Nonetheless, amid the often disheartening news, there is a more positive story. While Washington plans to pull out of the Paris accords, it remains an amazing achievement that 194 other states have signed up to the agreement. Another hopeful trend is the increasing focus on educating young people about environmental stewardship, with the expectation that the next generation will be better equipped to care for the environment and better prepared to adapt to the effects of anthropogenic climate change.
Several factors are driving a growing awareness of the need for science-based, effective education on environmental issues and climate change. One factor is the now widespread acceptance throughout most of the world that climate change caused by humankind’s activities — particularly through greenhouse gas emissions — is real and will have very significant impacts.
In many parts of the world, the impacts of climate change are easy to directly observe, as coastal communities experience sea level rises, many communities in arid areas experience increased water scarcity, other communities face more frequent and intense storms, and so forth. There is a growing understanding that teaching children about protecting the environment and adapting to climate change is an essential subject key to their future ability to survive and thrive. In some economies, there is also growing awareness that some of the future’s better paid and more interesting jobs may be in areas such as renewable energy and environmental risk.
Another positive development is the growing number of resources for teachers and parents to educate children. For example, the UN Decade of Education for Sustainable Development from 2005 to 2014 facilitated the development of new resources and sharing of best practices, as well as highlighting the importance of understanding sustainable development as “the will to improve everyone’s quality of life, including that of future generations, by reconciling economic growth, social development and environmental protection,” as UNESCO described it.
In recent years, non-governmental organizations, faith organizations and governments have worked to create child-friendly resources. For example, the US NASA Climate Kids and the National Geographic Kids websites offer information on the climate and how it is changing that is accessible to children.
There are multiple examples around the world of ways in which governments, scientists, teachers and parents are improving environmental science education and teaching children that they have a responsibility to care for their environment. For example, India’s Supreme Court has required that all formal schools provide environmental education. While implementation of the mandate has been slow, India also has many inspiring community organizations advocating for and providing environmental education. In another example, a group of US teachers and scientists developed the Next Generation Science Standards, which introduce climate change as a core idea in middle school, and several states have adopted the standards.
Of course, there are challenges. Many schools struggle to provide students with sufficient education in the traditional academic basics of reading, writing and math; asking schools to teach environmental science when they lack the ability to teach basic science and other topics is often ineffective. The approach to environmental education must be adapted to be relevant to different children; for example, while it makes sense to teach wealthier children about reducing consumption, a different approach is needed for poor children. In the US, the idea of anthropogenic climate change has become entwined with political and cultural polarization, creating difficulties for teachers who want to teach the topic but might face opposition from parents who view it as a biased political issue.
Nonetheless, progress in environmental education has been made, and more children than ever before are learning the value of environmental stewardship. Schools and parents still can do more. A growing body of research on education and the environment offers evidence-based, useful best practices, including the importance of integrating environmental and climate knowledge throughout all aspects of science education, and including environmental stewardship and the impacts of climate change when studying social, political and health topics. Educators also need to ensure that teachers are trained to teach environmental issues; providing quality curricula is important but insufficient without training.
Despite pessimism following US withdrawal from Paris Agreement, there is a growing understanding that teaching children about protecting the environment is an essential subject.
Kerry Boyd Anderson
Children learn best about the environment when they have opportunities to interact directly with nature, so taking children to beaches, parks, high-quality zoos that emphasize conservation and other places that allow children to learn about nature in a direct, hands-on way can be highly effective. Young children especially are curious about the world around them and benefit from time outside.
When discussing environmental problems, such as pollution and climate change, it is important to emphasize success stories. Empowering children with examples that offer hope and practical knowledge while acknowledging the challenges will help children be effective stewards in the future.
Fundamentally, teachers and parents can ensure that children have access to nature and knowledge of science. “All science is connected to climate change, so anything you do that is science-related, the child will eventually understand the planet and the mechanisms of the planet and how climate change is affecting that,” said Meredith McCone, a former elementary school teacher now pursuing a PhD focused on science education research at George Mason University.” In that, there is reason for hope — and for action.
• Kerry Boyd Anderson is a writer and political risk consultant with more than 14 years’ experience as a professional analyst of international security issues and Middle East political and business risks. Her previous positions include deputy director for advisory with Oxford Analytica, and managing editor of Arms Control Today. Twitter: @KBAresearch