No longer considered a fringe topic, climate change and the necessity for sustainable development has been consigned to the agenda of things to be addressed, filed at the back along with world peace and Donald Trump’s hair. Our apathy to the fact has long been attributed to the gap between cause and effect; a pot plant doesn’t die for each day you commute by a diesel fuelled car. But the babes of today who will become the leaders and proletariat alike of tomorrow are holding the credit slip for our resource-lavish lifestyles. They and future generations will grow up to inherit an increasingly insecure world where chocolate is as rare as diamonds, the Malaysian Islands a distant memory, and Salisbury is considered a coastal town.
Conservative predictions estimate that without serious intervention, temperatures will reach 5°c higher than average by 2100. By the time children born this year turn fifty, fond memories of years-gone-by will be punctuated by global catastrophes. Projections say that by 2070 rising sea levels will take the coast of NYC, Ho Chi Min City, and Mumbai, food security will drop and prices will rise. Serious health scares like ebola on Adderall will be commonplace, and a population of over 10 billion will have to fit on a planet with 10% less land than there is currently. For citizens of this brave new world, the security of future generations will become an imperative rather than a vague expression. “We’re in danger of handing young people a situation that’s out of control,” said James E Hansen, retired NASA climate scientists who lead research on rising sea levels. As we bestow responsibility to the adults of the future, we must prepare children today with the facts, reasons and strategies to adapt and navigate the changing world around them. But does the current educational curriculum prepare for these eventualities? Attacks on science, teachers strikes, threats of climate change education being axed from the curriculum are the only some of the reality of the preparation we are giving our successors today, and it seems we have a long way to go to secure their future.
Formal education is just one element in the education of a child. The surroundings children grow up in, from the media to their parents, creates an impression of the world around them; if you’ve ever sworn in front of a child, you’ll know how fast they pick shit up. Various age-appropriate mediums have been created to explain the impacts of humans on the natural environment, from Universal Studios 2012 film of Dr Seuss’s ’The Lorax’ aimed at viewers 5+, to ‘Will Jellyfish Rule the World’ for 8-10-year-olds. Light-hearted semi-educational tools like these teach looming environmental catastrophe through metaphor and bright colours.
Academic schooling bridges the gap between metaphor and the real world to provide children with their own understanding. Environmental education lays the foundation for the futures politicians, scientists, activists, designers, engineers and workers in fields that don’t exist yet, to mitigate the world ahead of them. Brazil, Australia, the Dominican Republic, Chile, New Zealand and Costa Rica are among the many countries that have identified the economic imperative to equip children early and have made environmental education compulsory in their curriculum from primary school upwards. Interestingly, these countries are those currently experiencing the fallout of warmer global temperatures. Children in these countries will witness with their own eyes, beaches, glaciers and coral reefs retreat from the natural landscape from their time in pre-school to the end of their secondary school education. In countries who see less of the immediate effects of climate change in their environment, however, climate change education starts much later with far less prominence.
“We cannot let our children face [climate change] without equipping them at the earliest possible state with a compass” said John Ashton, former government climate change envoy. This was in response to Michael Gove’s draft guidelines in 2013 as former Education Secretary to omit climate change from the UK geography curriculum for under 14s. According to the proposal, there would be no mention of climate change in students education outside of science before year 9. Following strong backlash, the scheme was dropped, and the national curriculum was published in 2014 without it. The prevention of the measure from going ahead was paramount to maintaining environmental education for the youngest citizens of the UK.
Currently, the UK’s national curriculum state of environmental education is lacking. In primary school, the impact of humans on their surroundings is covered once in those six years. In secondary school, geography is the only subject where the environment is the focus of a module from the age of 11 upwards until it becomes optional at GCSE. Of the other three subjects that mention climate change, all of which are sciences, human impacts and the outcomes of an unsustainable world is covered in just 27 topics of 350, and only at the end of KS4 in Chemistry GCSE, environmental education is provided as a dedicated topic in two modules. In favour of Gove’s unachieved scheme, Rita Gardener, director of the Royal Geographical Society said, “In the past, in some instances, young people were going to start on climate change without really knowing about climate.” This seems inevitable when the climate is not directly taught. The National Curriculum framework covers environmental and human processes from within other topics, but the inability to mention climate change or sustainability directly in the curriculum is almost phobic. Other issues considered a societal imperative, such as Religious Education, sexual and relationship education, Personal, Social, Wealth and Economic education (PSHE) and Citizenship, are often seen as cross-disciplinary, necessary to teach not only as individual lessons but also across the range of subjects from which to explore in context. However, the social implications of sustainability are not represented in education, and is instead hemmed into geography and science; food security is not mentioned in cooking and nutrition, the need for sustainable innovation is not taught in design technology, and history classes do not cover the reasons behind why we got here.
