Fighting Climate Change Starts At School

“The Ministry of Magic has always considered the education of young witches and wizards to be of a vital importance. Although each headmaster has brought something new to this… historic school, progress for the sake of progress must be discouraged. Let us preserve what must be preserved, perfect what can be perfected and prune practices that ought to be… prohibited!

With those words, Dolores Umbridge enters the life of Harry Potter at the start of his 5th year at Hogwarts School of Wizardry and Witchcraft. A little speech aptly interpreted by Hermione Granger as “The Ministry is interfering at Hogwarts.” Played by Imelda Staunton, these days, Umbridge is being impersonated by UK Secretary of State for Education Michael Gove, or at least according to a post on the UK Youth Climate Coalition (UKYCC) blog, calling Mr. Gove the Climate Change High Inquisitor.

Seriously now, what’s happening?

After the much-talked-about introduction of climate change into formal education curricula across the UK in 2007 — including the Brown ministry being taken to court over the distribution of Al Gore’s documentary An Inconvenient Truth — the current Cameron ministry, in the person of its Secretary of State for Education Mr. Gove, has decided to take it off again. The change means climate change as such will be scrapped in the so-called Key Stages 1 to 3, roughly corresponding to primary and the first half of secondary school, or everyone under the age of 14.

Are they just reconsidering a small bit of policy then?

According to a spokesperson of the Department of Education, there is no need for concern, as “all children will learn about climate change. It is specifically mentioned in the science curriculum and both climate and weather feature throughout the geography curriculum.” Rita Gardner, director of the Royal Geographical Society, on the other hand, welcomes the change, saying that “in the past, in some instances, young people were going to start on climate change without really knowing about climate” and she expects students to be better prepared by the time they start discussing climate change earnestly at the age of 14.

Various other stakeholders were quick to denounce the Ministry’s move though, and with reason. Arguments range from the desired content of climate education, over the responsibility towards future generations, to what the government’s former science advisor Prof Sir David King calls “a major political interference with the geography syllabus.”

One of the loudest protests against the decision comes from a secondary school student, Esha Marwaha, a member of the UK Youth Climate Coalition (UKYCC). Outraged by the move, Esha launched a petition which collected 25,000 signatures in less than two weeks, calling on Mr. Gove to “Keep Climate Change in the Curriculum.” A call supported by the results of a recent AEGEE survey on sustainability, where 73% of respondents asked for more attention for sustainability education.

attention for sustainability

Other opponents of the decision include John Ashton, former government climate change envoy, and Jim Hickman, author of “Will Jellyfish Rule the World”, a book about climate change aimed at 8 to 10-year-olds. Both disagree with Ms. Gardner’s claim that kids younger than 14 could not grasp the complexities of climate change. “We must never underestimate a child’s intelligence, or their capacity and eagerness to learn something new,” says Mr. Hickman, while Mr. Ashton also touches upon our responsibility towards the next generation: “We cannot let our children face such a journey without equipping them at the earliest possible stage with a compass.”

An approach which actually seems to work, and is being supported by climate campaigners and scientists who say teaching about climate change in schools has helped mobilise young people to be the most vociferous advocates of action by governments, business and society to tackle the issue. Coincidence then that the UK government is trying to eliminate climate education for young students?

Not according to Esha, who claims that “our government intend to not only fail to act on climate change themselves, but to obscure the truth, and any chance young people have to act.” Camilla Born, international expert at UKYCC shares her point of view: “It appears climate change is being systematically removed from the curriculum.” A frightening perspective, when at the same time in the US, the National Research Council is updating nationwide science standards to include climate change, building on the fact that “only one in five students feel they have a good handle on climate change from what they’ve learned  in school.”

Moreover, effective climate change education should include much more than just the scientific functioning of climate and weather. As Mr. Ashton puts it, “what’s important is not so much the chemistry as the impact on the lives of human beings.” This coincides with the findings of Rosalyn McKeown Ph.D. in her seminal Education for Sustainability toolkit, where she states that we need more than a theoretical discussion at this point, and that education therefore needs to be used “as a tool to achieve sustainability”.

CC Melinda Stelton

Finally, the Ministry defends its decision by pointing out that the change would not forbid the teaching of climate change — which, luckily, prevents this from being a perfect Umbridge parallel — but allows ‘sensible teachers’ to introduce it whenever they feel ready for it. Mr. Hickman draws a complete comparison between the current and proposed guidelines to prove this possibility, but not every teacher will read those guidelines with the same intent of adding climate change on his own initiative. As Mr. Ashton points out, the changes “would make it legitimate not to do so.”

In conclusion, the Ministry tries to justify removing climate change from the lower curricula by using a list of highly debatable arguments, which have been strongly opposed by both scientists and civil society:

1. Climate change is too complex to teach below 14 — Wrong, we cannot start educating early enough.
2. Teaching climate change is still allowed — Wrong, it will only be effective when clearly supported.
3. Climate change is still sufficiently mentioned — Wrong, this change will decrease kids’ readiness.

AEGEE-Europe/ European Students’ Forum strongly supports actions and campaigns for a wide-spread presence of education for sustainability at all stages of the education curriculum. This was reflected recently in the almost unanimous vote of AEGEE-locals in the Netherlands for the topic as focus for lobbying by the Dutch youth council (NJR), which was subsequently confirmed at the NJR’s general assembly.

In times of increasing attention for sustainability in all parts of social life, removing climate change from the curriculum is not only illogical but also counter-productive in the joint effort for more sustainable ways of living. As Esha puts it: “All the people who are passionate about this issue call for more climate education, not less. We should be taking a step forwards, not backwards.”

AEGEE-Europe therefore supports the petition by Esha and the UKYCC, and urges the British government to reverse its decision and keep climate change firmly rooted in the educational curriculum. In the end, we all have to fight climate change or face its effects, and education is key in providing us with the knowledge and tools for doing this. Ignoring this fact is not serving anyone.

Mathieu Soete is AEGEE-Europe’s Policy Officer on Sustainability, working on Education for sustainability and Sustainable entrepreneurship. This post was also published on the AEGEE-Europe blog.

UPDATE: On July 8, 2013 The Independent reported that climate change education is back on the menu!

“It has been reported that climate change is now set to feature explicitly in the geography curriculum, after a campaign raising concerns that it was not specifically referenced in the syllabus garnered widespread support.

Hailing the changes, Mr Cameron said: “We are determined to give all children in this country the very best education for their future and for our country’s future.”

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