Why the climate crisis needs to be included in all environmental education programs

Written by Erika Van Schellebeck on 14 May 2020 - 2:49pm.

It can be overwhelming to think about the many sustainability problems we are educating our communities about today. Biodiversity and habitat loss, water security, waste and plastic pollution...the list goes on. The solutions to these problems that we are encouraging our communities to be part of are incredibly important for current and future generations. Indeed, the definition of sustainability is to make decisions today that do not reduce the quality of life of future generations.

What's the point?

But if we don’t solve the climate crisis in the next decade, what will have been the point of all of our environmental education programs? The planet’s future and the lives of current and future generations will be so radically changed that many of these environmental issues will become insignificant or irrelevant in our struggle just to survive in a hothouse planet.

The 2019/20 bushfires and COVID-19 pandemic have given us some insight into this. Nature play was not something our children or students could do when our skies were filled with toxic bushfire smoke. COVID-19 restrictions have cancelled our face-to-face environmental education programs for the foreseeable future, just one small example how this global pandemic has altered our lives so rapidly and radically. Will plastic pollution still be an issue when our oceans are too acidic to support life?

So, what does this mean for us as environmental educators? It certainly doesn’t mean that we should stop our environmental education efforts and become climate activists (although many of us may already be wearing both these hats). Far from it! Rather, the urgent and overwhelming nature of the climate crisis provides an opportunity for all of us to think about how we can integrate climate crisis messages into what we are already doing.

Climate crisis communication

The climate crisis is the mother of all environmental issues, so it makes sense to make it an integral part of our environmental education work. Whether we are educating our communities about biodiversity, oceans, rivers, food, water or waste, we have an opportunity to help our NSW community engage with the climate crisis. Every ecosystem, environmental management issue and facet of our daily lives is now impacted by climate change. The devastating 2019/20 bushfires were a wake-up call to our NSW community and more than ever people are looking to find ways on how they can be part of the solution.

Discussing the threat of climate change has not been an easy task for environmental educators in the past, as many people switch off because they feel powerless or despair in the face of this overwhelming global issue. For some educators, the politics of their workplace neither encourages nor supports them to refer to the climate crisis.

However, we have waited too long in Australia for political climate leadership and this vacuum is being filled by community and business climate leadership. As environmental educators we too can be leaders, by communicating the truth of the climate crisis and the solutions we need for a safe climate. For decades we have been communicating environmental problems to the Australian public.  The key to being successful now with our communication, is to frame the climate crisis as not just an environmental issue, but as the health, wellbeing and livelihood issue that it is. The 2019/20 bushfires showed this all to clearly to NSW, as people stayed inside to avoid the smoke, or as they watched main streets burn and the death toll increase from our screens.

Like other emergencies though, we need to throw everything we’ve got at this to restore a safe, healthy climate. We have the resources and knowledge to succeed but we need a whole-of-community effort to make big changes within a decade.

People power

This is where our network of 400+ environmental educators in NSW come in. Do you work in education, local or state government, business or the not-for-profit sector? Do you engage with young people, families, volunteers, business people, work colleagues or local Councillors? Do you talk to your friends, family and colleagues about environmental issues or share environmental information to your networks through social media?

If so, we need you to help mobilise our communities to be part of the solution to create a safe climate! Are you in?

Get equipped for your journey by checking out our climate crisis resources hub

Erika is a volunteer Executive Committee member of AAEE NSW and is a Sustainability Education Consultant with 20 years experience delivering environmental education in Sydney and regional NSW. She has engaged with a diverse range of stakeholders including residents, landholders, farmers, community groups, Aboriginal Land Councils, schools, higher education and businesses, on issues such as bushland protection, catchment management and sustainable living. In 2018 she received the AAEE NSW Community Educator of the Year Award for outstanding contribution to environmental education in NSW. Contact her with your thoughts on communicating the climate crisis at erika@ecoengage.com.au 

Photo credit: Australian Maritime Safety Authority via Reuters