A scientist’s opinion: interview with Verena Winiwarter on climate change and education systems

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

Interview with Verena Winiwarter, Professor of the Austrian Academy of Sciences and the Diplomatic Academy of Vienna.

How do you rate the Education systems in Europe in relation to climate change awareness of younger ages?

Winiwarter Verena profileVerena Winiwarter: I think we have to distinguish between primary, secondary, and third-grade education. In third-grade education, a lot has happened when it comes to environmental and climate problems. A lot of new curricula have been created everywhere, dealing with sustainable management, green economics, etc. Better curricula in biodiversity standards as well. In the secondary school systems, which I know less about, I think that we should add specific classes as we did back in the 70s and 80s with informatics.

But I believe that the most important skill that students should have in secondary school is social media literacy. We need to teach our youth to deal with these algorithms. In addition, in secondary education during the years classes that could make the students more creative extinguished. In my opinion, in order to tackle climate change we need creative people. At the moment, we teach them facts about climate change but we do need to teach them how to deal with them on a level of personal psychology.

Another problem is that there are many students that think that climate change is beyond repair. Unfortunately, they get that in secondary school. Many teachers teach this kind of thing. This is problem-based teaching and not solution-based teaching. I see that in secondary education and it doesn’t help in the motivation of younger people to act against climate change.

To what extent are the younger ages in the EU aware of climate change issues?

Verena Winiwarter: There are different levels of awareness: The first is have you heard about it? The answer is that probably every person between 14 and 25 in the European Union has heard about the climate crisis. The second: do people think that the climate crisis is a reality. This is a different question. Having heard about the issue and being aware of the problem doesn’t mean that you would buy into it, in terms of trusting science. A recent poll in Austria, for example, showed that 30% of the population mistrust science. Of course in other countries of the EU, such as Portugal for instance, the trust in science is higher. It has a lot to do with how science has been used as an argument in political debate.

How could we motivate young people to engage in climate action as most of them are already quite aware of the climate crisis?

Verena Winiwarter: You can only motivate them in environmental action if you give them the feeling that their action makes sense. That it has an effect. We should change the way that we teach these crises from problem-based alone to solution based.

In the collective paper in which you participated, transforming education in response to global change is characterized as “revolution”. Is the transformation of education in response to climate change a significant factor in this revolution?

Verena Winiwarter: Without a revolution in the education system, a societal transformation is unthinkable. We need knowledge that integrates the social sciences, the humanitarian, and the natural sciences. We need co-produced knowledge that accepts that stakeholders have to be part of the knowledge-production process. The whole way that the education system works at the moment, especially in universities, and the rewards that they follow (first-author publications) are disincentives to work in global environmental changes.

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

Verena Winiwarter: Social media literacy is very important. And what does that mean? It means that you are able to take media content and look at it and ask yourself why am seeing this, and who benefits from me seeing this and then acting accordingly. This is a way of critical thinking but it is more specific and this is what the young generations need. It is teaching how the media system works.

Actually, we should teach them how to use their limited time for quality information, avoiding all the noise of the information that doesn’t have any use for them and focusing on information that is relevant to their content. Every student in the EU should be able to explain the expression that if something is free on social media it means that you are the product.

According to recent surveys, around 9 out of 10 Europeans consider climate change a serious problem. Do you think this is reflected in the programs of the educational systems?

Verena Winiwarter: I do think so, but I think that it is organized in the wrong way. it has to do mostly with particular subjects, such as biology, physics, chemistry, etc but I think, in order to achieve solution-based teaching we have to include subjects like political economy and media teaching. On the other hand, the curriculum is already jammed with so many subjects, so we should probably start to think about longer secondary education. Maybe a final year of global citizenship education.

What are the tools that education systems should embody in order to achieve an effective transformation in response to climate change?

Verena Winiwarter: A very important tool is Future Literacy (FL). FL is a capability. It is the skill that allows people to better understand the role of the future in what they see and do. Being future-literate empowers the imagination, and enhances our ability to prepare, recover and invent as changes occur.

If we want a society that is future-literate, the only thing that we can do is learn by doing.

Future literacy increases the ability to ask questions about your own anticipations and how they limit your thinking.

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

Verena Winiwarter: There is an Energy and Infrastructure minister at the moment in Austria she was an activist and she does different things. That’s a new generation of politicians. So, yes there will be tangible results.

But I don’t think that we have time to wait for the next generation to make the change. The change should be made now. We don’t have so much time when it comes to decision-making.

Let’s say that you would be commissioner for education what will be the first decision that you make about the education system?

Verena Winiwarter: The first decision has to be a structural decision. Because we have to intervene in the structures. Is my DG able and willing to work for the transformation? The first thing that I would organize is Global citizenship education seminars for my DG people. We have to create this joint experience, otherwise is not possible to achieve a significant change. And then spread the idea to the member-states. As a proverb says: if you want to go fast go alone, if you want to go far go together.

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