The scientific nature of the processes of climate change has lead to its societal and educational classification as an academic topic. The focus on quantitative details overlooks the social, cultural and lifestyle implications climate change hails. Effective climate change education should include more than just the scientific functioning of climate and weather, and as John Ashton puts it, “What’s important is not so much the chemistry as the impact on the lives of human beings.” Of course, science helps give children a base from which to understand where the implications come from. Scientific awareness provides young people with an informed opinion from which to navigate solutions to political and ethical dilemmas involving climate mitigation. But without learning about the environment from the context of all other sectors affected, application of such scientific knowledge is limited. The argument that climate change is only a scientific pursuit capable at a certain age is not only patronising but is grossly secular and denies students who are more gifted in the humanities from required knowledge. Simply increasing scientific understanding will not advance sustainable societies.
According to a survey in the US given to 18-25 year olds, ‘only 1 in 5 students felt they have a good handle on climate change from what they’ve learned in school.’ In America, climate change is not often part of a formal curriculum, and in 2016 a study found that US teachers spent on average just 1 to 2 hours on teaching climate change over an academic year. Nationally, tensions surrounding climate change are increasing. Lead by a government infiltrated by climate deniers, from an ex CEO of Exxon Mobil to the head of the Environmental Protection Agency, Scott Pruitt, who sued the very same agency 14 times, and Trump himself. The crusade against the validity of science and cuts to climate research programmes has polarised issues on the environment, and the conflict has trickled down into public life and schools.
The politicisation of climate change has threatened the imperative for its education. Governments interference with preparing children for the reality of the world they will grow up into is setting the world up for severely compromised leadership in the future. Teaching about environmental issues in schools has helped mobilise young people into actors for change by governments, industry and society. This makes it less surprising that climate change is becoming less present in the curriculum.
The evolving nature of climate science means continuing teacher education is essential, and yet it seems teachers are severely underprepared. Established topics that were once considered controversial, like evolution, are taught today the way they were taught in the 90s to no detriment. But for climate change to be taught as it was learnt in the 90s, when the role of human activities and burning of fossil fuels was less clear, the science becomes more like climate change denialism. With pressure on the environment a reasonably recent topic in society, many teachers wouldn’t have been taught or trained in the subject. Teacher training sessions today are often filled with navigating legislation about high-stakes testing and pressure from the school board to meet authoritative bodies standards, two common factors often blamed for the schooling systems creation of a memorisation education rather than one of learning. Is it not the responsibility of the schooling system to equip teachers with the means to facilitate students through funding rather than work overload?
Finance is often called upon in defence of inadequate sectors, but according to the World Bank, more money than ever before is being spent on education. But the prioritisation of school funding does not translate to a reorientation of education to address sustainability. This explains the dramatic overhauls that schooling in the UK has seen in the past decade, from the war against the arts, the total restructure of the GCSE grading system and overworking teachers to produce higher grades.
Historically, education has often been used as an essential tool in securing future economic development. The space race generated massive reform in science and mathematics education in the US in the late 1950s and 1960s. The drive to create a successful space exploration programme required a skilled scientific and engineering workforce. Millions of dollars were invested in teacher training, textbook publishing and state-of-the-art school laboratories to produce a curriculum that went on to cultivate a new generation of practised scientists, and advance technological society. At the turn of the century, the rapid expansion of technology made national leaders recognise that educating the entire workforce, both male and female, was vital to secure economic viability. Lawrence Summer of the World Bank said in 1993 that, “Investments in the education of girls may well be the highest-return investment available in the developing world.” Accordingly, nations spent millions removing barriers to girls attending schools and continue with ongoing campaigns. With the cost climate change will have on health, agriculture and industry, the environmental sector is set to dwarf all other departments, and will become one of the biggest employers across nations. Spending the money now as preparation through education would be far better than as mitigation.
Producing an informed society is not the sole responsibility of the ministry of education. With the need for sustainable development growing, departments of environment, commerce, state and health also have a stake in environmental education. By combining expertise, resources and funding from across departments, the likelihood of building a viable economy and society in the future increases. Organisations like the Next Generation Science Standards in the US have been constructed by a collaboration of science, teaching and state level associations to produce a curriculum where environmental education is the focus. The UN has undertaken schemes like the Decade of Education for Sustainable Development and the Global Action Programme on Education for Sustainable Development since 2005 in collaboration with the top level of national education and economic departments to create a proficient education system that prepares students across the United Nations. As the imperative to produce more educational schemes grows, realistic strategies must be developed to develop knowledgeable and capable leadership quickly. The United Nations predicts that in the next 15 years, 66 million more teachers must be recruited in order to provide quality education globally, on top of retraining the 64 million already employed. We must find ways to use existing skills to guarantee future generations confidence in tackling what will be the future we leave to them. In the words of thousands of satire and The Simpsons, ‘Won’t somebody please think of the children!?’