalone subject but to integrate and embed climate education across the curriculum—not just science but also geography; literature, arts, history and even sport. As Nuttall says, “The essential point is that climate change will define the future of this and successive generations—it can no longer be a ‘ nice to have’: if education is about preparing young people for their future, then it can no longer ignore climate change or pop it into a silo.”
Education should be about connecting knowledge and understanding how connections are made between different types and aspects of knowledge – and that means that we need to teach children to learn to think. Not simply about climate but about the implications of learning to what we know, how we live and how we want to grow.
Children need to learn the skills that will enable them to face unprecedented challenges, such as critical thinking, empathy and creative problem solving. Never forget that environmental issues are intricately connected to social justice and equity and understanding and addressing this will play a critical role in economic development and growth in coming decades.
This year Earth Day will occur on 22nd April and it provides an opportunity to explore how you can integrate climate issues into your teaching, with resources from EarthDay.org. As for the Learn2Think Foundation, our theme for 2021 is climate and the skills and tools our children need to face an increasingly volatile and confusing world. We are currently developing resources to help teachers bring climate into the classroom and support you in focusing on climate literacy in 2021.
This article first appeared in the January 2021 edition of Education Today www.education-today.co.uk