COP24: Why We Should Stop Saying the Solution to Climate Change is Education

The writer is Panda Ambassador at WWF-Singapore, Wesley Poh, who was covering news from COP24 (2-15 Dec) at Katowice, Poland.

Here, Wesley sheds light on why climate change is not as simple and straight-forward as you think it is. 

KATOWICE, Poland, 13 Dec 2018 —  It is Education Day at COP24, and there are side events and panel discussions going on all around me.

Having just ended a session on the challenges of environmental education, I find myself a quiet corner to reflect and consolidate my thoughts. I am conflicted — the answer to climate change seems to be mind-numbingly straightforward: it has to be education, the great panacea to mankind’s most pressing problems.

Yet, I find myself unclear about what — or even how— education is supposed to tackle climate change in concrete terms. Here’s what I find strangely discomforting:

More often than not, bringing up the word ‘education’ in climate change debates causes the conversation to come to a premature end; it progresses to nothing more than superficial comments on how we need to ‘inculcate recycling awareness in the young’.

What is the role of education in climate action, really?

Is this because people generally think the link between education and climate action is obvious enough? But if so, what value does this add to the conversation beyond merely establishing education as some far-fetched cure-all? Such an idealistic and abstract portrayal of education is unhelpful at its best and at its worse, completely sidesteps how environmental education should be used to spur climate action. We need to stop oversimplifying the many strategies we have in tackling climate change. Instead, we should be relentlessly exploring what environmental education actually means in practice and driving the conversation into territory that forces us to question the role of education specifically, rather than generally.

We need to be critical and examine this issue ourselves

More than ever, our youths need to be able to think critically against the unprecedented emergence of climate deniers. Youths need to be anchored to climate science based on their own individual thought-processes, which requires access to scientific data in order to establish the link between human contributions of greenhouse gases and the global rise in temperatures. They should not just be accepting climate change passively as a ‘real’ phenomenon from their teachers; rather, they need to be able to examine the evidence and ultimately defend this conclusion on their own.

Climate change is more complex than it seems

I arrived in Katowice as part of the Young Reporters for the Environment (YRE) programme, initially planning to write one article solely on climate change and poverty, and the other solely on climate change and women. It soon became glaringly clear to me that the way climate change interacts with other issues is a lot more intricate than what most of us are comfortable with. Yet, we cannot afford to shy away from such complexities, because this depth of knowledge is necessary to develop a holistic picture of the intersections present.

Similarly, the complexity of climate change means that environmental education must be embedded into and across different disciplines like the sciences and the humanities.

Case in point: The Singapore COP delegation at Katowice consisted of representatives not just from the Ministry of Environment and Water Resources (MEWR), but also from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Ministry of Trade and Industry. This showcases the reality of how climate change is inextricably linked to many other issues, and thus such interactions should also be reflected in the education syllabus. While this may require an overhaul of the status quo, the beneficial outcomes of broadening the minds of students and getting them to form linkages across disciplines contributes to attaining the key objectives of our education system.  

So, what is next (after education)?

Education may be effective in changing the minds of Singaporeans when allowed to run its course, but this will take time — possibly an entire generation’s worth.  In the interim, there must be complementary measures put in place to stir climate action. These could include outreach activities and incentives to reduce our carbon footprint incurred from day to day living (reducing electricity and water use, waste creation and disposal etc.).

Be proud your own sustainability journey (and appreciate someone else’s)  

There is also the subsequent question of how best to bridge the gap between head knowledge and actual action. We need to remember that changes towards sustainability do not have to be all-or-nothing. For instance, choosing to consume less meat more frequently throughout the week is not only environmentally sustainable, but is also healthier and more cost-effective. As such, the metric used to evaluate the success of environmental education should not be assessing uncompromising factors such as veganism uptake. Instead, it needs to appreciate how everyone’s journey towards increased environmental consciousness is unique and based on their personal circumstances. In doing so, people will be more likely to try knowing that is it not a false choice between being sustainable in every way and not caring about the environment.

Sacrifice goes a long, long way 

Finally (and perhaps the most difficult part of all), us Singaporeans need to recognise that moving towards and adopting an environmentally friendly lifestyle will involve a sacrifice of sorts, whether that be financial resources or the luxury of convenience and time. These costs can only be absorbed by other parties to some extent and so the question for us all is how far we are willing to go out of way to save the environment for ourselves and for our children. I like to see the whole saga over tray deposits in hawker centres together with the possible ban on plastic bags in supermarkets as illustrations of how initiating change is all about balancing our aspirations while ensuring that the process does not overly-burden our way of life, especially for those who are more vulnerable. Perhaps we still have a long way to go, but I am optimistic that we will get there eventually.

With all that said, I leave you with my parting plea:

The next time you hear someone tell you that the solution to climate change is education, please do not shy away from asking them to clarify what exactly they mean by that. Be bold in challenging their assumptions and asking for specifics when it comes to how education is supposed to fight climate change. More importantly, actively educate yourself and those around you – be informed, because knowledge is power!

Follow us and see more of Wesley’s updates from COP24 on @pandasonthego.

Read more about the reality of climate change in Philippines, our op-ed ‘Plastics: Enough Trash Talk’, and the inside scoop of our Ivory Lane campaign

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