‘Schools have failed us on climate crisis’

Next generation: Joe Brindle began campaigning for environmental education aged 17. © Sam Frost

Should climate change be on every school curriculum? Teen activists say green education is woefully inadequate. Now, they want to change the law before time runs out to save the planet.

Joe Brindle is scared about the future.

He left school last year in the middle of a pandemic. He could not sit his exams, celebrate with his friends or even say goodbye to his teachers.

But it is not coronavirus that has frightened the 18-year-old. It is the climate crisis.

It was just over two years ago, when Brindle was revising for his exams at his school in Wiltshire, England, that he realised something astonishing. Despite studying biology, chemistry and history, he knew almost nothing about the global environment.

So Brindle decided to make a change. First, he taught himself the basics of the climate crisis, learning facts about global heating and the ozone layer.

Then he set up a campaign group, Teach the Future, to fight to make climate education compulsory in all schools.

The problem, the group says, is obvious. The climate crisis is taught in England, but only in limited amounts in a few select subjects, such as science and optional geography lessons.

Indeed, one 2018 survey of nearly 3,000 pupils across the country found that only 4% felt they knew a lot about climate change.

“We feel the education system is wasting our time, because we’re facing the biggest issue of our time, and our education isn’t even touching on it,” says Brindle.

Last year, Teach the Future launched the Climate Emergency Education Bill, in Westminster. It was inspired in part by a similar US law from the 1950s, which led to huge investments in science and maths education.

That law, the 1958 US National Defence Education Act, ultimately helped the US win the Space Race. Now, Teach the Future hopes their law can help the world win the battle against climate change.

But it is not only teenagers who are worried. In 2019, the UK Labour party agreed with the activists, declaring that the climate crisis should be a compulsory element of education.

“These schoolchildren have grasped something that seems to elude many of their elders,” wrote UN Secretary-General António Guterres in the wake of global school strikes. “We are in a race for our lives, and we are losing.”

Some nations are taking action. In 2019, Italy became the first country in the world to make sustainability and climate change education compulsory.

Last year, New Zealand announced that all schools would have access to materials on climate activism and processing “eco-anxiety”.

But many campaigners warn that the world is still moving backwards, not forwards, on climate change. In 2013, a row broke out in England after specific references to climate change were removed from the curriculum.

And despite 195 countries signing the 2015 Paris Agreement, which urged nations to implement climate education, many have yet to fulfil their pledges.

For Joe Brindle, the route forward remains clear. “Young people like myself want to create a better and fairer world, but we need good climate education to unleash our potential.”

Should climate change be on every school curriculum?

Fighting for the future

Of course, say some. Knowledge is power. Learning about the environment is just as important as learning mathematical equations or the history of World War Two. The children in our schools today will one day become the scientists and politicians who are tasked with solving the climate crisis. They will not be successful if they do not know about the problem they are facing.

It is unnecessary, say others. The current curriculum is working well. Teenagers in England today already learn about climate change in the subjects where it is relevant, such as geography and chemistry. And during the pandemic, many school staff are already struggling to teach all their lessons. There is no need to overload children with more information on the climate crisis in every subject.

You Decide

  1. Have you had enough lessons on climate change?
  2. Is the climate crisis the biggest problem facing the world today?

Activities

  1. Write a letter to a newspaper calling for more climate change lessons in schools. How will you persuade people to support your cause?
  2. In groups, choose a subject that does not usually have any lessons on the climate crisis, such as History, English or Maths. Then come up with a list of five ways environment education could be included in this subject, and present your ideas to the class.

Some People Say...

“Each generation must, out of relative obscurity, discover its mission, fulfil it or betray it.”

Frantz Fanon (1925 – 1961), French West Indian psychiatrist and political philosopher

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
It is generally agreed that children and young people like Joe Brindle have been at the forefront of climate activism in recent years. The 2019 Global Week for Future, inspired by Greta Thunberg, saw 4,500 school strikes over 150 countries. Yet Greta Thunberg herself has said the fact that children have been left to take charge is “all wrong”. “I shouldn’t be up here... yet you all come to us young people for hope. How dare you!” she said at the 2019 UN Climate Summit.
What do we not know?
One main area of debate surrounds how exactly the climate crisis should be taught in schools. Joe Brindle believes “climate change and sustainable principles need to be woven like a golden thread throughout the curriculum,” with children learning about colonial links to fossil fuels in history, and sustainable materials in design lessons. Others say climate change could be taught in a specific course or set of lessons - one proposal is a natural history GCSE for 16-year-olds in England.

Word Watch

Ozone layer
Brindle says outdated resources he used at school confused the hole in the ozone layer, which is no longer regarded as the main threat to the planet, with global warming.
Teach the Future
The organisation also campaigns for all education buildings to have a net-zero carbon footprint by 2030 and for climate science to be included in teacher training.
Climate Emergency Education Bill
The bill was sponsored by 24-year-old Labour politician Nadia Whittome, the youngest Member of Parliament.
Space Race
The race between the US and the USSR to put a man on the Moon. The US education law was passed in response to the launch of the Soviet satellite Sputnik.
Labour
The official opposition party in the UK. At the 2019 UK General Election, Labour won 202 seats in the House of Commons compared to the Conservative’s 365.
Eco-anxiety
Students in New Zealand will keep a “feelings thermometer” to track their emotions and learn how to turn defeatist thoughts into climate activism.
Specific references
Instead, schools have a more general requirement to teach environmental change.
Paris Agreement
The main goal of the Paris Agreement, a legally binding international treaty, is to limit global warming to less than 2 degrees celsius.

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