Imperial College London

Cutting climate change education is a mistake, says Imperial researcher


Climate education

Climate policy expert Sarah Lester is angry that education changes could leave a generation of children with almost no knowledge of climate change.

Raising people’s awareness and understanding of climate change is vital if we want to provoke a reaction. As the ‘Greenest government ever’, the coalition has prioritised action on climate change and energy use over the coming decades.

However, the Department for Education, headed by the Secretary of State for Education Michael Gove MP, now proposes to drastically reduce the teaching of climate change in the National Curriculum for under 14s.

I have run workshops on energy and climate change with over 1,000 students aged 13 to 18 over the last two years. All these students, their teachers and parents, go away inspired and motivated to do more for the environment.

Every day I speak to young people, teachers, outreach workers and parents who want to know more about climate science and the impacts of climate change. Removing climate change from core sections of the curriculum takes away their right to be informed on these critical issues.

Expert knowledge, real facts and information about the impact people have on the environment must be available to citizens through formal education, as well as from the government, NGOs and direct engagement with scientists.

Currently pupils are taught about sustainable energy use, climate science, energy reduction and climate change under the National Curriculum for chemistry, physics, biology, geography, and citizenship. Under the proposed changes, climate change will primarily only be taught in chemistry under a section about earth sciences: 'the composition of the Earth and the atmosphere, changes to the Earth’s atmosphere since its formation, the production of carbon dioxide by human activity and the impact on climate, the efficacy of recycling' (p141).  

The Government’s argument in favour of this is that that pupils should be taught the basic ‘building blocks’ of climate science before learning about human impacts on the climate and environment.

But my experience suggests they need to learn about the geographical impacts and societal responsibilities of mitigating climate change, as well as the physics and chemistry of the climate system. And that to learn effectively about climate change, pupils must be taught to critically assess the evidence for themselves.

It is worrying that the terms ‘climate change’, ‘reduction of energy use’ and ‘sustainability’ are not mentioned anywhere in the curriculum. It is more worrying that this threatens to create a generation of children who do not understand the need to mitigate climate change and who are unwilling to reduce their energy demands or emissions.

Children become adults, and by not educating them on this topic the Government risks losing the public support it needs to meet the UK’s legally binding target to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 80 per cent by 2050.

In my opinion this mistake will undermine a generation of young people and lessen the impact of their voices calling for environmental responsibility and global action on climate change.

Have your say

The Department of Education have announced a public consultation on the proposed reforms to the National Curriculum. The closing date for the consultation process is the 16 April 2013 with proposed changes to be implemented in September 2014 – you can respond to the proposed changes here.

A more detailed account of the proposed changes to the syllabus can be found on the Grantham Institute website. 



Sarah Lester

Sarah Lester
The Grantham Institute for Climate Change

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Climate-change, Education, Energy, Environment
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