A scientist’s opinion: interview with Anna Davies on climate change and education systems

Climate change and education systems: What role can education systems play in combating the climate crisis?

Interview with Anna Davies, Professor of Geography and Director of the Environmental Governance Research Group at Trinity College Dublin.

How do you rate the education systems in Europe in terms of their impact on climate change awareness in younger people?

Anna Davies profileAnna Davies: Research shows that a combination of improving basic education, developing climate literacy, and supporting greater place-based understanding of the impacts of climate change is key to expanding engagement with and support for climate action.

However, there are many ways to educate, for example, either formally or informally, in-classroom or outdoors. When you say ‘system’ I assume you mean the formal education system: primary, secondary, post-secondary, etc. As far as I know, there’s no definitive understanding of climate change education across all of these sectors at a pan-European scale. The time is certainly ripe for greater comparative research to improve understanding and inform good practice. I’m part of a growing European community called Education for Climate  which is creating a community of practice for people interested in education and climate change, so I’m excited to see where that leads.

To what extent are young people in the EU aware of climate change issues?

Anna Davies: There’s certainly been a significant improvement in understanding of climate change issues across all age groups, including amongst younger people. International research suggests that place matters, so it’s definitely not a good idea to imagine that a solution that works in one place will necessarily work in another.

However, research has also found that ‘certain associations with climate change perceptions, such as the ones for the self-transcendence versus self-enhancement value dimension, political orientation, and education, are more consistent across countries than for gender and age’ (Climate change perceptions and their individual-level determinants: A cross-European analysis – ScienceDirect).

Given that most young people are already aware of the climate crisis, how could we motivate them to engage in climate action?

Anna Davies: Awareness and action are very different things. There are a whole bunch of reasons why having knowledge, and acting on it in ways that we would like to, is sometimes difficult. It’s what’s called the value action gap. There are barriers to action at an individual and societal level. These can include individual traits such as having a lack of interest, energy or capacity, but also a lack of efficacy or trust, as well practical structural barriers, such as a lack of infrastructure or policies that support individuals to take action.

We can motivate young people to engage in climate action by supporting them to develop a sense of self-efficacy, and ensuring decision-making processes and resulting action systems are transparent and accountable to build trust. We also need a suite of both physical and procedural infrastructures to enable people to act in the low-carbon ways that they would like to.

What is the role of the education system in our age of information overload in which climate change often features in the news?

Anna Davies: In the past, we needed skills to find information. Now we need skills to filter and rate information: to know who’s providing it, how it was produced and whether the claims within it are defensible or not. Education is key in terms of navigating the flood of information we now face.

Is teaching critical thinking about climate change information at younger ages a core responsibility of education systems?

Anna Davies: Critical thinking skills are essential and not only for climate action. It’s a core responsibility of education systems to provide the skills necessary to engage in critical thinking, but this has to be supported by wider society and politics to be put in place sensibly.

According to recent surveys, around 9 out of 10 Europeans consider climate change to be a serious problem. Do you think this is reflected in the programmes of the EU’s education systems?

Anna Davies: Not yet. Formal education systems can be slow to change. Here in Ireland there is a national curriculum for the final state exams sat at secondary level (age 17/18). The Geography national Leaving Certificate exams, where a lot of climate change related material is taught, is not mandatory and the curriculum content has not been updated in about 20 years. There need to be ways of building flexibility into education systems that would allow updated materials to be added to the curriculum more frequently in order to reflect the speed and urgency of emerging issues.

In the collective paper that you participated in, transforming education in response to global change is characterised as a ‘revolution’. Is the transformation of education in response to climate change a significant factor in this revolution?

Anna Davies: Education on the subject of climate change (science, adaptation and mitigation) and positive climate action will be an essential part of the response to the multifaceted global change challenges we face. This will need to be addressed not only from a climate science perspective, but also using insights from many kinds of social sciences and humanities. Geography, as a subject, provides a useful site for climate change education at all levels, because it spans both the social and physical sciences, considers how people and planet have interacted in the past, present and future, and focuses on scales ranging from local to global.

What tools should education systems use to effectively transform themselves in response to climate change? How could education systems increase awareness of climate change?

Anna Davies: Education systems must provide not only subject specific content, but also the important links between issues. This can be done by supporting systems thinking. A systems approach helps us to understand the complexity of the world around us. Nature teaches us that everything is connected. Additionally, awareness is necessary of course, but awareness without action will not resolve the climate crises.

Do you think that if younger generations are more aware of climate change there will be tangible results in the future when these people find themselves in decision-making positions?

Anna Davies: Raising awareness without providing the means to act would be hugely disempowering. Tangible results will require, in addition to other things, systems change, consistent and persistent political will within and beyond individual countries, and the removal of unsustainable lock-ins and path dependencies.

Climate change awareness is important but it is equally important to engage in climate action. How could education systems steer young people in this direction?

Anna Davies: As well as education about climate change there must also be education around climate action – with the climate smart platform we have developed an online e-learning platform with modules and quizzes which explain both concepts. The platform includes a serious game set in 2050 where players adopt the persona of Dublin’s mayor and receive one million euro to invest in protecting the city whilst providing for its citizens and the planet. Results to date reveal how this can significantly improve knowledge and increase their sense of efficacy.

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