Climate change education: Which facts matter?

Posted in: COP26, Education, Energy and environmental policy

Katharine Lee is a Research Associate in the Department of Psychology at the University of Bath.

For young people, the ‘wicked problem’ of climate change is exacerbated by power asymmetry and ‘intergenerational injustice’. Older generations have it in their gift to shape the future of younger generations, who will suffer disproportionally negative climate impacts if their attempts to limit dangerous heating fail.

The theme of intergenerational injustice is highlighted by the youth climate movement and was the overriding theme of my PhD research with UK adolescents. The participants in my research considered climate change to be a problem caused by the prioritisation of political and economic interests over the wellbeing of the planet, and one that must be resolved by dismantling the current status quo.

Post-COP26, attempts to restrict global heating to 1.5 seem to be hanging in the balance, so what can and should be done to equip young people to deal with climate change, now and in the future? One potentially helpful component is climate change education - something that young people in the UK say they want.

Climate change is not currently a core element of the curriculum in the UK. In England it is explicitly part of the Geography and Science curricula at key stage 4, meaning it must only be formally taught from around age 12 or 13 onwards. During the first week of COP26, the Education Secretary Nadhim Zahawi set out his vision for changes to climate change education in the English curriculum. The draft strategy will be under review until March 2022, with a final strategy due to be published in April 2022.

The detail within the education section (the draft also covers green skills and careers, the education estate, and operations and supply chains), seems to indicate that significant change to the curriculum is not planned. It appears that teaching about climate change will remain confined to Geography and Science curricula, with the rather opaque aim of equipping children with a ‘better understanding of the facts’. By confining climate change to Geography and Science, it is clear to which facts the document refers, that is, principally scientific ones.

This is made concrete in a paragraph outlining schools’ legal duty to remain politically impartial. They are not required to teach ‘the other side’ of the science but where discussing political or partisan views around matters such as social and economic reform, political impartiality must be maintained. Crucially, it states that ‘it would not be appropriate to encourage pupils to join specific campaigning groups or engage in specific political activity, such as protests’.

Whether or not it is appropriate to encourage pupils to join campaign groups or engage in protest, the prioritisation of a specific kind of facts and the explicit guidance to avoid politicisation seems a missed opportunity, if the goal of climate change education is to equip young people to deal with the challenges presented by climate change.

First, because confining climate change to the Science and Geography curricula may perpetuate the notion that climate change is simply a scientific problem with a scientific solution. Of course, science and technology may be key to resolving climate change, but ultimately, transformation rests with people not science; ‘scientists advise, politicians decide’.

Second, it is clear from my own research and from the eloquent contributions of youth at COP26, that many young people already recognise that climate change is not simply a scientific problem. Other ‘facts’ are acknowledged by the youth climate activists, who clearly understand the maxim that power concedes nothing without a demand. School pupils might appraise themselves of the facts more broadly if they were taught about climate change in humanities as well as science subjects.

Here they could develop their thinking around how the past has shaped the present, how and why power imbalances develop and are maintained, and whether accepted as truth frames need to be challenged. This could help them to develop the critical thinking skills that may be the catalyst for genuine transformation on climate change. And given where we are post-COP26, if protest were a corollary of this, would that really be such a bad thing?

All articles posted on this blog give the views of the author(s), and not the position of the IPR, nor of the University of Bath. Read more of our blogs on COP26.

Posted in: COP26, Education, Energy and environmental policy


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