Climate Change in the Classroom: Are We Doing Enough?

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Posted by: Aishwarya Bhatia
Category: Clean Energy and Climate Change
Climate Change in the Classroom: Are We Doing Enough?

We’ve been studying climate change in the form of global warming since the age of 6/7. Almost all of us were made aware of the increasing concentrations of greenhouse gases that, when trapped within the atmosphere, cause an increase in the earth’s temperature.

But despite the technical knowledge given to us in textbooks, most aren’t aware of climate change in its realest form. Greta Thunberg, a Swedish activist, is known by all for inducing a fierce global movement concerning global warming. Her understanding of climate change also began with basic principles such as the greenhouse effect and growing CO2 emissions. But it was only when she read up on it more that she found the dissonance between reality and what was being taught. In an interview, she asserts, “…it didn’t seem real that they’d explain [climate change] as a very big problem—but it wasn’t treated like one.”

Furthermore, a survey conducted in 2023 with a sample of 1,000 people in eight countries (Brazil, China, France, Germany, India, Italy, the UK and the US) revealed that 48.2% of respondents had low climate literacy. That’s almost half the sample that’s unaware of one of the most life-threatening crises on Earth.

Functional literacy vs climate literacy

According to UNESCO, being able to read, write, and calculate to participate in activities forms functional aspects of literacy. However, with these drastically changing realities, new literacies are emerging, one of which is climate literacy.

Defined as the understanding of the climate’s influence on you and society and your influence on climate, climate literacy is central to a low-carbon economy and future. However, debates about the level of knowledge for different ages of pupils have overshadowed the larger awareness discourse. And such debates are not entirely unwarranted.

Climate anxiety and climate fatigue cause feelings of fear and hopelessness

A 2023 climate literacy survey revealed that while climate literacy is low, climate anxiety is high, with 76.8% of all respondents concerned or alarmed about climate change and its consequences.

On the other hand, due to the topic’s omnipresence, the study suggests that overreporting climate may have led to overstimulation, causing indifference or ignorance and reducing real engagement with the issue.

In fact, 35% of respondents were convinced that nature and humans can adapt to higher temperatures without major consequences. The constant rise of geopolitical developments and risks only adds to the aggravation further.

Studies have also analyzed the effects of climate change on the mental health and emotional well-being of individuals. Responding to such a massive crisis invokes feelings of fear and stress, making engagement with the topic highly emotional.

Therefore, questions and debates often surround the extent to which climate discourse should be added to the curricula, especially since engaging with students at a young age can have drastic impacts on their relationship with climate.

Studying climate anxiety in a case study

In my recent interactions with children aged 6 to 15 in a classroom setting in a tuition class in Jaipur, I took the opportunity to conduct a focus group discussion about climate change. Amidst a group of 17 students from reputed schools, only three had heard of the term climate change.

Praful, a 9th grader at an English-medium school in Jaipur, said he had heard about global warming but wasn’t aware of climate change yet. When prompted with keywords such as deforestation and air and water pollution, he revealed he understood these phenomena but didn’t know their effects outside of what’s written in their science textbooks.

Avani, from 9th grade, was one of three students who’d heard of climate change. She understood deforestation and pollution and her duty to keep her surroundings clean, but she did not connect this behavior with keywords such as climate change. When asked about sustainability, the class drew blank faces until the teacher prompted them with some keywords that resulted in technical definitions.

The discussion also led the students to discuss the rising temperatures of the earth. While some of the responses referred to post-apocalyptic movie plots, most expressed uncertainty about the topic.

Through this exercise, it became evident that technical information that doesn’t translate into real insight is a serious concern for a generation that will have to lead the climate struggles, and it needs to be addressed immediately.

Is climate literacy for all a good idea?

Currently, we stand at a crossroads about climate change coverage in textbooks. Functional literacy paves the way for climate literacy, making classroom interactions critical in building understanding from a young age.

The information in textbooks often leaves much to be desired. A 2021 UNESCO study analyzed primary and secondary education curricula and policies across 46 UNESCO countries and found that over half of them made no mention of climate change.

In fact, the textbooks that address climate change often lack information about the root cause, including the role of multinational corporations in fossil fuel reliance and consumption patterns, deforestation, and carbon emissions.

We must also understand that teaching facts about climate change is not enough. The contexts and nuances reveal the extent to which climate change threatens to overhaul our sense of normalcy, especially since there is no one solution to the problem.

Such lessons can define the way students engage with their surroundings in the future, both as individuals and as citizens of this global society.

So, what’s the path ahead of us? How can we move beyond information on paper to understanding the real-world effects of global warming? What have we already achieved, and what remains to be done?

Stay tuned for Part 2 of this discussion.

Aishwarya Bhatia, Sambodhi 

Author: Aishwarya Bhatia