This blog post first appeared in the NSW Autumn 2019 edition of Australian Association for Environmental Education Newsletter as “A 122-year time-warp – how educators are leveraging high-quality learning as students make their moves on climate”. It is written by Jodie Green a parent and beginning educator based in the ACT, and also CCL’s ACT Coordinator.
It is fairly likely that, back in 1896 – when Swedish scientist Svante Arrhenius first predicted that large scale combustion of oil, coal and gas would be sufficient to lead to an anthropogenic Enhanced Greenhouse Effect – he would not have for a moment foreseen that one of his young descendants would become a world famous year nine student … famous for not attending school.
Yet on 20 August 2018 that is what his descendent 15-year old Greta Thunberg (pronounced ‘Toonberrhy’) did each day in the lead up to the Swedish general election – and still does each Friday of school term. In fact, if you are reading this on a Friday – or Saturday in Australia – Greta is right now sitting outside the Swedish parliament, the Riksdag, with the sign Skolstrejk för klimatet (school strike for the climate), and says she will keep doing so until she is convinced the government can ensure the nation will meet its ‘Paris climate target’.
The rest, as they say, is history. As many Australian teachers will know from direct experience Greta then went on to inspire many of our own students. Starting first with a dozen Central Victorian school students meeting with Lisa Chesters MP in Bendigo – but not, as yet, Bendigo-based government senator, Senator McKenzie – she then inspired over ten thousand Australian students to take part in a day away from school to meet en masse, including meeting with the media and parliamentarians, and even to appear on radio and TV, all to talk about climate change.
And Greta’s impact did not stop there.
She has also inspired school students across the globe. In fact as of December 2018, more than 20,000 students held ‘strikes’ in at least 270 cities in Australia, Austria, Belgium, Canada, the Netherlands, Germany, Finland, Denmark, Japan, Switzerland, the United Kingdom and the United States, with tens of thousands more in January already. And in just a couple of months, on March 15, it is possible, and some say likely, that the number of students globally who will ‘strike’ will number in the hundreds of thousands across hundreds of the world’s cities and towns.
It is not for nothing that in December 2018, Time magazine named Greta Thunberg one of the world’s 25 most influential teenagers of 2018 and that was before she became possibly the first 16 year old to ever be invited to address the momentous World Economic Forum talks in Davos, twice.
Back home in Australia and it is now or soon will be the first week back to school for most of us. Some of us might be wondering how the domestic politics of Greta Thunberg’s now global ‘school strike for climate’ might play out in 2019. Students and their teachers, here and everywhere, will again confront an uncomfortable dilemma, because the fact is all teachers find it very hard to advocate time away from school. Among the questions we ask ourselves is to what extent do students experience so much learning to make this concern about ‘absence’ for a day or part of a day irrelevant? It is a calculation that students and teachers are used to making, and usually encourage, as long as high-quality learning can be brought back into the school to share.
And after all, as one student pointed out in a speech to one of the Australian 2018 ‘school strike for climate’ events, “We have to miss school for sporting holidays and even horse races that we don’t support, it is ridiculous that ‘saving the world’ is not understood as an actual good reason to take time off school.”
But the dilemma is also partly because when it was aired on the eve of the first ‘school strike for climate’ event, in Canberra, it was thought that Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s public disapproval of the event could result in the community as a whole withholding its support for the students. Or worse, spurring community-wide rejection.
But in the end, we didn’t see public opinion moved overall by the PMs expression of disapproval. And in the end, to the relief of students, some politicians positively welcomed the student’s interest, spoke at length, answered questions and even, like Rebekha Sharkie MP, shared breaking news.
Let’s talk about it
As the well-known climate scientist Katharine Hayhoe – of the ‘Global Weirding youtube channel’ – says in her Tedtalk one of the most powerful things we can do as individuals to protect our kids’ liveable world is simply to talk about climate change.
This can be challenging! Nell Azuri, a professional Instructional Designer and climate communicator says that this is partly because there is widespread social denial about what climate change will mean for our future. But she says conversations are also fraught because this kind of ‘denial’ is at odds with people’s real concerns.
Nell says this is key.
