Students ready to lead on climate change

Gareth Thomson is the former Executive Director of the Alberta Council for Environmental Education.  Terry Godwaldt is Director of Programming at the Centre for Global Education.

March 15, 2016

For the past two months, we’ve used virtual classroom technology to engage 4,000 Alberta students in thinking about how Alberta schools should show climate leadership. On March 16 they will share their thoughts with Premier Rachel Notley, who has made time to share perspectives and answer questions, addressing what one student recently called ‘the defining issue of our generation.’ 

If these students were cranky about the climate change issue we’ve handed them, who could blame them?  But they’re not. They are energized, because they feel they are being listened to.  And they want to get things done.  Now.

Here are seven reasons why we believe schools should show climate leadership, and support relevant student learning and action.

First — money. Next year will see a carbon levy in Alberta, so the right sort of education will help schools save money as students guide us toward a low carbon future. Schools should by all means pursue renewable energy (nothing says ‘we’re trying to make a difference’ like solar cells and windmills on top of a school) but when it comes to cost savings the low-hanging fruit is truly student-led energy efficiency, energy management, and energy conservation. 

Second, this should save money in Alberta homes, too.  Some readers will remember the recycling revolution, which saw conservation-crazed students pouring through the doorways of their homes, dropping their school bags, and issuing manifestos to bemused parents about the benefits of recycling.  It worked, too and the same could happen with energy conservation. We believe that, properly done, school-based energy efficiency and renewable energy education would also come home to roost.

Third reason: Kids deserve to feel hope. Considered from the depths of our armchairs, climate change is deeply scary for most sentient adults. Can we please not scare our kids? The solution is simple: rather than ‘paralysis by analysis’ and the accompanying despair, help them do stuff.  In our work with tens of thousands of students, we’ve noticed that the ones who are actually doing something to help the environment are always the ones who are most hopeful about the future.  ‘Hope is a verb with its sleeves rolled up,’ as David Orr likes to say.

All that action makes students more accomplished, which leads us effortlessly to reason number four: workplace skills. We all sense a new, greener economy galloping toward us, and these students want to be ready for it. From tinkering with energy efficient gizmos, to researching best practices, to developing business plans and pitching school board officials on new ways of doing business — these all help prepare students for the future.

Our fifth reason is that reducing greenhouse gas emissions on a planet that is heating up is, quite simply, the right thing to do. 

Reason six is that help is at hand: This is Alberta, and the community is ready to support climate leadership by teachers and students. The database at the Alberta Council for Environmental Education shows more than 70 organizations that deliver over 500 environmental, energy, or climate change education programs, over 10 organizations with award or incentive programs for students, more than 10 corporations and foundations that offer relevant grants — the list goes on.

Lastly, reason number seven: the proposed new K-12 curriculum, with its emphasis on student competencies and project-based and ‘inquiry’ learning, is a perfect vehicle for Climate Leadership in schools.  We hope and believe that the Premier and Education Minister are poised for action on this front, and can almost imagine her saying to Education Minister David Eggen: ‘Make it so, number 1 …’