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Restoring our Planet starts in the classrooms

The past year has been a stark reminder that we live in a fragile and deeply interconnected socio-ecological system. As today we celebrate Earth Day all around the world in the name of Restoring our Earth, we should speak about an indispensable building block of this restoration work: climate change education.

Today’s young generation grew up with climate change. It has been an integral part of their vocabulary since the day they were old enough to read and it took an increasing sense of urgency every day since. Unlike earlier generations who learnt about climate change over a long period of time as it slowly cracked into the mainstream discourse, this young generation cannot recall a time when climate change was not a topic of discussion.

Media coverage of climate change has consistently increased in the past years showing us daily the adverse effects of the climate crisis on our environment, our homes and our communities. Recently the term climate anxiety has crept into the lexicon to better describe our growing concerns about climate change and statistics show that eco-anxiety is overwhelming children who are feeling hopeless in face of our rapidly deteriorating environment.

Growing up with this new climate reality is challenging to say the least. Although this young generation did nothing to cause the climate crisis, there is mounting pressure on them to take responsibility and act otherwise it will be too late. However, important questions are left unanswered: in fact, what is climate change? What are its causes and effects? What can we do to change this?

These are crucial questions. Kids around the world are learning mathematics, history, science and languages every day in school. If we want them to become well-informed, climate-aware adults who will later make informed and responsible decisions, climate education should be given the same importance at school as any core subject. If we want to achieve climate-neutrality by the middle of the century we have to build the foundations of a climate-literate population now and education is paramount to make any transformative change in a society that has to come a long way to save our Planet.

“The transformation we are going through is so enormous, unprecedented in history, there is just no way to make it without a serious role for education,” Petr Daniš, Chief Executive of TEREZA tells CEENERGYNEWS, who is working for the development of climate change education in the Czech Republic.

According to a recent poll, Czech high school students consider climate change the global problem number one, an even bigger one than COVID-19, terrorism or wars. However, when it comes to action they are pretty much in the dark. As Petr Daniš describes some are already scared of the prospects of their future and many are alienated from the society they live in, which causes the crisis. A deep generation gap is building which could become a full-scale problem on its own if we do not face it.

“We must bring climate change to the heart of education because this is what young people are concerned about. We must make education more relevant to their lives and futures, and help them act on the problem,” he says.

But what is the current status of climate change education? The European Federation of Academies of Sciences and Humanities ALLEA was trying to find the answer to this question in its recently published report: A Snapshot of Climate Change – Education Initiatives in Europe, as there seems to be a dearth of research that provides an overview of different climate change education initiatives currently available throughout Europe.

“We believed that research that would collate information about the different climate change education initiatives would be useful in identifying high-quality resources that could be disseminated throughout Europe,” Cliona Murphy, Chair of ALLEA’s Science Education Working Group and lead author of the report tells CEENERGYNEWS, adding that the study also helped to identify gaps that could be addressed in the development of future climate change education resources.

It is apparent that there are numerous resources and initiatives available throughout Europe to support teaching and learning about climate change, which could be accessed more easily through a common platform. As Mrs Murphy says such a platform does not yet exist. However, the issue has been raised amongst among climate change education circles and is also something that ALLEA has identified as important for sharing best practices and for supporting teachers in teaching about climate change.

Petr Daniš mentions that in the Czech Republic the leading organisations in the field of climate change education are already grouping to establish one common platform and webpage to support teachers on how to teach the subject in the classroom.

Bulgaria is also making significant steps towards introducing climate education in schools. Kamelia Georgieva from the National Trust EcoFund (NTEF) tells us about a milestone project titled Towards introduction of Climate action in schools and kindergarten, supported by the European Climate Initiative (EUKI).

“The core of this project was the establishment of a Bulgarian team of 12 university professors, who developed an original teachers’ training program and materials,” says Mrs Georgieva highlighting that these materials are now available to be used in all Bulgarian schools and kindergarten.

“As a result of the work and the ongoing discussions and analysis, the university professors are now coming up with a proposal to the Ministry of Education for updates of the official educational standards as the legal basis for the content and methodology of education in Bulgaria,” she explains.

Last year the announcement of Italy to require students in every grade to study climate change out the spotlight on the issue of compulsory climate education as a core, integrated subject in school curricula.

Cliona Murphy says that primary and post-primary curricula in countries throughout Europe (including Germany, Austria, Switzerland, Ireland, France, Scotland, Denmark, Poland, Hungary, Spain) do include learning outcomes and content related to climate change in both science and geography curricula. But in many cases, it is the discretion of individual schools and teachers regarding what is actually taught and implemented in terms of climate change education.

