What should we tell the children about climate change?

kids in classroom smallThis post is by Jonathan Baggaley, chief executive of the PSHE Association.

Now that the changing of the seasons is unreliable, the school year seems reassuringly predictable. In September, whatever the weather, four and five-year olds across the country will bustle into schools and start their trip through the curriculum.

When these same children shuffle into exam halls for their A levels, the actions we take now on greenhouse gas emissions will have defined the world they’ll be entering. Will we have done enough to avoid the worst, or will it be a world locked into catastrophic warming? How will their schools have prepared them for this future?

Facing the truth about climate change is hard, not least for how it makes us feel about our position in human history. Our own lives can end at any moment but the knowledge there is human history to come adds meaning to our intentions and actions. What if we are among the last generations of humans? How should we spend our time on earth? Business as usual isn’t an option.

As a human, and chief executive of the PSHE Association, I feel this challenge keenly.  Our organisation’s mission is to ensure everyone develops the knowledge and skills they need to thrive, now and in the future; and we have long helped schools teach young people about the most pressing issues they face, from mental health to relationships, and balanced diets to staying safe online.

But climate change is not an issue, it is the ground we walk on and the air we breathe. It is the question of whether future possibilities for development, creativity and joy remain. How should schools respond?

Once the science has been grasped, what should we teach?
One answer is to give climate change a central place on the National Curriculum to “ensure the education system portrays the ecological crisis in lessons and pupils learn about it more”, as the Youth Climate Strike demands.  But are schools not ‘teaching the truth’ as Extinction Rebellion claim? Is more knowledge about climate change the answer?

The National Curriculum doesn’t provide an accurate picture of everything being taught in schools, indeed Academies don’t have to follow it, but it does provide a guide to what government expects schools to teach. Currently, climate change is only covered in secondary science and geography and, as a result, the focus is on human, physical and scientific mechanisms of climate change.

Isn’t that the easy part? The real challenge is what to teach once students have grasped the enormity of the science.

Take the carbon budget. To have a reasonable hope of limiting warming to 1.5 degrees we can only emit another 400 billion tonnes of CO2 into the atmosphere. We currently emit 40 billion tonnes a year. Teach a child that this budget will be gone before they’re allowed to drive a car and how do we think they will respond?

One response could be to reject the curriculum completely. As Greta Thunberg has said, “what is the point of learning facts when the most important facts given by the finest scientists are ignored by our politicians?”

You can argue for learning for its own sake.  But can’t she counter that is a luxury she can’t afford? Or more accurately a luxury stolen from her by previous generations. How can we answer this challenge?

The National Curriculum aims to introduce young people to the “best that has been thought and said, and help engender an appreciation of human creativity and achievement.” But if our current path burns a full stop in the pages of human history, it will force a re-reading of our past. When our children study a graph of global GDP and a graph of carbon concentration in the atmosphere, they will see two lines rising together. Will they appreciate ‘human achievement’ which has carbonised the atmosphere, or curse it?

Providing the knowledge and confidence to make hard decisions
The Expert Panel, who reviewed the National Curriculum in 2011, concluded that, “given the government’s ambitious carbon targets…we suggest the Government considers a recommendation that the school curriculum should also contribute to environmental ‘stewardship.”

At the time, the government chose not to include this as an aim for the National Curriculum. But with today’s new urgency surely ‘stewardship’ would make an excellent starting point for individual schools as they consider the purposes of their own curricula?

And, of course, many schools will want to go further. Stewardship, rather than dominance, of the natural world will be essential to our survival but so will our relationship to each other. Young people will need to answer the challenges to come, not just as scientists and civil engineers, in their businesses and supply chains, but in the everyday course of living. Strong local communities and deep global partnerships will be needed.

To create these, we will need young people who know how to develop and maintain strong relationships with friends, partners and their community. They will need to be emotionally literate, able to name their fears and anxieties and harness the resources they need to sustain wellbeing. They will need the space and support to consider their hopes and aspirations, the knowledge to support their health and the confidence to make hard decisions when future challenges arise.

The future is uncertain but the present is full of hope
PSHE (personal, social, health and economic) education is the school subject that develops these capabilities. Its curriculum covers relationships, health and wellbeing, careers and achieving aspirations. At their best, PSHE lessons start with the issues affecting young people day to day and provide the knowledge, skills and personal qualities they need to make their own decisions in real life situations.

As those situations are increasingly affected and defined by climate change, PSHE will be ever more central, developing to respond to young people’s concerns, hopes and needs. My own hope is that PSHE will provide an anchor for the rest of the curriculum, helping young people to marvel at human ingenuity and draw strength, rather than sorrow, from our history.

Our future is deeply uncertain, but the present is full of hope. Renewables are now cheaper than fossil fuels, energy storage is advancing and electric cars will replace petrol sooner than we think. These developments show we have the technology, but it will not be technology which saves us. It will be humans.

There’s reason to believe we can. Years of near silence on the topic have been broken and conversations enabled and energised in the press and parliament. More and more people are not only aware of the impact of human activity on the climate, but actively engaged in tackling it in their personal, professional and political lives.

Even so. How can we hope to do so much in so little time? The great minds of the past may provide some answers. Take prolific composer Duke Ellington, an exceptional example of human creativity and achievement. How did he achieve so much? “I don’t need time,” he said, “I need a deadline.”

We’ve got a deadline.

If we meet it, our children’s children will learn the best that has been thought, said and done in our age. Perhaps they will marvel at all we achieved together. Perhaps they will celebrate our creativity. Perhaps their curriculum will leave them proud to be human.

The PSHE Association is the national body for PSHE education. A charity and membership organisation, the Association works to improve PSHE education standards by supporting a national network of teachers and schools with advice, training and resources.

One comment

  • Sarah marshall

    There is so much gloom around the way environmental issues are presented that it is hard enough for adults let alone children

    It would be great to see a new approach to env issues and how we present them to children and give them hope and ways to act positively to create change

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