Climate Education for a Change

William Scott
November 9, 2020

[This article largely focuses on the Department for Education, and English policy - but much of this is still relevant to the other devolved education systems in the UK]

There is now considerable (though by no means universal) agreement with the idea that young people in schools should have an entitlement to learn in some detail about the climate problems we face, and what they individually and collectively might do in terms of adaptation and mitigation.  In what follows, NAEE Chair of Trustees, Bill Scott, explores some of the issues using material that NAEE has recently presented at conferences.  The views expressed are his own and not necessarily NAEE's.

Earthday is the latest to support the idea of a student entitlement to learn about our climate and environmental dilemmas. They have launched a climate and environmental literacy campaign, aiming to get commitments from all countries at COP26.  Their press release includes a quote from Patricia Espinosa, Executive Secretary of UN Climate Change (UNFCCC):

"At COP26, we need stepped up action and ambition right across the Paris Agreement, and that includes ambition in respect to climate education. We need to better educate our children and youth on the science and the risks, but also the excitement of building a better world; generating more good jobs in sustainable businesses and the benefits of being greener consumers and more active citizens. I welcome this global initiative and look forward to it stimulating excitement and enthusiasm among all governments and all sectors of society."

The breadth and the positivity of this vision: "the science and the risks, but also the excitement of building a better world" is surely very welcome. It makes a similar point to Teach the Future which tirelessly points out to DfE that, when it claims that the national curriculum already deals with such matters, these tend to be limited to factual matters – the science of the here and now – and not the risks and opportunities of the future: the future that young people will live in, but people as old as I am won't.

But what are they to learn? What indeed. This is a harder issue to address than merely to launch a campaign. NAEE has made a couple of presentations exploring these issues in relation to climate. These have put forward three necessary focuses:

[1] What is climate – [2] the evidence for global heating and the changing climate – [3] looking ahead: What might happen? What can we do?

It seems important to begin with what climate is and isn't, and that is what the national curriculum does in a straightforward way. But to teach about climate in 2020 and not about climate change seems perverse, and yet that is what primary schools are supposed to do. Teaching about the evidence for a changing climate is not done in a straightforward way, where it is done much at all. It's not as if this is controversial anymore (at least not in Western Europe). This is first issue that needs sorting out to lessen the dissonance between what students see in the media and what schools are prepared (in both senses) to teach where much of the print and TV media are well ahead of what schools are teaching. In a way there's nothing new about this; in ways reminiscent of the Saber-tooth curriculum, schools were still teaching about the thermionic valve while the transistor revolution was in full swing and we were all listening to small radios.

Life get trickier when it comes to teaching about what might happen as we are in the realms of possibility, conjecture, and scenarios. We are also immersed in politics and international negotiations (the Paris Agreement; the Sustainable development Goals). Beginning with IPCC scenarios might be sensible, and what might likely follow in each of these. Teaching would ideally be multidisciplinary with creative timetabling.

Teaching is even trickier when it comes to what we can do as this question is inherently political and values-based. Oddly though, the what can we do question seems to be addressed more frequently in the media than the what might happen one, and so there is no shortage of views out there. It is this question that most exercises pressure groups such as Teach the Future.

Ten years ago, Fumiyo Kagawa and David Selby proposed that “the learning moment [in climate education] can be seized to think about what really and profoundly matters, to collectively envision a better future, and then to become practical visionaries in realizing that future.”  and we are still coming to terms with this insight.

In slightly more detail then:

In relation to [1 What is climate], the following seem important: what is climate?  how is it different to weather?  what determines it?  how and why does it vary from place to place?  how and why does it change over time?  what are natural cycles? what timescales are involved?  etc. This is mostly uncontroversial geography, and a lot if not most of it is, one way or another, in the school curriculum at the moment.  There are resources galore.

In relation to [2 evidence for global heating and the changing climate], the following seem important: the greenhouse effect / global heating. global temperature measurements over time. natural climate cycles. changes to CO2 levels in the atmosphere since the industrial revolution. rising sea levels – and more. This is mostly physical science and geography, but not all topics are in the national curriculum or exam courses.  The DfE says schools can focus on this if they want to. The IPCC and NASA have data in abundance.

In relation to [3 looking ahead what might happen], it seems important to begin with where we are now using IPCC data, and then to focus on IPCC extrapolations and +1.5 / 2.0 / 3.0 / 4.0 degree Celcius increase scenarios, as what happens depends on how successful we are at restricting carbon emission. Doing this will allow us to explore in an informed way what might happen. For example: ice sheets melting, glacier retreating, sea levels rising, permafrosts melting, positive feedback loops, runaway CO2 increase, desertification, loss of agricultural land, wild weather increases, habitats changing, species loss and species migration, economic challenges, problems (and collapse?), the migration of people. NB, not all that happens will be negative, but it will be hard to remember this in what sounds like quite a gloomy look at the future. Human population increase will be an important issue to examine, and its implications.

In relation to [3 looking ahead what can we do], it seems important to begin with what we in the UK are already doing, and what is happening internationally as this will provide the basis for an informed discussion of how (in)adequate this is, and how it will need to be built on. For example, do we lead by example and pay reparations for past carbon usage, do we pledge net zero-carbon emissions by much sooner than 2050, do we somehow force a reduction in meat consumption, do we support (ie fund) other countries to 'go green', do we adopt US Democrat-style Green New Deal policies, do we promote hydrogen as the power of our economy, do we promote more nuclear power (or less nuclear power?), should every new house come with a heat pump, etc, etc The options and questions seem endless.

In terms of pedagogy, these questions cry out to be explored rather than taught in any conventional sense. Martha Monroe and colleagues agree, saying, “... perhaps Kagawa and Selby’s vision provides the needed direction for which new curriculum should be designed.  As climate change education programs grow and build upon the successes of others, they can play an essential role in developing communities of such practical visionaries necessary to address future."

This, it seems to me, is what the young people’s groups are calling for in their protests about the inadequacy of current schooling.  By and large, they do not want more information or more history; rather they want to be helped to be part of realising their future.  Unsurprisingly, given the nature of schooling, as yet there are few educational programmes that set out to approach climate change from both social and science disciplines, and yet it is hard to see how what Kagawa and Selby suggest (and what youngsters say they want) can be realised without this, or without much stronger collaborations across schools and between schools and active community groups in doing this.  

Currently, there is a considerable gulf between a persuasive vision such as this and school practice. As the DfE has no interest in bridging this, who will?


Fumiyo Kagawa and David Selby (2010) Introduction. In Education and Climate Change: Living and Learning in Interesting Times, edited by Fumiyo Kagawa and David Selby, 1–11. London: Routledge.

Martha C. Monroe, Richard R. Plate, Annie Oxarart, Alison Bowers & Willandia A. Chaves (2019) Identifying effective climate change education strategies: a systematic review of the research, Environmental Education Research, 25:6 791-812, DOI:10.1080/13504622.2017.1360842


Bill blogs at and can be contacted at .  His latest book (co-authored with Paul Vare) is published on November 12th by Greenleaf: Learning, Environment and Sustainable Development: a history of ideas.