When it comes to climate - don't forget the children: Opinion Editorial

Edmonton Journal Opinion column posting - October 11, 2016

When it comes to climate leadership and energy efficiency in Alberta, I have a simple request for our leaders in government and schools: please don't forget about our children.

The view from 30,000 feet is pretty good, with the Notley government promising that 2017 will bring useful things like a price on carbon, and an agency that will help Albertans reach that low-hanging fruit of climate mitigation called “energy efficiency.”

However, I’ve been a teacher and environmental educator for over 25 years in this province, and I have to report that when it comes to education about climate, environment, and energy -  we’re not there yet.

High school students engage with some of Alberta's Energy Efficiency Panel at their 16 September consultation with K-12 Educators, that ACEE helped convene.  From left to right: Chair Dr. David Wheeler, panel members Tanya Doran and Michelle Aasgard, and students Leah Buchanan, Stephanie Zawaduk, and Mudassar-bin Javid.

Sure, there are a few, inspiring bright lights.  James Stuart teaches at St. Richard Elementary school in Edmonton, where his Grade Five students have become solar photovoltaic experts: they’ve learned about Alberta’s energy systems, built electrical circuits, partnered with community groups, and organized Green Energy fairs to share their learning.  In Calgary, teacher Adam Robb mashed together social studies and career and technology studies to create a new course at Lord Shaughnessy High School that has seen his students study climate change, propose major solar installations to its own board, and optimize their schools environmental performance.  This past week alone his students spoke at Pembina’s Climate Summit – AND the school won the Greenest School in Canada Award! 

I’ve noticed some great leadership by trustees, too.  In recent blog posts Edmonton Public School Board Chair Michael Janz asks the question "What if EPSB was powered by 100% renewable energy?", while Calgary Board of Education trustee Julie Hrdlicka highlights CBE's leadership and its important 'ask' of the Alberta School Board Association: to promote and share best practices in environmental learning, and advocate on behalf of school boards for supporting renewable energy and ensuring students' access to environmental education.

We helped convene the Energy Efficiency Panel's 16 September consultation with students, teachers and education leaders, shown here sharing ideas on how to weave together energy efficiency and education in Alberta.  

Inspiring stuff – but these are the exceptions, not the rule.  Our education system isn’t there yet. Alberta’s 670,000 K-12 students rely on their 40,000 teachers to guide their learning; teachers are key, and they need support.

What does this look like?  School boards can help their teachers by supporting and prioritizing teachers’ professional learning on this front, and setting policy that weaves together education and infrastructure towards climate leadership. Tax evasion is generally frowned upon in our society – but dodging the carbon tax is definitely a virtue, and there are dozens of things school boards can do to simultaneously reduce their use of carbon fuels and deliver on their education mission.  For example, conservation of energy can be tricky to teach, dealing as it does with the invisible flow of electrons and other occult mysteries – so what if Alberta schools made energy visible, using circuit meters or putting a webcam on the meter that is locked away in some corner of the school, and encouraged students to reduce their consumption of electricity and natural gas?

Our government can help our children, too.  In BC some school boards avoid paying their carbon taxes if they agree to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and offer “educational opportunities for students, in partnership with their parents, that promote sustainability and climate action both at school and at home.”  Our government needs to incent school board leadership in some way or another – and let us not forget the powerful tool called curriculum, with its potential to revitalize Alberta’s classrooms in this area.

I’ll say it again: when it comes to climate leadership and energy efficiency in Alberta, please don't forget the children.  Students should learn to think critically about climate change and other issues; if they decide to act on this front they can help schools save money, pay less carbon tax, and inspire the community to move towards a low carbon future – and these same students will gain valuable twenty-first century and workplace skills in the process.

Let me give the final word to Stephanie Zawaduk, a Grade 12 student from Queen Elizabeth High School in Edmonton: “Climate change can be intimidating and overwhelming – but we believe the antidote to despair is action.” 

Gareth Thomson is executive director of the Alberta Council for Environmental Education.  This op ed was submitted for publication to the Calgary Herald and the Edmonton Journal on 22 Sept 2016.