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COP26: How to use event to reduce pupil climate anxiety

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Climate anxiety is a growing issue among pupils, but this teacher says the COP26 event in Glasgow can help to ease concerns and show that meaningful action is underway

by Ewen Mcleish

The steady stream of extreme weather stories linked to climate change filling the news agenda is making our environmental crisis hard for teachers to ignore. 

This year, children may have seen or heard of: wildfires in Greece and the United States; cyclones in Asia; Hurricane Ida devastating Mississippi and Louisiana; and floods in Germany, Australia and China.

In the past, we could explain these events to children as natural disasters. Frightening, but beyond our control.  

Now, many children will understand – to varying degrees – that climate change is causing these events and that human actions, in the form of burning fossil fuels, are to blame. 

The World Meteorological Organization reported that the number of weather-related disasters has increased five-fold over the past 50 years, with climate change a key factor behind the rise.  

Moreover, the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has stated unequivocally that human influence has warmed the atmosphere, ocean and land.  

The world is set to look very different for future generations.  

Our responsibility as educators 

It’s scary stuff and it’s hard to teach. But teachers have a responsibility to help children understand what’s happening.  

As one of my school’s environmental sustainability coordinators and a Year 4 classroom teacher, I’m often grappling with how to present the facts about climate change without instilling climate anxiety among my primary-aged pupils. 

This is a very real issue, as an international study into the phenomenon, led by the University of Bath and funded by online campaign group Avaaz, outlines.

Climate anxiety is the worry, frustration, grief and even anger linked to the reality of the climate crisis and our governments’ ongoing failure to respond with the urgency it requires,” it states.

The research by the University of Bath asked 10,000 young people across 10 countries about their thoughts and feelings on the issue. It found that 59 per cent of 16- to 25-year-olds were worried or extremely worried about climate change and over 45 per cent said that their feelings about it negatively affected their daily lives. 

Furthermore, although “climate anxiety” is yet to be considered a medical term, school-age children are also feeling its effects. 

Research conducted by the BBC’s Newsround, which polled 2,000 eight- to 16-year-olds in the UK, revealed how nearly three-quarters worried about the state of the planet. One in five admitted to having a bad dream about it.  

When asked about the action being taken by grown-ups, 41 per cent of 8- to 16-year-olds said they didn’t trust adults to tackle the challenges, while 64 per cent of people aged 16-25 think that governments are not doing enough to avoid a climate catastrophe.  

For all teachers this is upsetting to hear – but we cannot give up. 

Stories of hope 

It strikes me that children need a more empowering, hopeful story around climate change in order to reduce feelings of despair.   

So while pupils’ grasp of the worrying effects of climate change should be acknowledged to support them with processing it, we should also focus on the scientific explanations and humanity’s collective efforts to find solutions. This would show them that there is hope, and that meaningful action can be – and is being – taken.

The COP26 climate conference in Glasgow at the end of this month presents a perfect chance to do just this by showing pupils that the adult world is not ignoring the problem and is instead seeking solutions.   

To ensure this message resonated with our pupils, me and my colleague Susan Whalley planned three short online lessons for key stage 2 that had this ideal at the core. 

The first lesson provided a quick recap of the science underpinning climate change, as well as basic knowledge about the conference. We used the free COP26 resources from Twinkl (co developed by TSL, these are also available to download from the TSL Community Learning Resources Group) as a starting point and found the accompanying teachers’ guide useful.  

Classes then learned how the summit will bring together leaders and representatives from nearly every nation to report on their progress in cutting emissions and to hopefully make new decisions about further reductions. 

Making their voices heard 

But we wanted to go further and help children understand that they can make their voices heard and demand more from politicians.  

With this in mind, our second short lesson invited pupils to enter an international competition run by UK-based Trust for Sustainable Living in partnership with Conservation Without Borders.  

The challenge was to create a video message to world leaders and governments on “the need for climate action and driving a green revolution”.

Our pupils were keen to discuss the meaning of this and intrigued by the idea of creating their own message for such powerful people.  

To encourage participation, we ran a house competition, with every entry receiving house points. The children were expected to create their videos in their own time. The best were then submitted as international competition entries.  

We received a decent handful of thoughtful and well-informed videos and had a tough time choosing the winners. The children’s videos were shared with all classes so they could be celebrated by their peers – the third lesson in our series. 

The pupils delivered their messages from their balconies, gardens, local parks and even a city farm that showcases sustainable innovations. Many talked about the solutions they would like to see from politicians.  

Overall, we hope we’ve helped children see COP26 as a chance for adults to work together to solve our climate problems – and that young people can and should demand that adults rise to the occasion.  

If any children in our care have feelings of climate anxiety, then this knowledge – and the opportunity to speak out – may foster a sense of hope within them for the future.  

Ewen Mcleish is a teacher and environmental sustainability coordinator at St Andrews International School, Bangkok. He writes about sustainability and education

This article originally appeared in Tes Magazine: COP26: How to use event to reduce pupil climate anxiety | Tes Magazine on 21st October 2021, 10:00am

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