Climate SOS: how education is addressing the crisis

From the pollution caused by technology to school climate strikes, what responsibility does the education sector have in addressing climate change? Charley Rogers reports...

The climate crisis in 2019

climate-crisis-in-2019
Greenland’s melting ice caps // Image via Nasa, 2015

We are currently facing a climate crisis. This fact has been widely reported throughout the world’s mainstream media, is a common talking point for campaigning politicians and, thanks to one young campaigner, for millions of schoolchildren. 

Sixteen-year-old Greta Thunberg, a school pupil from Sweden, has been regularly making headlines since last August for her work in the school strike for climate movement. 

Greta’s seemingly small act of sitting outside the Swedish Parliament building back in August 2018, with a sign reading Skolstrejk för klimatet (school strike for the climate), caused a massive ripple effect in youth culture across the world. Students started following Greta’s example by walking out of school in protest of their countries’ inaction on climate change. 

So where does education stand on this issue, and in particular, how does edtech play into the story?

A 2018 IPCC report from the UN shows that many adverse effects of climate change will occur once the planet heats up by 1.5˚C. It also states that “limiting global warming to 1.5oC would require rapid, far-reaching and unprecedented changes in all aspects of society,” and that in order to mitigate these effects, this warming must be curbed. 

Co2-mitigation-curve
Image via @ralphthurm, medium.com

The Breakdown

  In August 2018, Swedish student Greta Thunberg, now 16, begins striking outside Swedish Parliament with a sign reading Skolstrejk för klimatet (school strike for the climate).

  A 2018 IPCC report from the UN shows that many adverse effects of climate change will occur once the planet heats up by 1.5ºC.

  “If central government does not impress the need to teach themes around climate change then it has failed in its duty to provide the foundations for a sustainable future.” – Steve Haskew, Circular Computing

  “Education for Sustainable Development (ESD) should be a mandatory element of the curriculum for schools and post-16 education.” – Iain Patton, CEO, EAUC

  “The life cycle of technology is ‘problematic’, and the edtech sector has a responsibility to consider the impact of their products, as the social impact of climate change is often on children.” – Luke Wynne, Global Action Plan

  “If I had to grade the edtech sector’s response to our planetary problems, it would definitely be no higher than a C.” – Jamie Buchanan-Dunlop, Encounter Edu

  Tech is one of the biggest polluters on the planet, with experts estimating an average person’s incoming annual email equating to 136kg of emissions.

  “If we do not invest in this subject now then the financial effects to us all from climate change will mean the ‘environmental balance sheet’ will leave us financially overdrawn – we have to prepare today.” – Steve Haskew


The climate action that is being taken by environmentalists, organisations and charities

Alexandria-Ocasio-Cortez-and-Greta-Thunberg
US Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (left) and teenage climate activist Greta Thunberg

Greta Thunberg recently spoke to US congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez for The Guardian, where the two spoke about everything from being young women on the global political stage, to, of course, the climate crisis. They compared their countries’ approaches to climate change, and indeed these countries’ reputations. But Ocasio-Cortez, or AOC as she’s commonly known, made the point that the climate crisis is not something that can be attacked by just one country. She said: “This is a global struggle, and it’s not about what is Sweden doing, and what is the US doing – it’s about what all of us are doing, as one movement.” 

This ‘big picture’ approach also works within education. 

Steve Haskew, strategic commercial manager at Circular Computing, feels that government has a lot to answer for. He told ET: “If central government does not impress the need to teach themes around climate change then it has failed in its duty to provide the foundations for a sustainable future.” 

If central government does not impress the need to teach themes around climate change then it has failed in its duty to provide the foundations for a sustainable future.
– Steve Haskew, Circular Computing

Haskew doesn’t lump all of the responsibility on central government, however. He acknowledges that they have a place in forming the foundations, but that they are not alone in their requirement to act. He said: “Climate change is not the responsibility of others, it is the responsibility of us all.” 

Iain Patton, CEO of the Environmental Association for Universities and Colleges (EAUC), agrees that a lot of the onus sits with government, and that they need to show their support for reducing carbon emissions. He told ET: “The government must show the next generation that it is listening to students striking and calling for swifter and stronger action to prevent climate crisis by legislating and regulating to reach net zero carbon targets as soon as possible.

“Currently, they have committed to reaching net zero by 2050, but this is too late. More must be done now.”  

So what needs to change within education to show students that the government supports their requests for action? Patton suggests that “Education for Sustainable Development (ESD) should be a mandatory element of the curriculum for schools and post-16 education.” 

Luke Wynne, head of youth and schools at environmental charity Global Action Plan, makes the point that although the education system should shoulder responsibility for teaching these issues, often teachers are somewhat ill-equipped, as they don’t have the support to learn about them themselves. He told ET: “Teachers are under increasing pressure to perform, and so we offer them resources and help them navigate these issues.” 

Wynne also agrees that sustainability and climate change education needs to be prioritised in the curriculum, and that it is “no longer a fringe issue”. 

Technology’s role in climate change

technology's-role-in-climate-change
Image via Rwanda Green Fund, Flickr // Creative Commons

Tech hardware is one of the earth’s biggest polluters, from the materials mined to construct circuit boards, to discarded ‘out-of-date’ items cluttering up landfill sites across the world. 

However, we are beyond the point where we can incentivise edtech companies to lower their emissions, says Patton: “We are facing a climate crisis now, and if that isn’t enough to incentivise companies to do more, what will be?” 

Jamie Buchanan-Dunlop, co-founder of edtech company Encounter Edu, believes that the edtech sector is not responding particularly well to the climate crisis right now. He says: “If I had to grade the edtech sector’s response to our planetary problems, it would definitely be no higher than a C.” 

