Expert warns students are at risk of “climate illiteracy” 

Jarrod Brown
Jarrod Brown

Despite being a hot global topic for over two decades, experts are saying schools risk entrenching climate illiteracy in students. 

According to Professor Alan Reid of Monash University, a lot of Australian students still remain in the dark about the impact of climate change. 

“Our curriculum research looks at whether there is effective provision for all these aspects in school education in Australia,” he told EducationDaily. 

“We expect schools in the 2020s to ensure all students are equipped to tackle examples of climate misinformation students are exposed to on social media.

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“We have found that while participating in awareness raising, campaigns and media literacy have their place, they do not guarantee a fully-fledged climate literacy, consistent with the NOAA expectations.”

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) defines climate literacy as someone who “understand the influence of climate on yourself and society – and your influence on the climate”.

While these programs can be important starting points, Professor Reid noted that the Australian Curriculum is still far from providing a well-rounded climate education. 

“Climate literacy remains on the margins and is not the mainstream of what schools are known for,” he told EducationDaily.

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“There are positive signs things could shift in Australia, but this isn’t aligned with climate literacy benchmarks or good practice yet.”

The need for climate literacy 

According to the professor, the need for climate literacy in schools is only growing as more countries embrace climate-friendly initiatives. 

“A key feature of education is helping students understand and make informed decisions about factors shaping their lives,” he told EducationDaily.

“This is the message of UNESCO’s Futures of Education report, and the themes of many education days at the COP climate meetings.”

Read more: How one Aussie uni is combatting climate change

The 2021 report, commissioned by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), looked at global education’s challenges over the next three decades.

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Researchers concluded that, amongst many other social and economic challenges facing global education, climate literacy remained a key factor in building a sustainable future. 

In a 2021 climate literacy survey by Allianz, researchers found that only 14.2 per cent of the 5000 respondents proved to be truly climate literate. 

Involving people from Germany, France, Italy, the UK and the US, Gen-Z was found to be the least “climate active”.

“The more knowledgeable we are about climate issues, the more willing we are to make personal efforts in reducing our carbon footprints,” said the report. 

Only 8.2 per cent of respondents ages 23 and under reported being climate literate, as opposed to 16.3 per cent of boomers.

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“Part of the bigger picture here is to revisit the question of what schools are for in these times,” said Professor Reid. 

“Only then will the prospect of a ‘climate smart’ or ‘climate clever’ educational estate become a possible reality, and the children and grandchildren of today’s students will be able to look back on today’s climate crisis as something for the history books.”

Absence of climate education

Despite regular calls to make a change at UN Conference of the Parties (COP) meetings, analysis of ‘climate ready’ schools shows climate literacy still isn’t happening. 

“To ensure a whole school approach, we should expect action in school governance, teaching and learning, facilities and operations, and community partnerships,” said Professor Reid. 

A recent international survey by UNESCO found schools still suffer from a lack of climate education in the standard curriculum and an absence of professional teacher training. 

The data showed that nearly half (47 per cent) of national curriculum frameworks of 100 countries reviewed had no reference to climate change, and the rest only offered “surface-level” material. 

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Read more: Recommended reads about environmental issues

Only 55 per cent of teachers reported receiving pre-service or in-service training on climate change and sustainable lifestyles, and fewer reported that their school had an action plan on climate.

“The big ask here is for the approximately 9600 schools in Australia to become ‘beacons of climate neutrality’, where every community can see – on its doorstep – a role model, progress, and a hub of activity that is taking the climate crisis seriously,” said Professor Reid.

Currently, the countries most likely to include climate change content are in those regions most vulnerable to the impacts of climate change.

“If schooling and the climate crisis can’t be shown to matter to children, communities and politicians, then the opportunities for schools to express ‘constructive hope’ in the curriculum as well as in school buildings and school leadership will be sorely missing.”

Building a climate-friendly future

In a chapter of Building Better Schools with Evidence-based Policy, Professor Reid recommends a few simple steps schools can take to better climate literacy in students. 

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“As a school community, there is a wide range of local to international initiatives, research, and best practice, to consider and draw on,” he wrote.

“This can help decision-making on whether and when to declare a climate emergency in a school, and to understand what’s involved in preparing, declaring, and following through.”

The professor encourages schools to take “concrete first steps’” in promoting change at the school, such as conducting a policy and curriculum audit, identifying opportunities for resources and action planning for the curriculum, campus and community. 

“Regardless of where a school is located, effective management of school buildings provides a prime opportunity to reduce emissions.”

However, when it comes to climate education, Mr Reid also noted that “one size doesn’t fit all schools”. 

“Depending on your circumstances, you may need to consult with key personnel when developing and enacting the policy,” he said.

“No one likes something imposed on them. It is better to journey together than alone.”

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During National Science Week – 12 August to 20 August – EducationDaily will explore ideas and innovation around sustainability in a five-article series.

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Jarrod Brown combines his background in journalism, copywriting and digital marketing with a lifelong passion for storytelling. Jarrod established his journalism career working on the education news and information site The Bursar. He lives on the Sunshine Coast - usually found glued to the deck of a surfboard.