Climate change studies in schools: opportunity or burden for the younger generation?

Among the sea of signs welcoming Greta Thunberg at the climate strike in Bristol last month, one stood out. Despite not having the artistic finesse of the others, those two words written with black paint on crumpled cardboard hit like a punch: “End Ignorance”.

One of the key demands of the student strikers’ movement Fridays for Future, which calls on older generations to address climate change, is to reform the national curriculum. The young activists want to make climate and ecological studies an educational priority.

Teachers too are showing their solidarity for pupils who skip classes on Fridays. Some of them agree that the climate crisis and its consequences are currently taught merely just as a subtopic of geography or science.

The group Teachers for Climate Truth, part of the environmental movement Extinction Rebellion, organises ​protests​ to urge for reform.“Imagine if we had the courage to make our schools places where students learned how to repair the damage we have caused,” the group wrote in a ​letter​ to the Department for Education.

Italy has already taken action about this last November, becoming the first country to make climate change and sustainable development studies compulsory for school children.

Former Education Minister Lorenzo Fioramonti ​told Reuters that, starting in September 2020 all state schools, in every grade, will dedicate 33 hours per year to climate change issues.

The content, integrated throughout a variety of subjects, will vary from sustainability hacks to exploring the ​United Nations 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development​. Fioramonti, a member of the anti-establishment Five Star Movement, is known for his concern for the environment and for encouraging students to take part in climate protests.

Referring to the Italian reform, Katrine Petersen, Campaign Manager of Climate Change Narratives at the Grantham Institute, said that incorporating climate change studies in the curriculum is “​something that increasingly young people are demanding themselves.”

Petersen said the teaching become necessary as “many young people that will look for job opportunities in a few years might find that these are shaped by climate change as well.”

However, she noted that sustainability classes can be “an interesting challenge,” and to make them effective teachers will have to take a more practical and interdisciplinary approach. They should walk through the science of modern waste, examine consumption habits and focus on practical steps to shrink carbon footprints.

Andrew Pendleton, Director of Policy and Advocacy at the New Economics Foundation, a British environmental think-tank​, said that a climate change module “does change things, but it is just a time-lag.”

Pendleton believes that the climate crisis is a generational justice issue, and ​he warns that the burden should not simply be passed on to children.

“Why should young people take responsibility for this? They are the ones that have done the least to create the problem,” he said shaking his head. “Putting it on their shoulders seems unfair to me.”

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