The latest UN Climate Conference, COP27, has come and gone with little change in the current trajectory for global heating. I am a science teacher but trained as an academic scientist with skills in robust research, critical analysis, and reporting. Back in 1995, just as COP1 was underway I gained a PhD in environmental science. In 2010, the year of COP16, I completed my PGCE. Between those dates the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere rose from 358 to 389 parts per million. By 2013, when the Secretary of State for Education Michael Gove updated the English national curriculum to remove any real focus on sustainability, carbon dioxide concentrations reached 400ppm.
Personally, I became acutely aware of the climate crisis in 2015 with the release of the Paris Agreement at COP21. The scientists working with the UN announced that, unless we internationally addressed and resolved the unrelenting burning of fossil fuels and poor agricultural practices, we were going to exceed 1.5oC of warming. They stated radical and urgent action needed to be taken. As a result of these warnings, I started making changes to my classroom practice by linking the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) throughout my science curriculum.
By COP26 in 2021 the carbon dioxide concentration had risen further to 415ppm with global temperatures 1.1oC higher than preindustrial levels. The UK heatwaves and droughts of the summer of 2022 brought the climate crisis into stark reality; there is now no doubt these events are far more likely to occur as a result of the compositional changes humans have made to the atmosphere. According to a report by the World Meteorological Organisation, the five hottest years in human history have been the past five years and around the globe we are beginning to witness unprecedented storms, droughts, famines, and forest fires.
At COP27 in Egypt last November (418ppm and 1.2oC) there were more delegates representing the fossil fuel industry than there were from any individual country and carbon dioxide levels are still rising. The UK Government might not be solely to blame for the climate crisis, but they are complicit and have recently stated their intention to award over 100 oil or gas extraction licences and open their first new coal mine in 30 years despite the UN clearly declaring that, to limit warming to 1.5oC, there should be no new fossil fuels. Unfortunately, the UK is not energy resilient, and the current cost of living crisis means the Government is still focussing on the short-term benefits of fossil fuels rather than the longer-term consequences.
At current levels of global heating, we are already seeing catastrophic events, so what on earth will our beautiful blue-green planet be like for children at 1.5oC which has been deemed ‘safe’ or 2oC which is the upper target, or 2.7oC which would cover existing government pledges or even 3.6oC the actual global temperature rises predicted based on existing emissions. To stay anywhere near 1.5oC we need global citizens to reduce carbon use (decarbonise) by 45% before 2030 and aim for Net Zero emissions by 2050. These should not be seen as aspirational targets as, in the interests of global equity and climate justice, wealthy countries must significantly exceed these targets to give poorer countries room for development.
On a brighter note, there were two outcomes from COP27 that are welcome; one was a breakthrough agreement on the new ‘Loss and Damage’ fund for vulnerable countries and the second was an announcement that young people are now official stakeholders in any national climate policy – this is fantastic news for youth voice and could be one of the most powerful tools in persuading politicians to stand by what they say. However, the lack of progress at COP27 to reduce reliance on fossil fuels makes me increasingly concerned of our ability to safeguard the future for young people both in the UK and around the world.
Back in April 2022 I was slightly disheartened with the release of the Department for Education’s Sustainability and Climate Change Strategy as it made no changes to the national curriculum for England to increase the amount of climate education. However, there was the welcome announcement of the need for a sustainability lead in all schools by 2025, a Climate Leaders award scheme and some reasonable suggestions for increasing biodiversity on school estates. In addition, £500 million funding has just been allocated by the DfE to ‘futureproof school buildings’ and, on a brighter note still, the curricula in Wales, Northern Ireland and Scotland already have a stronger focus on environmental education.
So, how does a teacher, who is exceedingly concerned by climate breakdown, remain upbeat in the classroom? Can educators prevent ecoanxiety or apathy in young people, listen to their points of view, and raise their voices high?
In several ways the government is clamping down on our efforts to address the climate crisis. Teachers need to remain impartial in the classroom. We are not encouraged to talk about the problems of capitalism without providing a balanced view, and we are unable to advocate any potentially partisan views such as the positive impact of activism by Fridays for Future, Extinction Rebellion, Just Stop Oil or Insulate Britain. Needless to say, the Government’s new Policing Act is cracking down further on protests.
However, there are plenty of things educators can do. Most young people find learning about environmental issues relevant and engaging. There are many examples of how climate education can be embraced in schools; from ensuring pupils understand their role in the world by bringing in global citizenship to outdoor learning which promotes a love of nature and from developing the oracy skills they need for persuasive arguments to get them thinking critically and solving problems. A great place to start is with the NEU resources on tackling climate change.
Taking action, for example through the EcoSchool, Let’s Go Zero or Energy Sparks programs, can ensure schools use less energy. Running whole school activities, involving parents, or working with members of the local community can also be hugely successful. One of the most important ways to precipitate change is still for pupils to contact their MPs, local government, and unsustainable businesses – and then hold them to account so they act on any promises. Promote anything you do in school on social media which creates ripples that will encourage others.
Painting a picture of how fun and rewarding a decarbonised life can be to young people is essential. They don’t want to hear that flying is an environmental nightmare, but they might love to learn that alternatives such as cycling in cities and rail travel around continental Europe are booming. Limiting the extraction of fossil fuels will lead to cleaner air, more biodiversity and less plastic pollution, win, win, win.
Over the past five years I have found that incorporating climate and sustainability education into my lessons and running extra-curricular eco-projects are both utterly rewarding and have alleviated much of my own climate anxiety. As teachers, our role is key to raising awareness of the climate crisis; if we educate children then parents and whole communities will become more responsive and proactive; collectively we have the clout to rival those in power and politics. We can ensure our pupils understand the big issues, facilitate any action they wish to take and have fun as they shout the results from the rooftops – raising the Youth Voice high. If we do, it might just help ensure a brighter future for us all.