Is climate change a turn off for schools?

Superheroes save the world – let’s empower our children to be eco-superheros as we need their amazing potential and young minds to solve the climate crisis. They can and will do it and it’s an exciting time.

In the last few weeks, I have noticed an amazing disconnect between global events, people I have met, and things I have read.

Let me explain. The United Nations have delivered two vital reports as a wake-up call to governments and people right across the world. They have let us know, in no uncertain terms, that we have only 12 years left to limit (not fix) the damage we are doing by warming the earth’s atmosphere and in 12 years time we will go past the point of no return when we have warmed the earth by 1.5c. This is big news and needs action. The second and possibly more alarming news is that if we don’t get on top of the rapid biodiversity loss, within 2 years, we are effectively signing the go-ahead for a mass extinction including our species.

So we should all be aware of that information and none of us in the UK or beyond should have any problems trying to do our bit to help, or so I thought.

I recently visited my daughter at college, she is a vegan, recycler buys clothes from charity shops and is totally connected to the plight of our planet and also to the amazing culture that tribes have. She is like this because she has been raised in a home that is tuned into these issues and that connected her. The first time she hand fed a ringtailed lemur she connected. When she met my friend Nixiwaka, an Amazon Indian, she connected – she bonded to the natural world and her life will now be greatly enhanced and influenced by those encounters.

We need to enable all children to build bonds like this using our amazing creativity and technology as my daughter’s contemporaries appear to have little knowledge or respect for the environment. There is little sign of any attempt to recycle, to reduce waste, reduce plastic or even to tidy their own home. They have been raised as consumers – small copies of their parents with no interest in the longterm future it seems.

It appears (from this tiny snapshot I admit) that our education system isn’t having enough impact in the key area of the environment. These young people have just left the British education system and they have no clue how to behave to stay well, eat well or keep a home clean, let alone how to recycle or tread gently on the planet.

To compound this I read a tweet from a teacher bemoaning teaching the climate change and environment part of the curriculum. She claimed it was ‘a turn off’ for the children and was ‘depressing’ and that she had no idea how to deliver it. If the subject is perceived in that way from the one delivering it there really is no hope. We have to see the new generation and all their amazing potential to effect change and excite them to do so. The climate change topic should be seen as inspiring, a chance to make a difference and delivered with real passion and hope. Yes, the facts make for grim reading but we have to have hope and inspire that in our children as they will be the ones that will be solving the mess we have created and they can do it if they believe they can and have the passion to do so. We have to instil that passion.

And then we have the unthinkable situation in Brazil with the president-elect, Jair Bolsonaro, and his pledge to open up the Amazon rainforest for mining and agriculture and to arm the farmers and miners so they can shoot tribal people, who just so happen to be the world’s best ‘conservationists’ and who have been managing and keeping our wilderness areas healthy for hundreds of thousands of years.

It’s a toxic mix but we all have to do our bit to strive to re-frame the information and at least to raise our children to be aware and to take individual small steps to reduce their impact on the planet. That is positive and empowers the individual to effect change.

There are many practical things children and families can do today to make a difference and it is vital that they see the need, personally feel the need, to actually make these changes and that bonding/connecting/personalising of the subject is what my ‘Last Chance to Paint’ project is all about.

Here is a small list of practical things that teachers could build into their lessons, ideally using art or music to connect the children first to the subject – make it personal and then ask them to consider these things in their life:

Food

There are so many things everybody can do to reduce their impact on the planet by the everyday choices we make with food. These choices directly impact the CO2 output and the rate of warming. There is a lot to discuss and research here but if each family tried to:

Reduce dairy use – have they tried Oat milk for example – it’s delicious on cereal. There is a lot to look into and things to taste and discuss but it can be apart of a positive angle on climate change.

Reduce or eliminate meat – Meat is the big one to try and remove – that could reduce our emissions of greenhouse gases by around 18% it is estimated – that is more than all the transport in the world emits. It’s a tricky subject as people assume protein is generally available from meat but get the pupils to look into other protein sources and start some debates.

