Climate Change Education in Public Schools

When I went to elementary school 20 odd years ago in Vancouver, we had guest speakers come into the classroom and teach us about climate change, called global warming at the time. I was lucky to have environmentally-conscious teachers who invited these guests in. They were often young, progressive university students who upon learning and studying about our changing climate, chose to act by educating young kids. At that time, they were telling us we were the future, that we kids had the power to change the course our society and planet we are on, that if we grew up and acted on the facts that they were sharing with us, a crisis could be averted.

But that time for youth has come and gone.

Climate change is happening. Business and consumption as usual in a globalized world will saddle us with 3˚ to 5°C of warming within the lifetime of children being born today, radically altering the world as we know it. Many British Columbians are already embracing climate-friendly solutions including building renewable energy systems, supporting local food production, uplifting indigenous law and governance, and demanding mass public transit. Collectively, we still need to prepare ourselves and strengthen our resilience in light of climate change. Most importantly, we need informed youth who are armed with the facts and the urgency to act.

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So, where do our children receive climate change education?

I’ve worked with many elementary and middle school teachers who incorporate environmental and climate themes into their classrooms. I commend these teachers for taking the initiative to do so on their own, as the new B.C. curriculum does not tackle the important facts of the climate crisis at the forefront for any mandatory course (only Science 7 shows students evidence of climate change over geological time as one of the course’s four ‘Big Ideas’). The new curriculum is designed to be more open to what students are interested in learning and teachers’ areas of specialization, but this is not enough to ensure our children are learning about climate change.

The school system has a critical role in helping students understand what climate change is and understanding how serious it is. The only courses that touch on these topics are optional, are not offered by many schools, and are only for Grades 11 and 12. Environmental Science 11/12 is not considered an acceptable science pre-requisite for most universities, perhaps causing students interested in the environment to opt out of taking the course, lowering the demand for the course and likelihood that it will be offered at their school.

I believe that the public’s understanding of humanity’s contribution to climate change is poor. A CBC poll from 2018 suggests that one-third of Canadians don’t believe industry and human activity are the driving forces behind climate change. We need to have more emphasis on the study of weather, climate and climate change in the context of place beginning in elementary and continuing through to the end of the secondary program. These topics are crucial for the development of an eco-literate citizen who is fully informed and capable of making wise decisions on climate-related issues, which are increasing constantly.

How can you raise an informed child?

Talk to your kids about the climate crisis. No age is too young to talk about refusing single use plastic, reducing, repairing, reusing and recycling. Or B.C.’s biodiversity and old-growth forests. A care for nature and the beings that live there can foster an informed and empowered child.

Here are a few ideas to help raise eco-conscious citizens:

• Get outside; connect to nature.

• Go to the museum; learn about the past to change the present and future.

• Turn composting into a fun project for your kids and neighbours.

• Turn emotion into action; let’s do something about it!

• Model sustainable choices; make these habits routine.

• Start swapping; start a circular economy with neighbours.

• Make walking a habit, to and from school, work, or to the park.

• Pack litter-free lunches; say no to bags, and yes to reusable.

• Clean up your community or help your child’s teacher plan a clean-up.

Check with your library for inspiring stories. Anything from The Tiny Seed by Eric Carle to World Without Fish by Mark Kurlansky

Talk to your child’s teachers:

Does your child’s teacher have the resources they need to bring these topics into the classroom? Encourage your child’s teacher to show a climate change focused movie, or assign a book or novel of a success in the face of climate change. Help your child’s class do citizen science, start a garden, talk about past experiences by learning from elders, or do a service or research project.

Together, parents and teachers can help raise informed, eco-literate citizens who are prepared to face the climate crisis.

Amira Maddison
Amira Maddison
Amira Maddison is an Environmental Educator with Sierra Club BC.