Knowledge Bank - Creative Teaching & Learning

Primary Climate Change Curriculum

Now, more than ever, students want to know about the climate emergency and teachers want guidance on how to teach about the biggest crisis facing the planet – climate change. And who better to help teachers with this than CTL, the leading practical journal for teachers.

I am delighted to be asked to be a guest editor for CTL on the important topic of Climate Change and Ecological emergency. On the other hand, as I enter my 70th year, I am not delighted to find that despite 40 years talking, writing and teaching about the environmental crisis, things have only got worse. 

There are turning points in history, and 2020 is one of those moments. It will be remembered for the year the Covid-19 pandemic hit the world economy. As a result, pollution and greenhouse gas emissions have fallen across the world and our entire way of life has been affected. Schools are in lockdown as I write, and many young people face an uncertain future. 

All predictions are for an unprecedented global recession which will adversely affect our children. Covid-19 has pushed the climate and biodiversity crisis off people’s agenda. It has caused increased anxiety, confusion and despair as climate change is pushed down the agenda. On the plus side Covid-19 has shown that the world community can act with speed to take action when faced with a crisis. 

The Climate crisis is much worse than Covid-19 and will disproportionately affect younger people who face the largest long-term impacts of climate change. Our young people will be hearing a lot about what needs to be done to recover from Covid-19. Many are calling for a new green deal as a way out of the post-Covid recession. They will be asking lots of questions and as educators we need to be well-informed so we can guide them through the issues.  

We all have a journey to make in understanding climate change and the impact it is having on our lives. My first knowledge of the issue came in 1978 when I watched a BBC programme about a former diplomat, Robert Higgins and his book, “The Seventh Enemy”. In the book he carefully outlined six concrete enemies that humanity was facing: the decaying environment, resource scarcity, the exploding population, starvation, the nuclear threat and out-of-control technology. At the time I was a single parent struggling to make ends meet and feeling quite lonely, isolated and depressed. It was in this context that the Seventh Enemy really spoke to me. The seventh enemy was apathy which summed up general attitudes to the six enemies listed above. 

Higgins was probably the first person to link together war, poverty and environmental degradation into a single overarching theme. Having watched the programme, I wanted his book and I went up to London the next day to Foyles’ bookshop. With persistence (which was needed in those days without internet) I found the book and devoured it. 

The book changed my life. At the time I taught communication part-time in an FE college. I had a lot of flexibility and the content of my teaching was entirely my choice as long as my students (day release students ranging from painters and decorators to HND Engineering students) developed their communication skills.  At the end of Higgins’ book were lists of organisations that could help me teach what I discovered was called Development Education

My next trip to London was to a Development Education Centre in Hackney where I was able to buy teaching resources to help me learn about and teach the issues Higgins had identified. My favourite resource, “Choices in Development: Kenya and Tanzania” is a photograph pack that used active learning approaches to help young people make sense of the world for themselves. That pack set me on the path of writing teaching resources on development and environmental issues – no time for apathy now and my depression also faded away. 

I made a big change in 1985 when I set up a Development Education Centre in West Wales and designed an education project: “Humanity in the Environment” that received funding from the EU.

Between 1985-1990 I worked with a team of people to write six teaching packs for both primary and secondary schools on the topic of ‘Humanity in the Environment’. The packs had clear content, but they also introduced teachers to a curriculum planning framework which they could adapt to plan their own teaching on development and environmental issues. 

In 1990, I moved to the university and began training primary teachers. Over the next 20 years I worked with my students and their mentors to embed the new Welsh Cross-curricular theme of “Education for Sustainable Development and Global Citizenship” in their teaching. Two more teaching packs were developed with my student teachers and I began researching the impact of using the packs on children. I wanted to really understand how the children made sense of the issues they were learning about. 

In 1994, I began my PhD to investigate how children, age 9-11, make meaning through talking together. Since then I have continued with my research and have published widely on learning theory and continued to advocate for ESDGC to be embedded across the curriculum. I bring this knowledge and understanding to the preparation of this issue. 

As we enter a new decade it is disheartening to see that none of the warnings about the impact of environmental degradation and resource depletion Higgins alerted us to have been heeded. As a species, humans are facing a climate emergency of catastrophic proportions. 

The impact on ecosystems of climate change are getting worse every day. Millions of species are becoming extinct every year. The IPCC (International Panel on Climate Change) has warned us that we have 10 years to change the way we live if we are to avoid temperature rises that will make the earth uninhabitable for billions of people by the end of the century. The time to teach about climate change is now. 

Pause for a moment and consider evidence from a leaked report from Morgan Stanley which included a graph from the NatCatService in Munich detailing Worldwide extreme weather events. The graph shows that in 1980, just over 200 such events were recorded. By 2005 the number had doubled and in 2019 it reached over 800. This is a huge wake-up call that we must reduce our C02 emissions now. It is also evidence that over the coming years we will be forced to adapt to levels of climate change that we can’t predict. 

Flooding in the UK this year means we have no choice but to adapt. We are forced to respond to events as they happen and, more importantly, learn from them and make transformational changes for the future. Adaptation planning must take account of the likelihood and severity of climate-caused floods, heatwaves and storm surges and identify what response measures will be needed. 

Some adaptation measures might include reforestation in rural areas and tree planting in urban areas to help mitigate flooding from rivers or control higher temperatures in urban areas. Supporting local food production can help by shortening food supply chains, reducing food miles and thus reducing our carbon footprint.  

At this time, it is heartening to see that it is the young who are leading the call for change. They want to understand what is happening, why it is happening and what we can do about it. I believe it is our duty as educators to help them answer these questions and to give them some hope that we can build a sustainable future and that youth can help build resilience to climate change in their local areas. This issue is dedicated to helping make this happen. 

A mantra of governments across the world is that their actions are guided by the science. We are realising this means little because we know so little about Covid-19 and at best the variety of scientists consulted can only provide informed opinion because the research has not yet been done.  

What a difference when it comes to climate change. The vast majority of the world’s scientists agree – we are heading for 1.5-2 degrees of global warming and the impact will be catastrophic. Scientists are telling us what needs to happen – it is simple – stop using fossil fuels to slow down emissions of greenhouse gases. Plant trillions of trees to absorb C02. Create a green revolution. And don’t wait. Do it now. It will soon be too late. 

Covid-19 has shown us is that rapid action could be taken by national governments and the international community on climate change if the threat was treated as urgently. We have also seen the differences communities can make when they look out for each other. 

At the moment governments across the world are trying to prevent their health care systems being overwhelmed. With climate change if emissions of GHG continue to grow it will overwhelm our ability to manage the consequences – the droughts, floods, wildfires and famines. 

If we wait until we can see the impact of climate change, it will be too late. Governments were warned that a pandemic was coming and ignored the warnings until they were overwhelmed. We have to hope that the Coronavirus will teach us about the urgency of swift action and put this learning to good use to prevent a climate catastrophe.  

Education can play its part by helping young people understand what is happening, why it is happening and what we can do about it.

Sue Lyle

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