How the education system can help to fight the climate crisis

  • Election 24

Professor Alison Anderson, Professor of Sociology, University of Plymouth 

In this piece, Professor Alison Anderson explores how the education system can help to fight the climate crisis including through embedding climate change and sustainability across the curriculum.

We are living in a time of multiple intersecting crises, including the climate emergency, declining biodiversity and the after-shocks of the COVID-19 pandemic: together these provide the perfect conditions for misinformation and disinformation to thrive. If the education system is to rise to the challenge, there must be a step change in how it prepares young people for a rapidly changing world.

We can tackle these issues if we act decisively.  Three things which would make a difference are:

  1. Embedding climate change and sustainability across the curriculum
  2. Making climate change and sustainability education more solutions focused
  3. Including critical thinking and media literacy skills as part of the national curriculum

There is a major skills shortage for the green economy. The Institute of Environmental Management Association reports that the UK is facing a green energy skills gap of 200,000 workers. Social media platforms are increasingly young people’s main source of news. The rise of artificial intelligence platforms such as ChatGPT have the potential to blur the lines between fact and fiction fostering increasing misinformation (unintentional) and disinformation (deliberate) about climate change.

Currently climate change education in UK secondary schools is largely confined to GCSE science and geography (which is optional). Given that only 5% of all GCSE subject entries in England in 2022 were for GCSE geography, few students receive climate change education via this route. A recent survey of 1,000 young people aged 14-18 across England (undertaken by the British Science Association in conjunction with the University of Plymouth) found that 7 in 10 secondary students across England would welcome more education on climate change and sustainability and think it should be integrated across the curriculum. It is not enough for secondary school students to be taught facts and figures about climate change and biodiversity loss detached from their socio-economic context; they need to be provided with the critical thinking and media literacy skills to meaningfully engage with the issues. This means challenging not only what young people are taught but, importantly, how they are taught. Whilst this requires a commitment to providing ring-fenced funding to support this, the costs of inaction are infinitely greater.

Here are three ways in which this could be achieved:

1) Embed climate change and sustainability across the curriculum

Teaching in ‘subject silos’ is disjointed and presents a confusing narrative which makes it difficult for young people to understand the subject of climate change as a whole or to link topics together. Instead, climate change should be taught across the curriculum including an emphasis on green careers in its widest sense. There is widespread support for this policy change among teachers. A TeacherTapp survey commissioned by the University of Plymouth in February 2023 (8,000+ teachers across the UK) found that just over half think laws need to be passed to integrate climate change across the curriculum. There is particularly strong support for this among teachers in their 20s, with almost two-thirds of those surveyed via TeacherTapp agreeing that laws need to be passed.

2) Make climate change and sustainability education more solutions focused

Record numbers of young people are anxious about the climate crisis but they feel powerless to do anything about it. Research conducted by the University of Plymouth in conjunction with the British Science Association shows that young people feel that climate change is presented as ‘a lost cause’ at secondary school with teaching tending to focus narrowly on impacts and rarely on solutions. This approach contributes to young people’s sense of climate change anxiety, leaving them feeling demotivated and disenfranchised. Climate change and sustainability education in secondary schools needs to be more solutions focused. This would give young people a greater sense of agency and may encourage them to explore green careers options.

Exploring solutions at school and local community level through active involvement of students is likely to be most effective. For example, studying the impact of solar panel installation on energy and cost savings or projects improving biodiversity within the local community.

3) Make critical thinking and media literacy skills part of the national curriculum

Young people access much of their information about current issues and events via online platforms such as YouTube and TikTok.  A recent House of Lords report, In our hands: behaviour change for climate and environmental goals, notes increasing concern about the spread of misinformation online. Currently media literacy may be taught in a range of subjects such as ICT and citizenship but does not form part of the curriculum. A survey conducted by Ofcom in 2022 found that the majority of young people aged 12-17 claimed they were confident that they could recognise what is real and fake online, but only 11% correctly selected, in an interactive survey question showing a social media post, the components of the post which reflected that it was genuine. Over a fifth were unable to identify a fake online social media profile (22%); a quarter of these thought that the profile picture and posted photos proved that it was real. Also, nine in ten were confident that they could spot advertising online, but less than four in ten (37%) correctly identified the links at the top of a search engine page as sponsored ads.

Research by the National Literacy Trust found half of teachers (53.5%) believe that the national curriculum does not equip children with the literacy skills they need to identify fake news and 2 in 5 parents (39%) never watch, listen to or read news with their child at home.

Rather than a bolt on or isolated part of ICT, media literacy works best when understood as multiple literacies taught across the curriculum, as in the case of Finland. Our education system could play a vital role in improving media literacy on climate change by using this topic as a case study and embedding critical thinking and media literacy skills across the curriculum.

Note: Readers can see more from Alison on this topic in Youth Voices in Sustainability and Climate Change Education which is one of several evidence summaries for policymakers produced by the University of Plymouth focusing on various topics.

About the author

Alison is Professor of Sociology at the University of Plymouth and Adjunct Professor in the School of Social Sciences, Monash University, Australia.  Her research focuses on risk communication particularly in terms of environmental issues and health.  Alison is a founding member of the International Environmental Communication Association and former Editor-in-Chief of the Routledge journal, Environmental Communication. She is currently an Editorial Board member of Environmental Communication and on the International Advisory Board of Environmental Media. At Plymouth, she is the research lead for the Environment, Culture and Society research group.


Photo credit: Markus Spiske, Unsplash