Jenny Ritchie and Andrea Milligan of Victoria University ask if climate change education is up to scratch in New Zealand, and how we can take a more comprehensive approach 

Leading the global response to climate change-related crises, the United Nations states: “Climate change is already impacting public health, food and water security, migration, peace and security … Tackling climate change and fostering sustainable development are two mutually reinforcing sides of the same coin; sustainable development cannot be achieved without climate action.”

The UN response is multifaceted, encompassed within 17 inter-related Sustainable Development Goals for 2030. Quality Education (Goal 4) is seen as key to realising the other goals.

In a research project that is part of Victoria University of Wellington’s commitment to Sustainability and Resilience as one of its areas of academic strength, we want to find out what kinds of climate change education are happening, and what more is needed.

Some encouraging work is already happening, including achievement standards in NCEA in Education for Sustainability, and Enviroschools, a national programme that supports school communities to take sustainable action. And there are many other excellent, innovative examples in all areas of education, from early childhood to tertiary settings, as well as informal networks and community groups.

But looking across the whole education system and people’s lifelong learning, a more concerning picture emerges. While public awareness has increased, climate change education appears patchy at best. For instance, as others (including Chris Eames and Matthew Schep) have noted, New Zealand’s curriculum gives schools significant discretion over what content they teach — or don’t teach. This makes it entirely possible for a student to move through school having only lightly touched upon climate change and other sustainability issues.

The questions for us all are about the kind of mirror education should hold up to the pressing challenges of climate change and the appropriate educational approaches that flow from this.

Wider still, this piecemeal approach is exacerbated by a lack of co-ordination across various parts of our education system. We have few mechanisms in place for sharing good practice across early childhood, school, community and university settings. 

There appears an urgent need to consider a sector-wide approach to climate change and in particular to look at what happens when learners move from one part of the education system to another. 

By contrast, a number of nations directly affected by the impacts of climate change are taking a more comprehensive approach.

The Secretariat of the Pacific Community, in conjunction with non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and the University of the South Pacific’s Institute of Education, has developed culturally relevant education resources to enhance learning about climate change in Pacific schools and training institutions. Elsewhere in the Pacific Rim, the Philippines and Vietnamese governments have been proactive in developing strategic frameworks that link together formal education and the work of NGOs.

The experience of these nations has shown that bringing together the education community is no easy task and that many structural challenges exist. We think, however, that this is an urgent next step for New Zealand.

The questions for us all are about the kind of mirror education should hold up to the pressing challenges of climate change and the appropriate educational approaches that flow from this. Recent insights from the fields of education for sustainable development and citizenship education point to the need to reach further than approaches to climate change education that solely encourage care for the environment and behaviour change. There is greater potential to enable learners to grapple with the complex nature of addressing climate change through approaches that emphasise the need for critical thinking, listening across different values and world views, and an ongoing, reflective approach to climate action.

While our field is education, we see the issue of facing climate change as requiring an inter-disciplinary approach. It is also one where serious political will is urgently required.

*Associate Professor Jenny Ritchie and Dr Andrea Milligan are in the School of Education at Victoria University of Wellington. Dr Rachel Tallon, also in the School of Education, contributed to their research.

Leave a comment