By Dr Laurence Peters, Adjunct Associate Professor, Johns Hopkins University
We underestimate the effect that bad news, particularly about climate change, has on the minds of young people. Many young people feel that their futures and those of the planet are doomed.
A recent survey by a team of British university psychologists probed the climate anxiety felt by 10,000 young people aged 16-25 around the world; 77% said 'the future is frightening'; 68% feel sad; 63% feel anxious; 39% feel 'hesitant to have children'.1
What do we do as teachers faced with an emergency that most governments worldwide, including our own, have only tackled in a half-hearted way?
There is good news and bad news.
The good news is that the climate crisis has pushed many more students to become globally aware than they were a decade ago.
The bad news is that students might feel too depressed or overwhelmed and don’t see any point in caring about the future; after all, youth suicides continue to spike, and some have tied this to global warming.2
Of course, the Covid pandemic, the war in Ukraine and a host of other seemingly intractable issues have darkened the prospects for our 21st-century world.
The darkened atmosphere we all inhabit these days tends to overshadow any positive news.
But it would be a mistake to block out those rays of light from our consciousness.
For example, last year, some research revealed a finding that should wake up all educators. It was revealed that 'if only 16% of high school students in high- and middle-income countries were to receive climate change education, we could see a nearly 19 gigaton reduction of carbon dioxide by 2050.'
It's a startling finding. How could climate education translate into such a massive societal change?
We have to reassert the power of personal agency that, empowered with a positive and scientifically based message, can rid us of disease. The campaign to stop smoking is one example; ridding the world of smallpox and measles that used to kill millions is another example.
With regards to climate change, a Brookings article that cites this research points to the power of educating girls and women to help them avoid becoming passive victims of climate change but as agents of change.
Researchers suggest that for marginalized groups of all kinds 'when education helps students develop a strong personal connection to climate solutions, as well as a sense of personal agency and empowerment, it can have a consequential impact on students’ daily behaviors and decision-making that reduces their overall lifetime carbon footprint.'
It is not surprising, given the gloom and doom environment we all swim in these days, that this message has not been widely publicized and equally the finding that very few of our students know much about climate change.
Just 4% of students feel they know a lot, and more importantly, 42% feel they have 'learned little or hardly anything from school.'
The truth that emerges from all this is that educators remain on the front line of action against climate change.
We spend the most time out of any group in society with the younger generation, and our schools are perfectly situated to make a difference.
An average school’s reach of between 10,000-100,000 people is the right size, according to Brookings, to make collective action at the community level a reality.
Moreover, schools themselves have a lot to contribute to the debate about climate and the ability of small and medium organizations to make a difference.
As one Harvard report pointed out, 'schools are one of the largest public sector consumers of energy, producing the equivalent of 18 coal-fired power plants or 15 million cars each year.'3
The report also points out that over 94% of school buses use diesel—one of the worst carbon fuels imaginable and that switching to electric buses in schools can not only contribute to cleaner air but also save an average of USD 170,000 in maintenance and operation costs over the lifetime of a single electric bus.
The authors of the Brookings report propose A new green learning agenda. It suggests that quality climate change education must include five design elements:
- a cognitive point of entry, such as the introduction of a local environmental resource challenge and possible solutions to it
- an affective dimension that helps cultivate empathy toward the environment
- an existential component that challenges one’s sense of self and one’s way of living and being
- an ownership dimension generated by building a sense of responsibility over a local climate solution
- opportunities for empowered action through a community action project
The authors believe that 'If done at scale across the millions of school districts across the world, we could be well on our way to achieving net-zero emissions by 2050 and to ensuring the quality of life for future generations on this planet.'4
If that is not a worthy and urgent challenge, I am not sure what is.
We need leaders who understand both the science and the opportunity that education provides us to make a real impact on reducing the chances of cataclysmic changes occurring as a result of continuing to expand our carbon footprint,
As Dewey memorably wrote in his classic work Experience and Education, 'We always live at the time we live and not at some other time, and only by extracting at each present time the full meaning of each present experience are we prepared for doing the same thing in the future.'
The full meaning of this moment is that we still, despite all the prognosticators, have a moment of agency.
1 Marks, E., Hickman, C., Young People's Voices on Climate Anxiety, Government Betrayal and Moral Injury: A Global Phenomenon, The Lancet, September 21, 2021, https://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=3918955
2 Horton, M., The effects of climate change on suicide rates, Stanford Magazine, March 29, 2019, https://earth.stanford.edu/news/effects-climate-change-suicide-rates#gs.17nmig
3 Bauld A., Why Schools Need to Look at Their Own Carbon Footprint https://www.gse.harvard.edu/news/uk/21/11/why-schools-need-look-their-own-carbon-footprint, November 1, 2021
4 Kwauk C., and Winthrop,R., Unleashing the creativity of teachers and students to combat climate change: An opportunity for global leadership, March 26, 2021, https://www.brookings.edu/research/unleashing-the-creativity-of-teachers-and-students-to-combat-climate-change-an-opportunity-for-global-leadership/