Probing Buchanan-Dunlop on why he thinks there aren’t more edtech products addressing the subject of climate change, he responds, “There’s no money in it.” He continues: “If you look at Ofsted coming through the door, not having very good climate change education is not going to switch you from bad to good, nor is having excellent climate change education going to switch you from good to outstanding.” 

What happens if you do something positive? Just one thing. The net result will be something positive. If you multiply this by everyone the consolidated effect is massive.
  Steve Haskew, Circular Computing

The use of technology in education also brings many benefits, and to a certain extent is now unavoidable. So do edtech suppliers have a particular responsibility to ensure their products are sustainably produced, and is there a way that tech can actually help the problem?

Wynne suggests that the answer to both of these questions is ‘yes’. He says that the lifecycle of technology is “problematic”, and that the edtech sector has a responsibility to consider the impact of their products, as the social impact of climate change is often on children. 

However, he says, educators can harness the innovation and engaging attractiveness of technology to “engage young people in the issue of climate crisis on a mass scale” by encouraging them to ask questions and lead change. 

Buchanan-Dunlop agrees that technology has the ability to help engage students in global climate issues. He says that one of the biggest issues with climate change education, is that the most obvious and dramatic impacts are often happening very far away from students in the UK. He told ET: “Climate change is incredibly difficult, because whilst the causes are often on a local basis, some of the most obvious impacts are very far away. [We need to make a connection between] cause and effect, which is very tricky.”

Technology is a great tool in helping to close this gap, says Buchanan-Dunlop. His company, Encounter Edu, creates resources for schools around various global issues, using live streaming to bring the work of scientists from remote corners of the earth into the classroom. 


Greta’s recent speech at the French Parliament encouraged everyone to “unite behind the science”

He explains: “We have teacher-reported evidence that these live events are incredibly engaging, and there’s a lot of follow-up action.” 

Patton makes the point that sustainability measures are also in the interest of businesses, and that while slashing carbon footprints will be difficult for small and medium enterprises (SMEs), “companies wishing to succeed in a competitive environment will need to make carbon emissions cuts to retain a competitive advantage”.

What the future holds for climate change action

global-warming-predicitions-map-2070-2100
Global warming predictions for 2070-2100, from Global Warming Art via Wikimedia

If we look at the current education system in the UK, the view of technology is often as an essential tool which will allow the economy to grow, and that gaining skills in this area will mean young people are able to take part in, and gain from this economy. 

An article in Forbes magazine from October 2018 states that ‘most of what causes global warming is done in the name of the supposed need for economic growth at all costs’.

But is this focus on economic growth over ecological implications misguided? David Hicks, a former professor in the School of Education at Bath Spa University, thinks it is. Hicks is now a freelance educator and has a particular interest in education for sustainability. His website, teaching4abetterworld.co.uk, outlines the difference between a technocentric view, which believes “economic growth should continue just as before,” and “does not involve any radical rethinking of western consumerism and lifestyles which many see as the main cause of the current global predicament,” and an ecocentric view, which “sees the world economic system as in need of radical change with social, economic and environmental goals being of equal importance,” and believes that “only this will lead to a more sustainable society”.

So should education be focusing less on the economic growth of the UK, and instead harnessing the power of technology to help address the climate crisis? 

The two don’t have to be discrete approaches, argues Patton. He says: “There is currently a real deficit in [climate change] knowledge in school leavers and graduates, and it is detrimental to their job prospects and their capacity to thrive as global citizens.” 

Buchanan-Dunlop also points out that the current focus on 21st-century skills falls in line with what students need to understand the climate crisis. 

Education for Sustainable Development (ESD) should be a mandatory element of the curriculum for schools and post-16 education.
Iain Patton, EAUC

He explains: “If I was to pinpoint something, then I think it is not climate change, as a subject, but critical thinking and all the skills around it, that you need.” 

Haskew agrees, saying that educating young people for a change in behaviour “will have big and immediate effects on the production of CO₂”. He references the “plastic revolution” and how its move into the mainstream has had a massive impact on the environment already. 

He suggests that the same has to apply to climate change. He says: “What is the worst that can happen if you do something positive? Just one thing. The net result will be something positive. Then if you multiply this by everyone, the consolidated effect is massive.”

But this education and action needs leadership, says Haskew. 

Indeed in her Guardian interview, AOC made a similar point. Speaking about popular views that ‘other’ countries should be the first to act, she said: “What people don’t realise is that leadership is enormously important. Leadership is a responsibility. Leadership is not fun. Leadership is about doing things before anyone else does them. Leadership is about taking risks. Leadership is about taking decisions when you don’t know 100% what the outcome is going to be.” 

So will the education sector take this lead, and encourage edtech suppliers to do the same?


You might also like: Energy in Schools scheme extended around England


Greta Thunberg believes that the important thing is to make sure you take whatever steps you can. At the time of writing, Greta has just delivered a speech at the French Parliament, and made it clear that sustainability is not a marketing opportunity, or a way to win elections. This is real, she emphasises, and the most important thing is making change: “The real danger is when companies and politicians are making it look like real action is happening when in fact almost nothing is being done apart from clever accounting and creative PR.” 

Now is the time where education needs to take heed of this message and start to make tangible changes. As Haskew says, “Schools are underresourced which provides a challenge, but the oxymoron is that if we do not invest in this subject now then the financial effects to us all from climate change will mean the ‘environmental balance sheet’ will leave us financially overdrawn – we have to prepare today.”

This article was updated on 11/09/2019