According to Petr Daniš, the emphasis should be placed on developing a wide range of hands-on support for teachers in climate change education beyond the general mandate to teach about climate as it’s a complex and difficult topic many teachers are themselves not familiar with or confused about and ineffective pedagogies may cause more harm than good.

“In the Czech Republic there are some remarks and hints on climate change both in the national curricula and the new education strategy until 2030, but they are too loose. Many of us now try to convince our Ministry of Education to adopt a more substantial, explicit and bolder approach,” says Mr Daniš.

Environmental education and education for sustainable development are optional in the Greek education system tells Theodora Polyzoidou, Educational Programmes Coordinator of the Hellenic Society for the Protection of Nature. That means teachers, from pre-primary education to secondary education, work on a voluntary basis on themes and projects related to climate change, the environment and sustainable development. However, the curriculum is currently under revision by the Ministry of Education which gives hope that climate change education will be integrated into the revised edition.

Courtesy of the Hellenic Society for the Protection of Nature.

“This generation will be highly affected by the consequences of climate change, so it should be our priority to educate them in order to promote adaptation and mitigation solutions,” says Ms Polyzoidou.

“The biggest challenge is inducing lifestyles change and supporting students to deal with climate change anxiety in a constructive way, by providing them with skills, means and ways to combat climate change in their everyday life.”

This is the mission of the Eco-Schools programme, which encourages young people to engage in their environment by allowing them the opportunity to actively protect it. It starts in the classroom, it expands to the school and eventually fosters change in the community at large.

“Becoming an Eco-Schools is a whole-school effort to embed environmental and sustainability education and operation to the everyday life of school community,” says Petr Daniš. “Climate change is one of the topics of the Eco-Schools program, but in fact, it is implied in many other topics like energy and food and transportation and others.”

Eco-Schools challenges students to engage in tackling environmental problems at a level where they can see tangible results, spurring them on to realise that they really can make a difference. The programme consists of three structural elements – The Seven Steps Framework, the Eco-Schools Themes and Assessment for the Green Flag. Over the years the Eco-Schools programme has become a global programme engaging 19.5 million children across 67 countries, making it the largest educational programme on the planet.

Eeva Kirsipuu-Vadi, National Operator of Eco-Schools Programme says that in Estonia already 160 educational institutions have joined the Eco-Schools programme.

“In Estonia’s national curriculum the environment and sustainable development is one of the horizontal themes to be integrated into different subjects, and climate change is part of that topic,” says Ms Kirsipuu-Vadi.

“Teachers face the challenge of how to reach the children and pupils and the Eco-Schools network can provide help by sharing experiences, teaching materials and methods on how to address these issues at school.”

As an example, she mentions a campaign organised this January to reduce the digital footprint of Eco-Schools network members called the Digital Cleanup Week. All together 36 kindergartens and 30 schools all over Estonia participated in the campaign to draw attention to digital waste and the environmental footprint of our digital consumption.

The campaign consisted of small specific tasks starting from unsubscribing from unnecessary emails to sorting through photos on storage service accounts. The week culminated in a nationwide Digital Cleanup Day 2021 organised by a partnering telecommunications company Telia raising awareness that disposing of digital waste should become as common as sorting waste and emptying the bin at home.

These programmes that give hands-on experience for both students and teachers about the implications of climate change and sustainable choices are crucial. As Petr Daniš points out effective climate change education is complex and although learning about scientific facts is important to get a deeper understanding of the topic, climate change education should also address our emotions, exploring the root causes and empowering students to take part in climate action in their own lives, communities and schools to help them to become active citizens of the 21st century.

Climate literacy was at the centre of this year’s Earth Day, which started on 20 April with a global youth climate summit led by Earth Uprising, in collaboration with My Future My Voice, OneMillionOfUs and hundreds of youth climate activists.

The programme continued with the Teach for the Planet: Global Education Summit led by Education International, representing 32 million educators in partnership with EARTHDAY.ORG.

“Teachers know that the most important long-term investment our societies can make towards a sustainable future is ensuring every student is literate about climate science and equipped with the civic knowledge and skills to change course,” said David Edwards, General Secretary of Education International.

He emphasised that all world leaders must commit to creating the necessary educational space and resources so that students learn the world’s most important lesson.

Source: Teach for the Planet: Global Education Summit

John Kerry, Special Presidential Envoy for Climate who also took part in the Teach for the Planet Summit said it was imperative to have an educated and informed population about climate change, as a consensus around the truth is fundamental for a functioning democracy.

Now all eyes are on world leaders, who will have a chance to turn a page and drive global mobilisation for quality climate education at the upcoming United Nations climate conference (COP26), co-hosted by the United Kingdom and Italy in Glasgow in November 2021.

The stakes are high. We need to dramatically step up our efforts to meet the objectives of the Paris Agreement and that includes providing future generations with the knowledge of preserving and restoring our Planet.

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