IPCC Report is a Call to Action for Environmental Education
Earlier this week the IPCC released their latest report on climate change. The report is sobering. The news is that even if we immediately reduce greenhouse gasses as much as possible, we still face substantial impacts from climate change. In short, we need to both decrease carbon output and begin adaptation planning now.
Moments after reading the latest IPCC report another article came across my screen. This article brought the bad news that 65% of young people are suffering from climate anxiety. That is scary, but it is not what caught my attention. What caught my attention was the author’s solution. Her advice was to teach young people how to grieve.
That stopped me dead in my tracks. All I could think was NOOOOOO!
Yes, we need to help young people process the strong emotions they (and we) are feeling, but grieving is not a solution that should satisfy us. The solution is also not more climate change information. In a study last year in Australia, most students surveyed said their climate education at school left them feeling “stripped of power” and “daunted by the future.”
A quick read of the IPCC report provides direction for how we should approach climate education (and for that matter, all of environmental education): Climate education that gives young people the tools and experience they need to act. As the IPCC report puts it, “a higher degree of public participation can lead to more transformational adaptation as well as to higher ambition for local mitigation.” Preparing young people to be active participants in climate solutions is also an answer to climate anxiety. The Thomson Reuters Foundation asked mental health experts to share their tips on tackling climate fears – here’s what they said: “The best cure…for climate anxiety is action, because as soon as you start to act, the crisis starts to feel less like an apocalypse and more like something we can still solve.”
So, let’s focus environmental education where it is needed most – preparing young people to be active participants in solving the climate crisis. Here are some things we can do as educators to help young people deal with climate anxiety and become part of the climate solution.
Support young people as they engage in public decision making: It is time for all of us, young and old, to participate in planning and implementing how our communities address climate change. That means we need to prepare to be involved in ongoing discussion of mitigation or adaptation. The IPCC report points to the value of participation in that, “engagement and participation remain vital tools in the climate adaptation toolkit — but clearly, many of the old ways of working with narrow dialogues and one-off public meetings are not fit for purpose.”
Engage the most vulnerable youth: Nowhere is this work more important than in communities that have traditionally been marginalized in environmental discussions. It is only when young people in the most vulnerable communities participate in local policy making will we increase the resilience of marginalized communities. As the IPCC report put it, “inclusive, locally led decision-making processes … ensure that provision of these services improves vulnerable communities’ climate resilience.”
Make space for young people to lead: There is no shortage of campaigns young people can join around climate change. These campaigns play an important role in demonstrating the number of people who are concerned about climate issues. At the same time, the IPCC report reminds us that local events like “wildfires, tropical cyclones, heatwaves, or coral bleaching have a catalyzing effect” because they are close to home and relevant to our lives. We should create space for young people to react to local issues because it is “city level climate policy entrepreneurs often operate using their own experience, connections, and persistence to address issues of importance to their constituency.”
Teach young people how to engage in policy making: A common theme throughout the IPCC’s recommendations is a strong push to focus “strongly on formal decision-making, which follows the procedures of a group of people rather than ad-hoc individual action.” The IPCC report makes it clear that to truly address the challenges presented by climate change we need to be prepared to focus on collective decisions that result in systemic adjustments. We can no longer focus on individual choices and reducing our carbon footprint, we need to think about how our communities will address the challenges before them.
For those of us in environmental and climate education, the latest IPCC report is a call to action. The report is virtually begging us to prepare young people to participate in environmental policy making.
Environmental education has always adapted to meet the challenges of the day. The movement started with a focus on simple steps young people could take themselves (which made recycling a norm), over the years it grown to engage young people in the collection of massive quantities of environmental data (which has served as baseline data for how we understand climate change), and most recently it has been extended to address the challenge of young people spending too little time outside (which has revolutionized education for millions of young people).
Environmental education has proven adept at changing and effective at meeting the challenges of the day. Environmental educators want to meet the needs of the young people they engage. As education researcher Louis Chawla wrote, “It is not enough for environmental education to promote action for the environment: It needs to emphasize the most strategic actions.”
The latest IPCC report makes a clear case that it is time for environmental education to add “preparing young people for public engagement in policy making” to its toolbox. It is the only way to meet the challenges of today.