Read any news about the environment and it’s a confusing mass of contradictory claim and counter claim but our children can help. It’s not just that the future is in their hands, says Michael Donlevy. They will soon be better informed than we are
There is a very good reason why: our children’s lives will be more closely intertwined with the effects of climate change than those of any generation in modern history. But also, on a more practical level, kids are already being taught the right things about recycling and energy efficiency.
‘Climate change is in the National Curriculum for Years 7 to 11,’ says Amanda Matthews, a science teacher at a London girls’ school. ‘The children study causes and effects, comparisons with the past and predictions for the future. We also discuss the effect of humans on the environment and how we can change our lives to lessen the effects. Year 9 students design and create a “house for the future”, employing the renewable energy resources discussed in class. This really engages the girls and gets them to think about how different energy sources might be used.’
But more can be done. ‘The National Curriculum is under review and it’s hard to see where environmental issues fit,’ says Cherry Duggan, head of schools and youth relations at the WWF UK. ‘The government doesn’t want to “own” the sustainability agenda in schools; its position is that schools should drive it themselves. There’s a lot of merit in this, but we’d like to see government having a stronger stance. Beyond this, many organisations have some great projects available for schools. For example, our own Green Ambassadors scheme aims to inspire and support pupils in green teams to lead environmental projects.’
Not that this is an excuse for you, as a parent, to do nothing. You still need to educate yourself so you can help arm children with the facts. The UN Climate Change Summit takes place in Qatar from 26 November until 7 December – and that’s a lot of time to, no doubt, get not a lot done. It’s been 25 years since the Montreal Protocol was signed to put an end to the CFC gases that destroyed the ozone layer. But now, the threat is from their replacement. HFC gases are contributing to climate change that will affect everyone and everything on this planet.
Take the sea. You probably don’t think much about it unless you’re swimming in it on your holidays – and that’s part of the problem. ‘A big issue is ignorance,’ says Paul Cox, head of learning and science at the National Marine Aquarium. ‘The big threats, such as climate change, pollution and over-fishing, get ignored if people don’t know about them.’ And don’t for one minute think that because it’s all happening out there in the ocean it doesn’t matter to us, because carbon emissions are a massive threat. ‘Half of the oxygen we breathe comes from plankton,’ says Cox. ‘If marine life is at risk, so is all life.’
Global warming is the biggest threat, despite what the disbelievers may tell you. Human activities such as burning fossil fuels and producing CO2 have polluted the atmosphere and accelerated climate change. ‘Global warming has existed since the beginning,’ says Jim Dale, senior risk meteorologist at British Weather Services. ‘It’s a slow process unless there’s a big event such as a volcanic explosion or a comet hitting Earth. But the current pattern is towards a rapid shift. Temperatures have gone up quickly over the past 100 years, and particularly the past 20 to 30.’
Education is the key. ‘We need to be educated about climate change so it becomes a bigger story in the media,’ says Dale. ‘A topless royal doesn’t make any difference to our existence. By learning about the threats, we’ll be better placed to influence politicians and their policies.’ Some scientists predict that global warming will have wiped out a third of all species by 2050. This loss of biodiversity could cause an ecological collapse.
Animals are under threat for lots of reasons. ‘Sadly, the more rare the animal, the greater its value on the illegal market,’ says Steve Backshall, presenter of TV’s Deadly 60. Animals are hunted for fur, hide, teeth, bones or anything that can be claimed as a trophy, but also for practical reasons. ‘Animals are in danger wherever there is conflict or famine,’ says Backshall. ‘Try telling a man in Congo that chimps or gorillas are under threat when he has a family to feed. Another problem is traditional Chinese medicine, a multi-billion dollar industry that uses a phenomenal number of exotic animals.’
‘Governments are realising they can gain status by taking part in conservation efforts,’ Backshall says, so now is the time for you and your kids to put pressure on them. You can sign petitions, pledge money, make a noise and show your support. There are thousands of charities, so just check out their history and how they spend their money.
‘The key is to get children outdoors, connecting with nature,’ says Duggan. ‘Lots of children have a natural empathy with nature, but sometimes lack the opportunity or inclination. Again, there are some great activities on offer from different environmental and youth organisations: WWF’s Go Wild children’s membership, for example, offers stories, facts, games and activities relating to the issues we work on around the world.’
As Backshall says, ‘Politicians make the big decisions, but they are guided by the people who vote for them.’ That will be your children, soon.