Flipping how we teach the climate crisis could be just what young people need

The pandemic has been really tough for children and young people. According to NHS Digital, probable mental health disorders nearly doubled after the first lockdown. The last thing children need is another crisis they feel powerless to change. We must flip the climate emergency into an opportunity for our young people to drive the change to a carbon-zero UK.

There is work to do. We support the government’s commitment to put into law a new target of reducing our carbon emissions to 78 per cent of 1990 levels by 2035, the same year a child starting primary school this September will leave school.

They will need to leave equipped with the knowledge, skills and mindset to thrive in a largely carbon-zero country. By the time these children are mid-careers, the government’s legally binding net zero by 2050 target will have been met.

Upgrading infrastructure to be more environmentally friendly as we build back better from Covid is a crucial part of realising this vision. We also need to encourage widespread behaviour change, which needs to start in schools. Transportation, power, agriculture, landscapes and housing will be transformed in tandem with the government’s mission to build back greener.

This will create huge employment opportunities as every job becomes green. 85 per cent of the jobs we will be doing by 2030 have not been invented yet, and government investment in retraining and upskilling across the country has great potential to help us build back greener from Covid.

The good news is that this is already starting to happen. Last week, Wrexham College became one of the first educational establishments to offer car mechanics training in electric vehicles. As colleges react to the demand for green skills, we need our schools to anticipate the demand and go beyond just teaching the science of climate change – we must encourage schools to engender real, transformative change.

Children must understand not just what the greenhouse effect is, but indeed why it matters and how it will affect their life, homes, job prospects and local communities. As politicians, we are leading grassroots campaigns to make this happen.

“Let’s Go Zero” is a growing movement for schools to pledge to be carbon-zero by 2030. “Future Proof Ed” is working with other MPs and councillors to encourage more and more schools to make a commitment to environmental change, and in doing so to give agency to children and young people to lead the projects to make zero carbon a reality in their communities.

Studies suggest that students who learn about climate action influence their families’ and communities’ choices as well as their own. If children learn the knowledge about the impact of food choices, of capturing carbon by growing plants, of different travel decisions, then society as a whole is much more likely to make different, better decisions. We must support the next generation to protect our environment.

This will empower young people in other ways too, and allow them to individually and collectively see how their actions create measurable positive change. It will also develop the collaboration, communication, project management, and leadership skills desired by today’s employers, and ensure long term levelling up across the country.

Our brilliant teachers are a key part of this process, but we should not just leave them to it. We do not expect teachers to figure out how to teach maths or science without a clear structure, standards and guidance, and so it is worrying that 70 per cent of UK teachers say they have not been adequately trained to teach about climate change.

If we are to support the next generation, government should support schools and teachers to accelerate the transition to a zero carbon future. We want this to be a crucial part of the levelling-up agenda.

It is really encouraging that the vast majority of children and young people want to do more on climate change, and that teachers agree and want dedicated time in the school week to do this. Investing in robust climate education intelligently across the UK can help redress the balance as we build back better and greener from the pandemic.

The COP26 summit in Glasgow later this year presents a real opportunity to get young people involved in their local communities on the climate change agenda. Coupled with more structured climate education in schools, they will learn the skills necessary for a rich, healthy economic future in a net-zero UK. What better purpose for education?

Selaine Saxby is MP for North Devon and Lord Knight of Weymouth is a Labour peer.

This article first appeared in The Times.

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