What should young people be learning about climate change?

Posted in: Comment, News and Updates

I spend time exploring this question in my talk in Birmingham last week.  It is, after all, the question that young people are asking and demanding action on.  More broadly, the question might sensibly be: What should everyone be learning about climate, as it's a question that has salience well beyond schools.  This is the outline of what I said:

There are 4 necessary focuses on climate change:

1. What is climate?
2. Evidence for global heating and the changing climate
3. Looking ahead what might happen?
4. What can we do?
1. What is climate?
Topics to cover include:
  • what is it?
  • how is it different to weather?
  • what determines it?
  • how and why does it vary from place to place?
  • how and why does it change over time?
  • natural cycles
  • what timescales are involved?  etc
Most of this is straightforward and is taught in schools now, though not necessarily in the context of a changing climate.  There are a lot of curriculum resources available.
2. Evidence for global heating and the changing climate
Topics to cover include:
  • the greenhouse effect / global heating
  • global temperature measurements over time
  • natural climate cycles
  • changes to CO2 levels in the atmosphere since the industrial revolution
  • rising sea levels etc
This is less straightforward and not all of it is taught to all students.  DfE encourages schools to cover these topics if they want to.  There are resources galore.
3. Looking ahead what might happen?
Topics to cover include:
  • IPCC extrapolations
  • +1.5 / 2.0 / 3.0 degrees?
  • ice sheets melt
  • sea levels rise
  • permafrosts melt
  • positive feedback loops
  • runaway CO2 rise
  • desertification
  • species loss /migration
  • economic collapse
  • war / famine / disease
  • mass migration of people etc.
This is much more complicated largely because it concerns what if questions, extrapolations, and speculations.  Very little of this is taught in any systematic or coherent way
4. What can we do?
Topics to cover might include:
  • lead by example: repent for our past carbon sins
  • net zero-carbon emissions by 2050  2040  2030  2025?
  • shall we become vegan?
  • support other countries to go green
  • adopt the Green New Deal at home

This is the most complex of all because it concerns political issues and values.

Posted in: Comment, News and Updates

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  • Well said. We developed some of this in the NSF MADE CLEAR Project at the UDelaware and UMD College Park. One publication from that project that might be of interest:


    Science education in particular is woefully underprepared to deal with your #4 above. Also, I'd add something to your list above: why climate change in the first place? It didn't just arise from nowhere. It's a human product. I developed some of that recently over at EER:


  • The central issue is that climate change is the consequence (side effect) of the systemic pursuit of economic growth and discounting of the resulting environmental & social damage - this is the 'elephant in the room' that makes GDP acceleration the goal of virtually all nations and profit maximisation the goal of corporate business. Teaching the rate of doubling of exponential progression of human planetary impact (ecological footprint) seems to be a missing element in the list offered. People fail to grasp the velocity of 'hockey curve' graphs: 3% GDP global growth per annum = doubling in 23.3 years.