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Education for Climate Change

BigWawe, Hokusai

Recently I had the opportunity to run a workshop on climate change in an international conference organized by a Finnish university. After the conference I decided to sum up my impressions in a discussion paper. Because the paper basically is an invitation to continue brainstorming I decided to put it here too. Check it out and contribute some ideas.

Getting ready for Climate Change

The Conference Beyond the Dawn of Innovation organised by Laurea University in Finland in May 2009 was a success and during the summer some of the international partners have been asking what the university now plans to do as a follow-up. This discussion paper outlines some ideas for the creation of more permanent and international cooperation around Climate Change issues, a topic of the conference. Please comment or add points that I missed.


Global warming is already affecting the entire planet and its biosphere. Many actions to mitigate global warming are currently planned by international bodies and the business community. But there is a time-delay in their coming into effect. No matter how successful the international community will be in implementing global measures, we will have to prepare for life on a planet that is warmer than today and that will provide fewer natural sources per capita than what our current consumption rate requires. Those who are students today will face the limits to growth concretely during their adult life. It is therefore obvious that the educational system should reflect these changes and take climate change into account in curricula and in all forms of professional development. The educational system, by and large, is based on the wrong assumption that the future will be like now, perhaps better. The wrong assumption is not due to a lack of awareness. It is a reflection of uncertainty regarding what to do. Could we do something about it together?

In the conference I presented Climate Change as a possible topic for cooperation among the participating universities. The underlining idea was that global warming affects all countries on the planet and that the process is caused by now increasingly better understood global phenomena. However, mitigation and adaption to the environmental changes are always local actions and they require knowledge about local circumstances – i.e. social, physical, economical etc. Students in different countries should share knowledge about global causes and long term processes, while focusing on their own living and working environment when designing concrete actions to cope with environmental change. In short: we are all in this together and everyone needs to do his/her share in doing something about it.

Climate Change and education

Linking education and climate change is not entirely new. For instance, the Baltic University Network with funding from the Finnish Ministry of Education has been active is this field and created a new website devoted to this topic in 2008. However, past initiatives have often been too general and ideologically motivated to go very far. Actions are often seen in the context of development aid and the issue as a third world problem. That the traditional approach is outdated and ineffective becomes clear when one considers that many areas of China and India already have the same or higher living standards than the West. Instead, the current proposal therefore focuses on creating partnership and a common cause among teachers and students in different countries. Climate change is global and will affect all countries and regions, but effects are local.

The proposal is to investigate what professionals need to know about global warming in different conventional professions and to update educational curricula so students will be prepared to address the climate change issues and make a positive contribution as professionals. Networking with other students and university programmes will create partnerships and a deeper understanding of the challenges that communities in different countries face. Students can then focus on making their own professional impact on their own community.

Learning by developing

Where will the teachers come from? Because climate change has not traditionally been seen as a required component of every professional portfolio (except for natural scientists), there are no, or very few, educational programmes ready for different professional categories. There is a need for learning by developing new curricula that applies to teachers as well as to students. There is plenty of opportunity in the field of  curricula development for climate change and this topic could easily qualify for a large-scale European project, perhaps even as a concerted action (100% funded).  From a geological point of view global warming is now developing at record speed. But from a human perspective the changes are coming slowly and they are sometimes hardly perceptible before the crisis is at hand. While the tensions causing an earthquake build up slowly, almost imperceptibly, the quake, when it comes, comes suddenly. This is how nature works.  It is something of a paradox that, while climate change is coming slowly, we are already in a hurry. That is what education for climate change all about.

Some opportunities are listed below:

1.      Network and cooperation

To formalize and expand the network that participated in the BDI conference seems as a useful and in fact necessary tool for establishing the green professions I have hinted at above. The network will create content, organise teacher and student exchange and give the concept credibility, sustainability and endless inspiration for all involved.

2.      Analysis framework

Jared Diamond, in his book “Collapse, How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed”, offers an analysis model that can be applied to just about any community where sustainability due to environmental change is an issue. The particular value of his analysis of how climate change affects Montana, USA, is that it is free of political agenda and the rhetoric of economics. Student can do semester or degree papers using the same apparatus. Such papers would generate genuine local debate and complement more short-sighted development strategies typically prepared by local development agencies.

3.      Environmental Coach

Sweden is currently a front-runner in the field of local action related to climate change.  One interesting initiative is “Environmental Coach” as a profession. Environmental Coaches make climate change assessments for municipalities in Sweden, they assess effects of increasing water levers, changes in biodiversity, access to raw material, etc. as an inventory of threats and opportunities that a municipality faces from climate change. Climate change assessment reports provide a more holistic view of a community compared to traditional strategy plans of futurology studies.

4.      Certificate of Green Profession

You have already graduated or is about to graduate as a nurse, an automation expert, a restaurant manager, a fire fighter,.  etc., and you want an update on how to conserve energy, recycle waste, etc. in your particular field. So you decide can take a special crash course offered at your nearby university and put a new diploma on the wall in your office. Green certification for professional staff should be of interest to employers too.

5.      Awareness

Much has been done to research and illustrate what climate change can do to our world.   Public media like BBC and the Swedish Climate TV as well as social media like YouTube  offer a wealth of excellent material about climate change, its causes, its risks and models local action. All of this is available – right now – for educational purposes. But even if we watch a documentary about what happened to Saint Louis when Hurricane Katrina struck, the idea that it could happen in my hometown seems farfetched. We need to bring awareness to a higher level and, at the same time, to a realistic level. That means we have to bring awareness to our local and familiar context.

6.      ….

And now, your turn!

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