COP26: Educating for the climate change emergency

The climate change crisis will make our world a very different place to live in. What do young people need to learn at school now to prepare them for the 2030s?

Globo verde
“Globo verde” by Aproximando Ciência e Pessoas is licensed under CC BY 2.0

Our children’s and grandchildren’s lives will be different from ours; their living conditions unfamiliar. The European Commission says there may well be dangerous heatwaves, heavy rainfall events with flooding, rising sea levels and more wildfires. This will irreversibly change water, food, agriculture, travel, work, leisure and homes; and how we look after health, wellbeing and relationships.

Aside from asking how on earth we’ve let the situation get so desperate, we must urgently consider how to prepare children for this. At the 2021 UN General Assembly, Boris Johnson said that some warming is already ‘baked-in’ and unavoidable, so young people need to know how to adapt. Their education needs to be appropriate for the new future. Climate change is “little mentioned in the UK national curriculum”, says Professor Andrew Charlton-Perez of Reading University, which recently led a Climate Education Summit calling for improving climate change education.

The Aldersgate Group also calls for change: “Environmental sustainability and the net zero goal should be fully embedded in the national curriculum across all stages of the education system from primary to tertiary education.”

How do young people feel about the situation?

In a recent international study, nearly half of 16-25 year-olds said climate anxiety “negatively affected their daily life and functioning”, and many rated the governmental response negatively.

As a result, young people have formed a new organisation, Teach the Future, to campaign for more education about the climate and biodiversity emergencies. They have also asked the Education Minister 20 times this year for a meeting, but have yet to receive a reply.

This is unacceptable; climate change is an emergency, and we must listen to those who will be living it. Teach the Future is asking for the climate change crisis to be key content across all subjects, not just in pockets of geography or science. According to The Wildlife Trusts, only 17 percent of teachers say it’s mentioned at all outside these two subjects. Schools needs to empower future generations with appropriate knowledge across the curriculum.

Our children's future universe
Our children’s future universe. Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

A primary school ‘sustainability curriculum’ could look like this:

Our History, our impact on Earth and our future: Students should learn how we now live differently from humans in the past, for example, hunter gatherers, farmers and craftspeople, who left no carbon footprint. It might be interesting to look at other species which have always lived in harmony with the environment. Students should understand the consequences of the industrial revolution, the growth of manufacturing, intensive agriculture, trade and travel; alongside the plundering of Earth’s resources. They should study different countries’ contributions to global warming, those that suffer the worst effects, and about people who may abandon their homes as climate change refugees in search of more ‘liveable’ places. They need to comprehend the science of global warming and rising sea levels, and what we can do about it.

Our Planet: biodiversity, ecosystems, interdependence of all life: Students should understand the human place within the ecosystem, not apart from or over it. Here, they would learn about ecosystems, the various forms of life, how everything is mutually dependent and what happens when one link in the chain disappears. How nature ‘recycles’ everything natural after death, whereas human inventions often pollute or go to landfill.

Our place within the ecosystem
Our place within the ecosystem. Image by Phichit Wongsunthi from Pixabay

Our School: environmental impact of their school: Students need to understand the changes in seasonal and weather systems and the likely impact on life. They could audit energy use; measure light, rainfall and wind; study how to harness these renewables instead of burning fossil fuels; and understand how to save energy by insulating buildings.

Ipswich litter picking
“Litter Picking & Cleaner Ipswich Campaign by Tomy Sebastian” by NCVO is licensed under CC BY 2.0

Our Neighbourhood: local area improvement: Students could develop their organisational skills through projects like sustainable school travel plans, pollution or litter reduction schemes and garden designs.

Our Belongings: environmental impact of products: Students need to learn about the consequences of depleting limited resources, the carbon footprint of product manufacture and waste after use. They could learn about recycling, composting, repairing, sewing and repurposing items for further use.

Our Food: environmental impact of food: Students could learn how food gets from farm to fork, and assess the effects of farming methods, food miles and different diets. They could gain experience of growing crops in a school garden, and cooking healthy food.

Our Bodies and Minds: mental and physical wellbeing: Exercise, sport, creativity, working co-operatively in groups and enjoying the benefits of being in nature would all be key to a sustainable way of life that protects wellbeing. Learning to ride a bike safely would also be useful: for health reasons as well as to understand its low carbon footprint.

Learning to ride a bike
Learning to ride a bike. Image by kropekk_pl from Pixabay

Global problems need global solutions

These may seem like radical changes when compared to today’s curriculum, but upskilling young people to cope with what global warming will inevitably throw at them should be fundamental to their education. UNESCO is urging all countries to put sustainability and the environment at the centre of their curriculums by 2025. The curriculum in Italy has been reimagined to put the environment at its core. We should follow this example.

The OECD paper, ‘The Future of Education and Skills: Education 2030’ states: “We are committed to helping every learner … help shape a shared future built on the well-being of individuals, communities and the planet. Children […] need to abandon the notion that resources are limitless and there to be exploited; they will need to value common prosperity, sustainability and wellbeing. They will need to be responsible and empowered, placing collaboration above division, and sustainability above short-term gain.” Young people want to know how to protect their planet – their home. Understanding the problems and learning constructive solutions would alleviate their anxiety and give them hope for the future. All the world’s children need it, and they need it now.

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