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Lessons in climate change: Equipping kids for the future

Holly Young
February 15, 2024

In 2019, Italy became the first country to make climate change a compulsory subject in the curriculum. But are children worldwide getting the necessary education in school on global warming and the environment?

Children in Norway wander in the woods
Encouraging schoolkids to get out into nature is seen by some teachers as crucialImage: Emilie Holtet/NTR/AP/picture alliance

Monica Capo likes her pupils to get a little dirt under their nails. 

In the garden of her primary school in Naples, Italy, she shows students how to plant flowers and harvest vegetables. Climate change can be a daunting and complex topic, so she tries to make it tangible.

"I want them to love nature, to be surrounded by it," says Capo, who is of the opinion that this connection is a gateway to grasping what is at stake.

In 2019, Italy announced it would become the first country in the world to make climate change a compulsory subject on the national curriculum. Schools are now required to deliver 33 hours of climate change education every year for kids aged 6-19. 

Capo uses these hours to break down the topic into concrete lessons such as how to grow a tree, recycle, save water, reduce energy consumption or why we should avoid fast fashion.

She sensitively treads the line between stoking anxiety and bringing across a biting sense of urgency.

"I try not to scare them," says Capo. "But the quicker they start to learn the better," she adds, saying her pupils are between 6 and 11 years old.

Floods in Italy 2023
Last year Italy was hit by deadly floods and extreme temperaturesImage: Andreas Solaro/AFP

Uncertain futures for today's children

Capo is acutely aware that rising temperatures will shape her students' futures. 

In their lifetimes, children their age are projected to experience a nearly fourfold increase in extreme weather events such as drought, wildfires and floods amid 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit) of global warming above the pre-industrial era. An estimated 1 billion children are already at extremely high risk of climate-related water scarcity, disease and displacement. The threat to their ability to thrive and survive is so profound that the UN sees climate change as a child rights crisis

Yet not all schools are making the grade when it comes to equipping young people with the tools to understand and navigate a changing world. 

A mixed scorecard 

Despite the Paris Agreement recognizing education as a critical tool in addressing the climate crisis, less than a third of countries that signed up to the agreement actually mention schooling in their national climate commitments.  

And this has filtered down to the classroom. Only half of the 100 national curricula analyzed by UNESCO in 2021 mention climate change — and when they do, it is often fleetingly. Some 70% of young people surveyed by the UN organization said they didn't have the knowledge to understand or explain climate change. A survey run in the UK between 2020 and 2021 found over a third of pupils said they had learned only a little or nothing about the environment at school. 

Children in a classroom in Nigeria
Many young people report not receiving adequate schooling on climate changeImage: DW

Yet the increasing tangibility of the climate crisis — through record temperatures and extreme weather events — has helped to create a growing global consensus that "children have to be sensitized and have to be provided with the right tools to be part of the solution," says Stefania Gianni, assistant director general for education at UNESCO. 

Countries coming top of the class

While there are no official statistics to measure the impact of Italy's change of curriculum, it has created a buzz in classrooms and received positive feedback from teachers, according to the Association of Italian School Teachers and Managers. Capo says textbooks have been updated and more resources given to educators and schools. 

And Italy is not the only country receiving attention as a potential leader in climate education. Although the subject is not compulsory, all secondary schools in New Zealand have had access to refreshed climate change teaching materials written by leading science agencies since 2020.

They include topics such as the stories of climate change activists and how to talk to students about eco-anxiety.

Schoolkids in Mexico
Mexico is one of a few countries pushing climate educationImage: Keith Dannemiller/ZPress/dpa/picture-alliance

In 2019, Mexico also changed the constitution to recognize understanding and protection of the environment as a requirement of the country's education system. 

No universal approach

UNESCO's Gianni believes there is no one-size-fits-all model for climate education — it will look different in Berlin or Rome compared to a small village in Nigeria — and that schools should have the power to shape it to their specific needs. 

Curriculum updates, which are notoriously slow and politically sensitive, are not the only tool for change, says Gianni. She argues that real transformation of education systems requires a more holistic approach, such as involving the wider local community in climate change education, ensuring school buildings are built and run sustainably and enhancing teacher training. 

Educate teachers 

Addressing a lack of knowledge and training on the subject for teachers themselves is essential, according to a 2023 global climate education review by the Academy of the Social Sciences in Australia, an independent research institute.  

Rome Fridays For Future Demonstration
A young activist with Fridays for Future protests in RomeImage: Christian Minelli/NurPhoto/picture alliance

Capo, a passionate climate activist and founder of Teachers for Future Italy (an offshoot of the youth climate movement Fridays for Future), is an outlier when it comes to having the confidence to teach climate change.

In a UNESCO survey of 100 countries, only 40% of teachers felt confident explaining the severity of climate change. A 2020 survey of teachers in Europe found a lack of expertise was the most common reason they did not include climate education in their lessons.

Empowering students 

For Capo, the classroom is one of the most powerful tools in tackling the climate crisis. It is a direct line to young people, where teachers like her can present the facts and dispel misinformation her students have read online or heard from Italy's climate-skeptical government.

"On TikTok, there is a lot of disinformation about climate change, and it is fundamental to educate the students on how to tell apart fake news from the truth," says Capo. 

Most are interested but a little scared, says Capo. She tries to show them that knowledge and action are the counterweight to anxiety.

"I want everyone in the classroom to know that we can do something and there's still hope," she says. "We need hope in order to make a difference."  

Edited by: Jennifer Collins