David Saddington makes the case for transforming Climate Change Education in order to focus more on the social and economic impacts.

As we count down the days to COP21, it is important to remember other crucial efforts that are taking place alongside the headline-grabbing negotiations.

Education is an essential element of the global response to climate change. It enables people, and especially young people, to understand and address the impact of a warming world, encourages changes in their attitudes and behaviour, and helps them adapt to disruptions induced by climate change. Climate Change Education (CCE) formalised within the ‘Action for Climate Change Empowerment’ agenda of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) calls on countries to promote this learning through curricula and public awareness. CCE will be taking centre stage at UNFCCC climate change summit (COP21) in Paris on the 4th December on ‘Education Day’ with meetings of education ministers and the showcasing of new innovations.

Many years ago, as a youth climate change champion for the Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA), I helped to influence UK Government policy to include climate change in the English National Curriculum. This addition in 2007 made England a pioneer by becoming the first country to formalise CCE. In more recent years, the teaching of climate change in the classroom has been tested with Government proposals to remove it from the National Curriculum. Following protests by the Grantham Research Institute and others, the plans were abandoned.

However, since the inception of CCE programmes, the focus of the curricula in most countries has been on the science and mechanisms of climate change. Students are now tested on naming some of the most important greenhouse gases and remembering statistics about the current rate of sea level rise. This impersonal scientific representation creates a certain detachment from everyday life. I find that a lot of students don’t relate to climate change as an issue that is really affecting them, and they see it as just another topic on the list of subjects to learn next to Henry VIII, Oxbow Lake Formation and Carol Ann Duffy’s poetry.

It should be noted that climate change climate change is not only taught as part of science syllabuses. For instance, in England, climate change does feature within Key Stage 3 Geography as part of “understanding how physical and human processes interact to influence and change, landscapes, the environment and climate”. The more social orientation of climate change is minimal and lags behind the more comprehensive higher level International Baccalaureate syllabus.

All in all, climate change can seem a boring subject in the psyche of students, as Dr Rod Lamberts noted and ‘climate silence’ has descended over the past few years (Climate Outreach, 2014).

Last weekend I presented at the recently opened Antarctic Exhibition at Durham University on the topic of climate change perception. Such exhibitions are one way in which CCE can potentially reach a much wider audience than students. At the end of the exhibition, before visitors are ushered into the coffee shop, there are a series of voting boxes that ask yes/no questions. Two of these were; “Climate Change Will Affect Me” and ‘Climate Change Will Affect The Next Generation”. I watched a few people answer these and the division in opinion was striking (the approximate 60/40 ‘yes/no’ split on both questions is even more startling if one considers the mindset of people visiting an Antarctic Exhibition compared to the general public). My heart dropped a bit every time a plastic token crashed onto the top of the ‘no’ pile and it really got me thinking about how we still have a long way to go when it comes to strong CCE.

I concluded that CCE urgently needs to be transformed from being presented in a static format as a scientific phenomenon and instead it needs be presented as the integral societal issue that it is. In order to achieve this, CCE must include both scientific and social dimensions, rather than just the science. It is right that students learn the fundamental scientific principles, such as the greenhouse effect, that underpin climate change. But they should also learn about the consequences of climate change for society and the options for managing it. This will help students to understand and engage with decisions that they will have to make in their own lives as citizens and consumers.

The challenge for CCE policy-makers is to address curriculum deficiencies to ensure that climate change is properly contextualised and made relevant to the audience. For example in the UK, let’s start talking about climate-induced flood risk which relates to practical issues around home insurance, public health, flood defences, early warning systems, and the politics of who is and isn’t protected. Or perhaps a case study around a supply chain for an item of clothing – how does climate risk feature in this global supply chain and what can businesses do to respond to this. These are useful forms of climate literacy which engage students by framing climate change as a very relevant challenge grounded in the reality and decisions of daily life.

The inevitability of societal changes and subsequent job market adaptation to a green economy are further reasons why CCE must feature prominently within academic and vocational higher education. The latter is a realm which has been so far neglected by CCE programmes. A novel cross-cutting approach to CCE is currently being trialled at Aston University after Professor Dame Julia King’s vision of thematic climate education. This is a scheme which, if successful, could be extended to other universities as well as into secondary education.

As well as socialising and contextualising climate change, the second challenge that I see looking beyond COP21 is increasing collaboration. This challenge is particularly pertinent to the sharing of educational resources to assist CCE in developing countries. These resources should not seek to impose homogenous CCE curricula, but instead act as CCE ‘banks’ from which countries or individual schools can draw relevant materials.

In order to build these tailored CCE programmes, stronger links need to be forged between scientific, social and economic institutes at the forefront of climate change research and schools at the forefront of CCE. The UNFCCC/UNICEF CCE Clearinghouse collaboration is a start, but more sharing must be done to ensure that materials available are accessible, in terms of being pitched at the right educational level and available in multiple formats and languages to suit different learning styles. These CCE materials must also be innovative and able to re-energise the conversation around climate change. This may mean, for instance, the inclusion of newfound technology or the incorporation of climate change into traditional teaching methods.

In a few weeks I will be heading to Paris with the UNFCCC to take forward some of these discussions surrounding the future direction of CCE on COP21 ‘Education Day’ before seeking out innovative new approaches to strengthen meaningful global climate literacy.


David is an environmental consultant. He is currently acting as a Global Contributor to the United Nations Environment Programme GEO-6 process and is working with the UNFCCC, on climate education, ahead of COP21. David studied the science, social and economic impacts of climate change at Durham University and led a groundbreaking glacier survey expedition to Vatnajökull, Iceland. 


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