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What Is Climate Literacy And Why Do Pupils Need It?

What is climate literacy? Who needs it? When should people develop it and how? What role should climate education play in developing climate literacy, and what does high-quality climate education look like? In this article, for the Teaching Times, Prof. Sylvia Knight explores some of these questions.

Children looking at bark through magnifying glasses

The DfE’s recent report, ‘Sustainability and climate change: a strategy for the education and children’s services systems’, put forth a vision that the United Kingdom will be the world-leading education sector in sustainability and climate change by 2030.

Climate education, green skills and careers are part of that vision, all covered by the concept of climate literacy. They also form part of the Climate Action Plans that all schools in England are being asked to create, as well as part of the Action for Climate Empowerment which all signatories to the Paris Agreement are required to report to the UN on a five-yearly basis.

In 2018, United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres said: ‘Climate change is the defining issue of our time and we are at a defining moment’. There are many other significant issues facing the global community at the moment – some linked to the changing climate, some not, but mitigating and adapting to climate change is an issue which will remain significant well into the future. We therefore need to ensure current school leavers are well equipped to engage with it.

“At the Royal Meteorological Society (RMetS), we believe that every student should leave school with the basic climate literacy that will enable them to engage with the messages put forward by the media or politicians, or to make informed decisions about their own opportunities and responsibilities when it comes to climate change mitigation and adaptation, and also to equip them with the knowledge and skills required for the green careers of the future.”

Professor Sylvia Knight, Head of Education at RMetS

Defining climate literacy

But what is climate literacy? There are many and varied definitions available, but I would argue that it:

     

      • Is not just ‘climate science’ literacy;

      • Can be solutions- and action-focused;

      • Does not focus exclusively on personal wellbeing or anxiety, ignoring the need for concern about and understanding of the climate;

      • Does not focus exclusively on personal responsibility or action, ignoring the role of organisations or administrations;

      • Equips people to be local and global citizens.

    Climate literacy is developed through climate education.

    At COP 27, UNESCO’s Stefania Giannini said: ‘Education is the most transformational climate adaptation action’. Climate education is both formal and informal and lifelong, but the foundations need to be laid in schools. It is a field where understanding is advancing rapidly, particularly in matters of how to teach about the climate most effectively, how to assess climate education and when to teach it.

    Personally, I think that for early years and the first years in primary education, we need to focus on showing children how to enjoy, respect and look after their local environment and developing an understanding of the current weather that affects them ‘here and now’. Later, we can start looking at global issues and longer timescale concepts like climate and climate change – things that are further away both in space and time.

    It is very important to consider climate education as a distinct part of wider sustainability or green education. Many teachers favour other education for sustainable development topics such as waste management and biodiversity over climate change – maybe because they are perceived to be easier to teach, more accessible, or less controversial.

       

        • Climate change is a global environmental and social issue that underpins many of the Sustainability Development Goals;

        • There is a demand from young people;

        • We need a workforce that has the skills required for the green careers of the future;

        • There is a mandate from the UN to do so;

        • We currently have low climate literacy among the general public and young people.

      In an annual survey of UK school leavers that the RMetS began in 2021, the data collected demonstrated that most 16-year-olds remembered having been taught about climate change, but that their understanding of basic concepts was very poor. In time, the impact of interventions in climate education on young people’s climate literacy should become apparent.

      The question then becomes ‘What should all school leavers know and what should some school leavers know, which will give them the foundations that will enable them to be the climate economists, scientists, engineers and lawyers of the future?’

      What should climate education be?

      Climate education should not be repetitive, delivering the same message in several subjects and levels, but should be complementary – delivering age- and subject-appropriate understanding and skills in a way that, synoptically and progressively, leads to a broad and well-balanced understanding.

      Climate education should not be all-encompassing, but we do need students to appreciate, where appropriate, the relevance of climate change to what they are learning (for example, migration in geography) and to appreciate that what they are learning is relevant to climate change. For example, in a lesson covering reflection in physics, one example (just one, not all) could be linked to the warming-amplifying impact of ice melt in the Arctic, or to the efforts being made to shade the Great Barrier Reef with clouds.

      Climate education should be interdisciplinary, making use of opportunities for synoptic assessment or teaching sequencing to cross-reference learning across subjects – for example, photosynthesis in biology with the carbon cycle in chemistry.

      Climate education could be cross-disciplinary – or, taking it one step further, could be taught as a separate subject. However, this would miss the opportunity to show students that what they are learning in all subjects is relevant to their understanding of climate change, demonstrating links between subjects without duplication of what they are hearing, where appropriate. It would also risk becoming an optional subject or topic. However, synoptic, cross-topic or cross-discipline assessment could provide real opportunities.