“At the same time as the majority of Australians say they are concerned about climate change, these same people live and talk as if the future is going to be much the same as the past. That is what we mean by ‘social denial’ about impacts. This also directly leads to what we observe, that broaching the subject with other parents or teachers can feel tricky in this environment. But there are many effective strategies for reaching out, this video and CCL post contains a range of examples“
“For example, most people don’t realise this but Australia luckily already has the solutions we’d need for a society entirely run on clean energy for example … it’s just that we aren’t implementing them fast enough.“
I asked Nell if she feels any conversation about climate change, even at school, could benefit from an approach that is more ‘leading with solutions’.
“It’s a good start. Partly because many people expect to be depressed by climate change, so hope gets around people’s defences. It’s good to talk about climate impacts as well, and then it’s best to emphasise those that are happening here and now: heatwaves across Australia causing more heart attacks, the recent fires or the worsening drought. Unfortunately there are a lot to choose from! “
“The best conversations are often those in which you can share some action you’ve taken, like calling your Member of Parliament’s office, why you did it, and how it made you feel. Because many people feel entirely overwhelmed by climate change, seeing that it’s possible (and often also easy and fun!) to take action helps them to consider taking action themselves.”
Even, she says, if that action is simply to start talking.
Let’s talk with kids too
If it’s hard to talk to colleagues at school, and with family and friends, it can seem even more challenging to raise the subject of climate change with our children and with students, even while we might like them to be involved in the solution. Learning about climate change is obviously a part of the national curriculum so how to teach it across the year levels is something we all have to think how to work through.
I asked climate educator, ecologist and engineer Dr Heidi Edmonds for her go-to tips on talking with kids about climate change.
“With younger kids, aged seven and under, we need to keep information manageable for them, and we may do well to focus on environmental issues and creatures that the children themselves care about, to help instil care for the natural world, rather than focusing on climate change itself. But as children’s author Megan Herbert suggests, we can talk about climate to kids of any age so long as it’s done sensitively, perhaps asking them first what they already know on the topic. “
“As children grow older, they can tap into their own sense of agency, but it is always important to lead with solutions, as climate change can feel overwhelming for people of any age. With the building #FridaysForFuture movement, children are joining with adults everywhere all around the world to call on governments to make climate action matter more. Movements like this are having the effect of building the political will for things like the major rollout of renewables and the transition to a sharing economy that we need. “
If your students feel strongly enough to want to participate in a ‘school strike 4 climate’ event, don’t just encourage them, why not help organise to make it possible? The older school strike 4 climate kids are organising everything and have published their own insights into how they would like us, adults, to help and support them here.
An (in-class) elaboration that is a close fit with Greta’s message might be to have students write to elected representatives, invite them to school or to produce a ‘Climate Emergency’ plan for the school, to present to the school and to the school board, with some costed proposals. To extend and bring to life the professional conversation AAEE member teachers who are also members of a union can ask colleagues to support climate-safe motions to take to their branch council. Perhaps we can even offer our learning as in-school PD to interested colleagues.
I asked Australian National University Knowledge Exchange Specialist Dr Rebecca Colvin to tell us what it is the Intergovernmental (scientific) Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) would like us to know and remember about the latest 800+ page IPCC ‘1.5 degrees report’. Being the work of thousands of climate scientists over several years the reality is that very few of us are likely to ever read it!
“The upshot is that scientists are telling us we can do this. But only if we act quickly. That is because what we know is that ‘every part of a degree celsius matters, every year matters and every choice matters’. It is a pretty simple and to the point message….”
It can feel like a time warp to be reading about Greta Thunberg, reading the latest IPCC report, experiencing local impacts right now, and looking at the copy of the 122-year-old Arrhenius pdf in front of me, describing anthropogenic global warming for the first time.
Unfortunately, it looks like it might be no longer hyperbole to say that, though cliche, where human civilisation will be in another 122 years after we are all gone, depends on what we all do now, in and out of school.
Contacts and bios:
Nell Azuri – Nell Azuri is an Instructional Designer and climate communicator volunteering with Citizens’ Climate Lobby and Climate for Change.
Dr Rebecca Colvin – Rebecca works as a knowledge exchange specialist with the Climate Change Institute at ANU where her role is to facilitate the strengthening of links between climate change researchers and end users of the research.
Jodie Green – Jodie is a graduate teacher and volunteers with AAEE ACT and CCL Australia in Canberra