Climate literacy

Climate Literacy in the Classroom

The weekend of 22-23 January 2022 saw Cape Town enter the record books in a literal blistering fashion. The unbelievable temperatures over that weekend have been described as ‘unprecedented territory’. This is because Cape Town recorded its hottest temperatures ever, beating the previous record by 3 degrees celcius. Roughly 10 days prior to these sweltering temperatures in the Western Cape, parts of the Eastern Cape were ravaged by floods.

In another part of the world, within the same timeframe, the South Pacific was badly affected by an underwater volcano that erupted aggressively, causing tsunamis to hit Japan, Hawaii and Tonga’s largest island, Tongatapu.

While the earthquake that hit Afghanistan on 17 January 2022 has been described as ‘moderate 5.3 magnitude’, many of the people that died in its wake had lived in homes that were not earthquake resistant. Besides the lives that were lost, there was also the struggle to save an 800-year-old minaret, which is a United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) heritage site, after it sustained damages from the earthquake.

Also on 17 January 2022, Madagascar’s capital city, Antananarivo, was hit by heavy rains. Around 20 districts close to the capital were placed on high alert for flooding as its heavily built-up urban areas have poor water management and drainage systems.

Volcanos and climate change

How does one make sense of these ever-changing weather patterns?

If we are to nurture global citizens, then it is incumbent on the education fraternity to broaden the local and global knowledge of the children in our care. So what do we tell the gatekeepers of our planet – the children – about why this is happening?

These questions around the issue of climate change and its impact are high on the international agenda. Education, more especially climate change education, is key to the global response to the matter. Climate education strives to nurture the general public’s deeper understanding of climate change and climate literacy. Additionally, it aims to realign the education system to bring about lower-emission of greenhouse gases and development that is climate resilient.

So what is climate literacy?

Climate literacy is the manner in which people make sense of and understand their influence on climate and how the climate has an influence on people and society at large. When an individual is climate-literate, it means that they grasp the essential principles of the Earth’s climate system.

The climate-literate person is also capable of assessing scientifically credible information, as well as being able to talk about climate and climate change in a meaningful fashion. This person, as a result of being climate-literate, is then able to make trustworthy decisions with regard to actions that may adversely affect climate.

In order to gain climate literacy, we need to venture across the full spectrum of scientific disciplines. Equally important is a profound comprehension of the economic, social and political forces that impact people and climate. It would be remiss to gloss over the fact that around the world, climate change affects under-developed communities in a disproportionate manner.

With an understanding of climate justice, comes a clearer understanding of why poor communities are affected by climate change. These very communities are ironically also the ‘incubators of solutions’ to the other global pandemic namely COVID-19.

UNESCO is calling for Education for Sustainable Development to be a core component of all education systems spanning all levels of education by 2025. This is a mammoth task that will require mind shifts globally before any form of theory will yield results. It is further complicated by the fact that education budgets need to be adapted, teacher training needs to be ongoing and actions need to be consistent and meaningful, as opposed to tokenistic.

Floods and climate change

Does climate literacy matter when South African education is struggling with other issues?

When families are torn apart by violence and poverty, unemployment is at its highest and South Africa retains its title as the most unequal country in the world, then climate literacy appears to be set aside. The irony is that rivers across the country are regularly running dry, air quality is rapidly deteriorating, resulting in subsequent health issues for entire communities, and water shortages are a regular, petrifying reality. Despite this, climate literacy is yet to enjoy centre stage in many conversations.

While South Africa is not in the same league of greenhouse gas emitters as the United States and China, it certainly has a key role to occupy in the communication about climate change. After all, South Africa is ‘the leading emitter of greenhouse gases on the continent and the 14th globally’.

In life orientation classes (LO), South African school children learn about values, and acquire knowledge about a range of topics such as social engagement, responsible citizenship, attitudes and skills about the self, recreation and physical activity, the environment, and leading a healthy and productive life. Climate Literacy could be included as an outcome when covering the elements of the environment.

Given that LO is a compulsory curriculum area, this could ensure that as a topic climate change will start to gain traction. Such a move will go a long way in helping to nurture a climate conscious generation of activists.

Drought and climate change

In the meantime, teachers across the country can join a global network of like-minded professionals where they can learn, interact, and exchange ideas with colleagues all over the world. This can be done by registering (at no cost) with the Climate Action Project. Teachers will find there a relevant and cutting edge curriculum on all aspects of climate change and climate literacy.

All resources are freely available and the material is fact checked by experts such as the World Wildlife Fund, the American National Aeronautics and Space Administration and others. South African learners can then join the 2.7 million students across 146 countries who participated in action for the environment in 2021.