Students must be prepared for the climate crisis, the greatest challenge of our time

It is important for climate change to become a structural part of the curriculum in our schools. Honest information transfer, action orientation and the creation of hope all go hand in hand, say Andrik BechtElma Blom and Sander Thomaes.

Anyone employed in the education sector will tell you how frustrating it is to hear scientists, policymakers and other outsiders putting the onus on schools to solve social problems. There are so many things to get through during the course of a school day. Teachers’ time and expertise are at a premium. It is true though that the education sector has a broad responsibility that extends beyond the transfer of knowledge and skills alone. It is also tasked with familiarising children with the world and preparing new generations for social challenges.

The climate crisis is perhaps the most important challenge of our time. It disproportionately affects young people. If we want to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees, today's youngsters will need to reduce their CO2 emissions to less than an eighth of their grandparents’ emissions. International research shows that many young people are really feeling the weight of this responsibility.

Fifty-nine percent of the young people surveyed are 'very' or 'extremely' concerned about climate change. Seventy-five percent see the future as frightening. And not without reason. Research by UNICEF shows that approximately one billion children and young people, almost half of the world’s youth, live in countries that are at very high risk of being exposed to the serious consequences of climate change. These include life-threatening droughts, floods and storms.

From France to Tonga

Fortunately, more and more countries are recognising the need to include the climate in national education curricula. These include countries like France, Italy and Norway but also others - like Tonga, Indonesia and Ethiopia - that are already very vulnerable to the consequences of climate change. Can the Netherlands afford to lag behind? We don’t think so. Effective curricula move with the times and prepare children for the challenges we face as a society. Not because we have to make children responsible for solving social problems that are not of their making and and not to take responsibility away from governments and big corporations. But instead to prevent children from making the same mistakes as their parents and grandparents and also to offer them some guidance.

Young people are the future. They need to see a positive future for themselves and have an idea of the type of world they want to be part of. This is why we cannot afford to limit our climate education to an outline of the disaster that awaits us if global warming continues. However, there are risks too. If we focus solely on doomsday scenarios about the climate, students could feel helpless, full of despair and crippled by a paralysing fear.

In good climate education, a balance between the head (transferring knowledge about climate change and solutions), the heart (how can we help students cope with the emotions they have about climate change?) and hands (what can we do?) is essential. This requires a coordinated approach in which students from young to old learn how governments, companies and individuals can work together to make a difference and combat climate problems. Currently, we are still relying far too much on the well-intentioned initiatives of individual schools and teachers.

Copying from others

Today’s approach is out of sync with the urgency of the situation. In a good education system, it is self-evident that students - all students - are taught how to respond to the challenges we face as a society. Fortunately, there are various education programmes that are proving effective in improving young people's climate knowledge and behaviour. And the Netherlands can copy the good example being set by countries where climate education is already being provided.

A realistic picture of the possible consequences of climate change and a hopeful future. Students will know that it is difficult have both, so it is not an easy message to communicate. But it is an essential one. How to proceed? Work with students to discover ways to get to grips with climate issues. Look at the measurable consequences of changes in our day-to-day behaviour. Discuss the role of governments and big corporates with them. And show them that there is urgency, but hope as well, and that we can achieve a lot together.

This opinion piece was published online as an NRC climate blog on 23 January 2024Andrik Becht is an assistant professor who does research on young people, climate change and sustainable behaviour. Elma Blom is a Professor of Language Development and Multilingualism in Family and Education. Sander Thomaes is a Professor of Developmental Psychology and looks at the origin, nature and consequences of the developing self in young people.

Academics from Utrecht University regularly write about their research in the NRC's climate blog. They work together in the Pathways to Sustainability strategic theme.