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How could the education system motivate young people to take climate action?

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Climate change is one of the biggest challenges in our society. Scientists are researching the role of the education system in combating global warming and how it could motivate younger generations to take climate action.

Undoubtedly, one of the most important challenges that the European Union will face in the years to come is climate change. In recent years, the EU has set ambitious targets for combating global warming and European policy makers signed the European Green Deal, aiming to become climate neutral by 2050.

Nevertheless, the success of environmentally these friendly policies largely depends on public awareness. And when we talk about 2050, we immediately think of the citizens of the future, that is, none other than the current younger generations.

So, how are the next generations of European citizens preparing for this transition? Are young people in the EU aware of climate change issues, and how could they be motivated to engage in climate action?

The latest surveys, such as the special Eurobarometer on the Future of Europe, show that 9 out of 10 young Europeans agree that tackling climate change can help improve their own health and well-being (91% of 15–24 year olds). 87% of all people who responded to the survey share this sentiment.

So, it seems as though the vast majority of young Europeans are aware of the improvement that tackling climate change could make to their daily life.

“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”, says Dr Anna Davies, Professor of Geography and Director of the Environmental Governance Research Group at Trinity College Dublin. – Read the full interview with Anna Davies

Barriers to action

“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”, Dr Davies adds.

When asked about how young people could be motivated to act against climate change, she says :“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”.

Dr Davies also says that education around climate change (science, adaptation, and mitigation) and positive climate action, will be an essential part of the response to the multifaceted challenges we face.

However, education systems in our era should be transformed in order to adapt to the changing flow of information: “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“.

Dr Verena Winiwarter, Professor at the Austrian Academy of Sciences and the Diplomatic Academy of Vienna, goes a step further, pointing out the necessity of adding social media literacy to education systems.

Beyond repair?

Another problem that stops the younger generations taking climate change action is, according to Dr Winiwarter, that “many students think that the damage done by climate change is beyond repair. Unfortunately, many secondary school teachers spread this kind of message to the young people they teach. This is problem-based teaching and not solution-based teaching. I often see it in secondary education and it doesn’t help motivate younger people to act against climate change”. – Read the full interview with Verena Winiwarter

According to Dr Winiwarter, we can only motivate young people to take environmental action if we give them the feeling that their action makes sense, that they are having an effect. “We should change the way that we teach people about climate change from exclusively problem-based to solution based”, she concludes.

When asked about EU education systems, Dr Winiwarter answered that in general, they reflect the citizens’ perception that global change is a serious problem but mostly they are organised in the wrong way: “Education systems mostly mention climate change as part of particular subjects, such as biology, physics, chemistry, etc. But I think, in order to move towards, and in the framework of solution-based teaching we have to include subjects like political economy and media teaching in the curriculum”.

Replying to the question of whether more awareness of climate change among the younger generations will produce tangible results in the future when these people find themselves in decision-making positions, Dr Winiwarter is clear: “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 that much time when it comes to decision-making about climate change”.

Both scientists agree that awareness unfortunately does not mean action; the role of the education system is crucial in motivating people to take climate action. Education systems that take climate change seriously and face it in a way that responds to the era of information overload that we live in, will be crucial in the fight against climate change.

Related content

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

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