‘Pingu will die’: children’s perceptions of climate change

This post is by Green Alliance policy intern Kayleigh McGrath.

The children of today are the adults of tomorrow. Quite an obvious statement, I know, but a vitally important one when considering how best to educate our children about climate change.

With a review of the National Curriculum well underway, and recent studies detailing a dramatic fall in public support for tackling climate change, is it time that we looked more deeply into how young people understand climate change?

Currently, children are bombarded with an array of contradictory and confusing messages about our changing climate; ‘The Day After Tomorrow’ told them that the world is going to freeze over, last years ‘Mission Green Santa’ TV programme told them that Santa’s runway could melt and cancel Christmas (gasp!), while DECC’s ‘Change how the story ends’ adverts have turned their fairy tales into horrible nightmares.

The wondrous Frozen Planet has no doubt inspired swathes of children to become interested in the plight of threatened polar bears and penguins. But back in reality, do children really know their O2 phones  from their CO2 emissions?

Mixed messages
Well, earlier this year I questioned seventy pupils, all aged between 13 and 14, about their perceptions of climate change as part of my undergraduate dissertation.

All in all, my findings paint a muddled picture. Overwhelmingly, the children questioned were interested in climate change, but they were confused about its causes and effects, and were worried about their future.

Most understood that greenhouse gases contributed to the changing climate but several misconceptions prevailed; one of the most pervasive was the association of climate change with ozone layer depletion. On several occasions children vividly described how the ozone ‘hole’ was ‘letting in all the suns’ heat’, causing the planet to warm up and the ice to melt.  Some even presented detailed diagrams of this (incorrect) ‘scientific phenomenon’ filled with darting arrows and colourful pictures.

Perhaps teachers still see the ozone ‘hole’ as a priority, given the decade most were educated in, or maybe the seemingly logical and indeed tangible nature of this explanation appealed to these young minds? Either way, there is no doubt that misunderstandings and misconceptions like this are potentially damaging.

‘Politicians are idiots for doing nothing’
There was also considerable evidence that the children, like many adults, had engaged with an ‘alarmist’ repertoire. When questioned about the future, several children communicated a range of quite extreme answers, with responses ranging from the apocalyptic: ‘the world and everything in it will be destroyed’, to the downright saddening: ‘Pingu will die’. In fact, children appeared most concerned about the future of animals, communicating a fear for their survival that resonated throughout the study.

On a more positive note, the young people in my study were keen to see more robust action taken to combat climate change. ‘Politicians are idiots for doing nothing’ said one rather savvy participant, while another claimed that ‘people just need to wake up and sort it out’, a sentiment that I am sure some of us would wholeheartedly agree with.

For me, listening to children’s understandings of the world really brought home the threat of climate change and, more importantly, highlighted our obligation as adults (and stewards of the planet) to provide clear, accurate information about the challenges ahead.

Participants in my study claimed they gained most of their climate knowledge through T.V and newspapers rather than at school, despite climate change being included in the national curriculum since 1995. Worryingly, if  Tim Oats, a key government advisor on education, gets his way climate change could be omitted from the curriculum altogether. From a government that aspires to be the ‘greenest ever’, removing the commitment to teach children about climate change would be entirely contradictory and wholly detrimental.

Whist many of the young people I spoke to were worried, even scared, about climate change, I do feel it would be wrong to frame children as naive or helpless. Quite the contrary, both the children in my research and the wider youth movement have shown that they are engaged with climate change (more so than most adults!) and are able and, indeed willing, to contemplate these issues with vigour and enthusiasm. It is obvious that children can be powerful agents of change, let’s listen to them and equip them with the right tools to face the challenges bestowed upon them.

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