Our kids need to learn about climate change

Kids need to learn about climate change in a way they can understand, and that teaches them they can help. 350.org/Flickr, CC BY-SA

The conclusions published by the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) this week provide a wake-up call about the importance of teaching kids about sustainability. The IPCC’s dire warnings are based on new evidence just released on the impact of climate change.

The report warns that greenhouse gas levels are at their highest in 800,000 years. It concludes that recent increases are mainly due to the burning of fossil fuels. It recommends ending reliance on fossil fuels and instead fast-tracking development of renewable and alternative forms of energy such as solar and wind power.

The IPCC says time is running out to limit global warming to two degrees Celsius. Current trends in carbon emissions herald disaster.

Why do our kids need to know about this?

The findings signal the need for drastic action globally at all levels of society including among governments, businesses, communities and schools. This includes educating kids across all age groups and levels of schooling to prepare them to be able to live more sustainable lives.

The IPCC concludes that strategies for reducing and managing the risks of climate change can still lessen its impact. Its report argues:

Education can play a key role in innovation and investments in environmentally sound technologies and infrastructure, sustainable livelihoods and behavioural and lifestyle choices.

The Australian curriculum includes a sustainability priority to encourage teaching about climate change. It also says schools should focus

on protecting environments and creating a more ecologically and socially just world through informed action. Actions that support more sustainable patterns of living require consideration of environmental, social, cultural and economic systems and their interdependence.

You can teach kids about climate change in a way they will understand. Flickr/Brittany Randolph, CC BY

How to get kids involved

How to do this was a big question discussed in Hobart this week by over 350 participants in the Australian Association for Environmental Education conference.

Teachers, school leaders, academics, local council program leaders, members of NGOs and youth organisations discussed action plans including school gardening and food growing, healthy eating, buying locally sourced products and implementing energy awareness programs.

They advocated a focus on deepening students’ understanding of our physical and social world, giving them the chance to get involved in community action and citizen education programs and valuing indigenous knowledge as a way of learning to live more sustainably.

In his keynote address to the conference, visiting world environmental education expert Professor David Orr recommended that:

we tell kids the truth about what’s happening, but also create hope through action [and encourage them to] be passionate, be political and be positive about their capacity to create change.

Greens leader Christine Milne added her voice at the conference, urging more government support for education programs focused on sustainability. She encouraged young people to ask questions about what values will be important for the future.

What do we need to do now?

Environmental degradation, climate change, species extinction, rising sea levels, excessive or unequal consumption, resource depletion and lack of wellness in our world are local and global problems, so students need to learn what is going on. But we seem to have lost even a veneer of political commitment to sustainability at the federal level.

The government has cut funding to the Global Education Project that led national initiatives and had high impact on teaching and learning in schools. This project has engaged kids in learning through themes such as “our changing world”, “poverty and food security”, and exploring the way that how we live has impacts on other people around the world. We need to keep the momentum going to create smarter strategies to engage our children in this field, so cutting this program is a poor start.

Federal Education Minister Christopher Pyne has argued that we don’t need “themes” in education. The recent Review of the Australian Curriculum by Dr Kevin Donnelly and Professor Ken Wiltshire said there is:

a question for the future as to whether it is sound educational practice for politicians and policy makers to be continually ordering contemporary themes into a national curriculum.

Instead of questioning education that focuses on sustainability “themes”, governments should support and extend efforts already underway in schools across the nation. These are empowering kids to form green teams and teachers to develop whole-school approaches to reducing, reusing and recycling, and helping kids to know how to make better choices for the future.

Teacher professional learning programs should build teachers’ knowledge and capacity to engage kids actively in actions that make a difference. Students need age-appropriate teaching and learning that is informed by research on the most effective programs in this field. Instead of questioning this focus in the Australian curriculum, as a nation we need to roll up our sleeves and get on with this important learning.