Metal drinking bottle – This is so easy and saves money too. Encourage the children to look at drinking bottles and to get a metal one for themselves and every member of their family. Do some maths – how many bottles would that stop being produced every year in the UK, the EU, the World?

Cling film – a very unnecessary use of plastic and it contaminates the food too. What could be used instead? There are a few examples to discover.

Fish – If we want to reduce the plastic on the oceans and protect marine ecosystems then taking fish off the menu might be a good point of discussion. It is estimated that 70% of all plastic in the sea is from the fishing industry. How does farmed fish damage the planet? Are their communities around the world that need to eat fish to get their protein?

Fast food and coffee – The trend to have fast food and the explosion of fast food outlets is increasing greenhouse gases quickly and some fast-food outlets have famously increased rainforest deforestation with beef farming. Who are the biggest companies and what are their policies like? How many chickens get thrown away each day as waste? There is so much to look into and maths and science to explore and facts the children might want to know.  Why does anyone need fast food? Is it really necessary to buy a takeaway coffee or drink in a cup? How much waste and greenhouse gases would be stopped if we adjusted our new behaviour?

School Meals – This is where the school can really engage the children and demonstrate better foods for the body that have a lower carbon footprint. Challenge the children to design some new menus and reduce or eliminate meat on a few or all days of the week for instance. Did you know that a baked potato is a complete balanced food and contains everything the body needs especially protein? Is the potato a staple food?

Local Produce -Buying locally produced food obviously helps with the climate – but in an average trolley of food how many countries does the food come from or the ingredients in the food? It would be fun to get the children to start to look at the ingredients and products their families purchased and make some charts and maps to track this.

Recycling

Recycle or not? – Is it better to recycle or to landfill or to incinerate? If we recycle do we know what happens to it and where it goes? Should we even try and recycle plastic – are we sure we know it doesn’t end up in the ocean? This is a huge and interesting area to look at and it really matters – nobody wants to see birds and sea life consuming plastic, but do the children know they are also consuming it now too? What are their thoughts and ideas? Is plastic the real issue or is it cotton? Which is better a plastic bag or cotton bag? The answers aren’t quite as straightforward as you might think. We need their smart young brains to help to solve the waste issues.

Learn to mend things

How many things get thrown away because they are broken or a bit broken? Can everyday things be mended? How many of the children know how to patch clothes, darn socks, glue a chair leg back on or solder in a new capacitor in some electronics? This could be a fun and exciting way to talk about waste and energy use and you could have a fix it day in school! Is it better to buy an electric car or keep using the old one? What is the energy use on both? How will we charge all those cars and make the electricity? What about hydrogen power? Is petrol or diesel better? A lot depends on the situation the vehicle is used in so there can be lots of discussions.

Gardens

Gardens can be designer, paved, decked, smart, etc but what is happening to wildlife? Hedges, messy area, bug houses, water and composting areas are all vital for the immediate biodiversity of where we live. If your school doesn’t have any form of wildlife area now is the time to explore creating one. What should it have? What insects and animals might it attract? With bird and insect populations crashing by as much as 70% it is really important that the children get out there and start to fix things.

BBQs

We all love a bbq, right? Well, ask the children to investigate the impact of the average disposable bbq? Where is the wood from that makes the charcoal? How could we adjust cooking outside to be less harmful? Should we bbq at all?

All of these points and many more can be healthy areas for debate, research and hopefully some lifestyle changes, but if the children don’t bond in some way to the environment, people, plants or animals they might still not see the need. I know if we don’t get our act together my friend Nixiwaka from the Amazon could lose his home due to ranching, climate change or reduced biodiversity. We are all chasing to stay below 1.5c globally but that is an average – some parts of the tropics have already exceeded 2c today and we need a new generation of eco-superheros to help us.

If you are a teacher or a parent don’t just ‘photocopy’ yourself but inspire the children to be better than you, to challenge things, to connect to the world and remind them that they are part of nature and part of the eco-system and have a right to be here but that that means they need to look after nature too. It falls on us all to take on this amazing situation and our children can help to solve it I am sure.