Disinformation and misinformation abound when it comes to the climate crisis. There is ample scientific evidence relating to the causes and consequences of global heating alongside recommendations for the considerable steps needed to mitigate and adapt to it. What we are lacking is a concerted effort to educate everyone, from school children entering Early Years, to their parents and grandparents; in fact, all members of society.
Despite the fact that the UN has organised 27 Conference of the Parties (COPs) since 1995, average global temperatures are currently going up at a faster rate than the most robust scientific predictions. With COP28 currently taking place in Dubai under the presidency of Sultan Ahmed Al Jaber, head of the Abu Dhabi National Oil Company, it feels high time that climate and sustainability education was not only embedded across the school curriculum, but also approached through a serious and dedicated public information campaign.
Global temperatures have broken new records in recent months, making 2023 the hottest on record. The latest reports issued by the UN suggest it is increasingly unlikely that we will keep global average temperature increases below 1.5oC. Worryingly, this November, average temperatures even breached 2oC of global heating for two consecutive days and, whilst the UK was battered by autumn storms, there are devastating spring heatwaves in Brazil and Australia. Internationally, climate disasters are already happening.
A lack of consistency and quality of environmental education
The Department for Education released their climate and sustainability strategy in 2022 but it included no change to the National Curriculum so there is still no policy that ensures children are receiving an education that provides the knowledge and skills needed for sustainable futures. The scale of the urgency with which we need to act has led to increasing calls for educational policy reform by organisations such as Teach the Future which is collaborating with MPs to pass a Climate Education Bill in parliament. Of course, many schools do include lessons and projects to improve biodiversity, encourage recycling or promote schemes to reduce energy and water waste but there is a real lack of consistency and quality of environmental education.
A focus on local environmental challenges is needed
Ideally, schools in North East England would have their own curriculum which focuses on local environmental challenges, sustainable practices, and community engagement. There are some key components that could be included: local biodiversity and conservation efforts for native species; the regional impact of climate change, including rising sea levels, coastal erosion, changes in precipitation patterns, and temperature variations; strategies for mitigating and adapting to climate change at the individual and community level; alongside renewable energy and sustainable practices in agriculture, waste management, and transportation.
Schools could also be supported to collaborate with local experts and stakeholders in environmental citizen science projects, integrate cultural and historical perspectives related to the region’s relationship with the environment and our great industrial heritage, incorporate outdoor education to connect students with nature and encourage an appreciation for local landscapes including field trips to local nature reserves, parks, and environmental centres. There really are endless opportunities to go from inadequate to outstanding!
Providing children with a robust, locally relevant climate and sustainability education has the benefit of sending ripples out into their homes and wider communities. However, change through school education will happen but it will be slow and many members of society might not be involved.
Beyond the classroom
We really need something more radical and for climate education to go beyond the classroom walls if we are to protect our children’s futures. Misinformation in the media leads to disbelief and confusion in the classroom.
Do electric cars have a higher or lower carbon impact than petrol cars? If flying is so damaging, why are flights cheaper than trains? Is a vegan diet really going to make the difference? Why do we need both system change and individual action? Is it all too late?
We have many solutions to the climate crisis but we also have a government that seems incapable to actually put protective policies into place, let alone act upon Article 12 of the, legally binding Paris Agreement from 2015 which states “Parties shall cooperate in taking measures, as appropriate, to enhance climate change education, training, public awareness, public participation and public access to information”.
North East Climate Citizens’ Assembly
Back in 2021, the North East Climate Citizens’ Assembly, a citizen-led initiative, involved residents in the North East of England in discussions about climate change, environmental issues, and potential solutions. Fifty people from the North East came together to help shape the region’s response to the climate crisis. The North of Tyne Combined Authority (NTCA) set up the process to help come up with radical actions to slash the area’s carbon footprint. Assembly members, selected to reflect the diversity of the population, listened to and questioned a range of expert commentators. Then they shared their ideas, deliberated on the issues, before creating a set of recommendations to be taken to the NTCA Cabinet to consider.
The Assembly reported its findings in July 2021. The recommendations included the need for a public education strategy. It acknowledged that climate change is an urgent and real threat to all we value but it also provides us with a real opportunity to invest in the people of the North-East. Individuals, communities, businesses and local government should put climate change at the forefront of every decision and that all members of society are included so that those of us who are vulnerable and marginalised are not further disadvantaged.
Through awareness we can empower communities to take urgent and united action to decarbonise and create an environment in which all life can thrive. Our region is one of outstanding beauty, character and a rich history. It is through our community spirit and resilience we will tackle this crisis together and maybe even have a better quality of life as a result.
Public awareness campaign in the North East
So, what could a climate and nature public awareness campaign in the North East involve? It could put into place a comprehensive, encompassing strategy to inform, engage, and inspire the entire region. We know the residents would be the target audience for the campaign but we need to consider demographics, interests, and existing knowledge about environmental issues as well as the best ways to disseminate information. As the NCTA identified, we will need to craft clear and compelling messages that resonate with our local communities.
Highlighting the importance of individual and collective actions in addressing environmental challenges will be key but we can do this by incorporating positive local stories, case studies, and examples to make the campaign more relatable to residents. We can utilise a variety of media channels such as social media, local newspapers, radio, and community events to reach our diverse audience and create visually appealing and shareable content to increase the campaign’s online presence. There could be community events, workshops, and seminars to facilitate direct engagement with residents – everyone’s invited!
Collaborations between local schools, community groups, and businesses would maximise outreach including partnerships with local environmental organisations, government agencies, and businesses to enhance the credibility and impact of the campaign, involving groups such as Climate Action North East, VONNE, the North East England Climate Coalition and Climate Action NE to local climate cafes or hubs. It’s easy to provide practical tips and resources for adopting sustainable practices in daily life, such as waste reduction, energy conservation, and sustainable transportation. It’s also essential to emphasise positive messages that highlight successful local initiatives, environmental improvements, and the potential for positive change.
The success of the campaign, such as increased awareness, changes in behavior, or community participation in environmental initiatives, should be measured alongside gathering feedback from the community to continually assess and refine the campaign strategy. It would be easy to identify and promote local environmental champions or success stories to inspire others in the community.
A leaflet through the door on the local council’s own aims to achieve Net Zero by 2030 doesn’t really cut the mustard when many residents are really uncertain about the help that may be available to them – from car share schemes to loft insulation or grants for heat pumps. Ideally we would be a national campaign but there is no time to lose whilst the political shenanigans are going on in Westminster. A regional public awareness campaign in North East England could foster community engagement, and encourage sustainable practices to address local environmental challenges.
We must recognise that through changing our ways of life to become more sustainable, it is the young people who have the most to gain. For the first time, the United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child has explicitly affirmed children’s right to a clean, healthy and sustainable environment. An event at COP28 will present the latest evidence and data on how climate change disproportionately affects children, “From the most vulnerable to most valuable: placing children’s rights at the heart of climate action”. Accepting that the future of our children is at stake, we have a duty of care to act, and maybe, just maybe we might actually enjoy some of the outcomes ourselves.