      Climate education should be relevant to the lives, concerns and careers of students.

      Climate education should be adaptive enough to be able to remain relevant in a rapidly changing world.

      Climate education should develop and balance concern and hope, avoiding fostering anxiety, hopelessness, indifference or boredom.

      Where do things stand?

      Many organisations have looked for opportunities for climate education in the curriculum. The National Climate Education Action Plan consortium (NCEAP) recently created a report (to be published in early July 2024) bringing together and providing an overview of these studies.

      The report will loosely divide them into studies which have looked at where climate education features or could feature in the current curriculum (including work done, for example, in the Natural History Museum’s Rapid Evidence Review by the Education and Training Foundation or the RMetS report on Opportunities for Enhanced Climate Change Education), studies which have looked at where small changes to the curriculum could significantly improve climate education (such as work done by Teach the Future, the Ministry for Eco-Education and the Morecambe Bay Curriculum) or what climate education could look like in a completely new curriculum (such as the Greening Curriculum Guidance published in June 2024 by UNESCO’s Greening Education Partnership).

      The NCEAP report concludes that ‘Although a substantive curriculum reform would be ‘gold standard’, significant and effective improvements could be achieved with either of the other approaches if teachers and schools were given support and incentive (including inspection and assessment) to implement them.’

      So, if we did have a new, blank-sheet curriculum, what aspects of climate change should be covered? Climate change is a broad and diverse subject that goes beyond the science of how the Earth’s climate system works and how the climate is changing. So, what aspects of climate change should, could or are we teaching in schools?

      These are questions relevant to those developing school Climate Action Plans or new curricula – whether at the level of individual schools, Academy trusts or nationally – or by those developing assessment questions.

      The RMetS Climate Change Concept Association Tool provides an opportunity to explore and evaluate the coverage of various aspects of climate change. It enables curriculum developers to identify gaps, missed links, duplication, or inadequate progression in their approach to teaching the subject across different subjects and levels.

      RMetS Climate Change Concept Association Tool, a "spider's web" of climate terms indicated by different colour dots and linked by white lines

       

      RMetS Climate Change Concept Association Tool

      “Education systems are particularly well positioned to equip learners with a foundation of scientific understanding related to climate change. This foundation also should include an understanding of how society is and can respond to climate challenges, integrating a justice-focused approach, fostering constructive coping strategies, and building leadership skills for transformed futures.”

      Greening Curriculum Guidance, 2024

      Resources for teachers

      There are many, many classroom resources already available to teachers, particularly for subjects such as geography or the sciences, or for primary-level teaching. However, many of these promote misconceptions (a common one being ‘greenhouse gases absorb the sun’s heat’), are out of date, or don’t follow best practice in climate education pedagogy (for example, through fostering anxiety). How should a non-expert, time-pressured teacher identify a high-quality resource?

      To aid in this, the NCEAP developed a Quality Control framework which could be used by individual teachers to assess the quality of a source, by resource developers as a reference when creating a new resource or revising an existing one, or by experts asked to assess a given resource against the framework. Teachers can look for the associated quality mark which will be carried, for example, by all the resources on the National Education Nature Park website.

      Secondary geography teachers probably have the best opportunities for climate education currently and, with several of the exam boards in the process of reviewing the climate content of their GCSE specifications, this will only improve.

      In science – surprisingly, given the fundamental nature of climate science to our understanding of the climate system, projections of the future and opportunities for adaptation and mitigation – there are currently far fewer explicit opportunities in the English curriculum. However, the opportunities are there, and they are embodied through a choice of examples and questions that we are beginning to see exemplified by AQA for their trilogy science specification and by Isaac Physics, to name two examples. The same applies to maths, with examples being provided by MEI and Dr Frost Learning.

      However, all teachers have the opportunity to deliver high-quality, high-level and subject-specific climate education – given training, incentive and capacity.

      Article written by Prof. Sylvia Knight, Head of Education at the Royal Meteorological Society (RMetS) and a Visiting Professor at the University of Reading in the Schools of Education and of Mathematical, Physical and Computational Sciences.

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      Teaching resources

      Secondary Geography
      Lower secondary fieldwork resource exploring heatwaves in the school buildings and school grounds, potentially leading to adaptation opportunties
      Secondary Maths
      Classroom resources which use climate change as a context for key maths skills, produced in collaboration with Dr Frost Learning
      Primary, Secondary Geography, Secondary Maths, Secondary Science
      For curriculum developers and other communicators to explore the diverse range of concepts associated with climate change and the links between them.