Children need sensitive climate change education

| 25th September 2018
Children feel the threat of climate change and want to drive radical action to safeguard their future - so we should too, argues children's author SUE HAMPTON.

From natural disasters to the creeping impacts of rising sea levels and changing rain fall patterns, climate change threatens children’s most basic rights, including their health, access to food and water, education – even their survival.

The Lancashire 'Nanas' are thus named because they're motivated by grandchildren - everyone's grandchildren. When John Kerry signed the Paris Agreement, he made a point by sitting his two-year-old granddaughter on his lap.

But the impact of climate change on children has already begun. As UNICEF have reported: “From natural disasters to the creeping impacts of rising sea levels and changing rain fall patterns, climate change threatens children’s most basic rights, including their health, access to food and water, education – even their survival.” 

As an author in school, I’ve noticed touching displays about polar bears, and photos of children working to earn the title Eco School – usually by recycling and reducing energy use.

Sensitive topics

One primary teacher told me: “Our Eco Warriors have been involved in working with the council to address fly tipping in the streets, and have written to the school milk provider to ask for paper straws instead of plastic.” 

I asked teachers how climate change is addressed in the classroom and informally when children raise the issue. Another primary teacher explained: “In Key Stage Two there is obvious sensitivity around political and cultural issues – I have been ticked off for openly discussing my political views with my year 6 class, so whether explicit teaching of climate change is deliberately avoided in Key Stage Two, I don’t know.”

But he added, “Children do ask about it and I’d be morally wrong if I didn’t allow them to discuss issues. Typically, they are beautifully black and white about it. I remember one girl exclaiming about how stupid it was to agree more nuclear power stations when energy can be safely harnessed from wind and solar.”

Clearly, with the subject missing from the early curriculum, there are no guidelines for teachers to use when asked about climate change by those most vulnerable to its impact.

In 2013 the UK Government removed climate change from the Key Stage One and Key Stage Two curriculum to the dismay of many, including the government’s former science adviser, Professor Sir David King. 

But The Royal Geographical Society said that the draft geography programme of study would provide “a sound underpinning of factual knowledge to prepare, at GCSE and A level, for pupils to study the topics that confront us all, globally, as citizens and which are inherently geographical, such as climate change.”

BBC Bite Size Chemistry (OCR Gateway) stated: “There are international treaties aimed at reducing the emissionsof carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases. However, even if these emissions should fall significantly, it would take a long time for the Earth’s temperature to stabilise then decrease.” It then identifies ways to mitigate the impact of climate change.

Mental health

I found another revision site, this time for GCSE Geography, where environmental impacts of climate change are listed alongside economic impacts as if these are of equal importance.

The tone is low key rather than alarmist. But the data, including the graph by Robert A. Rhode showing 2000 year temperature comparison, must be enough to frighten any teenager studying it – which brings us to a problem.

In 2009 the film Age of Stupid shocked me to the core. I believed that every adult in the world should watch it, but balked at the idea of showings in school. Children, while more at risk than adults, are not in a position of power to change outcomes.

In 2016 we learned that rates of depression and anxiety among teenagers had increased by 70 percent in the previous twenty-five years; a decade or so ago, a friend’s teenage son said she had no idea what it was like to grow up in a world under threat from global warming. 

Fiction can carry truth, and fantasy and allegory (like my fracking novel The Dreamer) can make the point less brutally. But I was told my YA climate change novel Start was "a bucket of iced water over the head". 

I'm aware that when young people recognise the failure of governments to protect their right to life, they are profoundly shocked. One teacher, asked about his own young sons, said: “My boys do worry.” Another teenager said: “It’s very bad and the worst thing is it affects the animals that don’t have an opinion and are becoming extinct.” And another said that climate change spelled “disaster and the beginning of the end of the world” and that he worries about it. 

Active hope

A school librarian at a comprehensive school asked visitors to her library for their thoughts about climate change and was told: “We need to stop it but we are not going to be alive to see the effects,” by one student, while others were more concerned: “We need to stop using greenhouse gases” and “Everyone needs to do a little bit to make a change. For example use electric cars. If everyone changes then we can stop it.” 

Another teenager said: “It’s very bad and the worst thing is it affects the animals that don’t have an opinion and are becoming extinct.” Another said that climate change spelled “disaster and the beginning of the end of the world” and that he worries about it. 

As adults we don’t have to be climate scientists to come face to face on a daily basis with climate events and predictions that could reasonably cause despair. There are books, like Joanna Macy and Chris Johnstone’s Active Hope, which have helped me, like my Quaker faith. However, I know a young man, highly educated and of a sunny disposition, who thinks “we’re fucked”, and tells me his university friends think so too.

What of children too young to be inspired by Macy or Naomi Klein, dependent on their parents for their security? What are parents to tell children, when they ask or even if they don’t?

My brother Dave Hampton, a carbon coach, has given many talks in school since 2005. A piece of his will appear in a leaflet called OK OurKids. He drew my attention to Dr Heidi Edmonds and Climate Kiss in Australia: a rather gentler easing in to truth than NASA’s Climate Kids.

There are apps, and plenty of videos on YouTube that parents can view with a child, managing questions as honestly but kindly as they can. Those who look for technological solutions will stress the importance of science and creative problem solving as a positive slant. Others may focus on equipping young people with ways to handle knowledge, such as meditation or mindfulness, and support groups, online or physical, where they can share fears and hope.

Radical change

Children will want to do something about what they have processed – like those school Eco Warriors – and achievable objectives have obvious advantages for wellbeing as well as society. It may be a mistake to limit that action to the anodyne or disingenuous – a sort of eco equivalent of going along with the Santa myth for their own benefit.

Just as I always feel hugely heartened by protesting with others who share my ideals, the young will surely be encouraged by taking part in activism for something in which they believe – like the thrilling #ThisIsZeroHour youth of America.

Fifteen year old Bella Lack, a contributor to The Ecologist, made an inspiring speech outside Downing Street for the UK Youth Climate Coalition’s March this summer – added to this, I have seen that children as young as eight can express themselves with passion and clarity. And there are other ways to campaign. 

A trial date for Juliana v. United States has been set for 29 October in Eugene, Oregon. The plaintiffs, aged 10 – 20, include the granddaughter of climate scientist James Hansen, formerly of NASA, and argue that the government, "through its affirmative actions in creating a national energy system that causes climate change, has violated their constitutional rights to life, liberty, and property, and has failed to protect essential public trust resources."

British children could make a similar case as the UK government continues to pursue its policy of fracking against the will of local communities and the wider public – a policy inconsistent with Paris targets. It is up to the grownups in government to face reality as presented by climate and medical science, and ban a practice which puts short-term gain for the grownups ahead of the safety of children.

Long ago before we had a television, my dad protected me from the world news by keeping the paper he read on his train home out of bounds.

Now children can learn more about climate change from social media than the press or television. As adults we must tell them what we believe to be the truth, empower them to act as they feel they must, and help them hold on to hope. We owe it to younger generations to work tirelessly to safeguard their future.

If governments won’t fulfil this basic duty, they are negligent, and we must tell them so, accuse them of ecocide, stop them fracking and drive radical change. Enough damage has been done, and those who haven’t caused it cannot be allowed to pay the price of our mistakes. 

This Author

Sue Hampton is an author writing fiction for children, teenagers and adults, all underpinned by green values. She lives in Berkhamsted, Herts, where she is a Trustee for People not Borders supporting refugees, a Green Party member and a co-founder of Plastic-Free Berko.


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