Essays / Teaching Climate Change During The Pandemic

By Associate Professor Chang Chew Hung, Dean Academic and Strategic Development, the National Institute of Education

As a geographer I have naturally been keeping up with news about COVID-19, not only for its epidemiological relevance to us all as humans but for its spatial diffusion, its impact on economy and society, and even its impact on the environment.

During this time, as the issue of the virus and its impact, remains a prime topic of discussion, even among students. I wonder how many of us would still think about the medium to longer term impact of climate change--a pressing issue that was brought to the fore during the 2019 National Day Rally and became a key consideration in the recent Budget 2020.

As the topic of climate change is taught in geography and science lessons in our schools, many Geography teachers have approached me for advice on engaging students in the topic of climate change, which is now perceived as a distant threat as compared to the immediate peril of COVID-19: How do we make students see that climate change is still relevant amid the pandemic?

It wasn’t until after the publication of the Greenpeace report on global warming in 1989 that the topic of global warming induced climate change quickly became a hot topic around the world. Since then, coverage of the topic in school curricula around the world has risen steadily, and perhaps even accelerated in 2005 when the United Nations announced the Decade on Education for Sustainable Development.

While this has made talking about climate change “fashionable”, we still need to get a better handle on the broad range of climate change issues in order to adapt to or even mitigate its impact. This is where climate change education becomes crucial.

In the past decade, increased reports on the problems of climate change had raised awareness of the issue. However, the raising of awareness does not necessarily mean it will lead to the changing of behaviours. In Singapore, a Straits Times article published on 27 January 2018 reported that while many were concerned about the impact of climate change, there was still a significant number of people who were sceptical their actions would make any difference to the environment. This reinforced the point made by the then Minister for Environment and Water Resources Masagos Zulkifli that "it is important to raise the level of national consciousness around the need to take individual and collective action to fight climate change".

Coupled with the fact that climate change is a highly complex issue, this has resulted in general apathy among people towards mitigating climate change. This apathy is aggravated by the abundance of contradicting discourses that the public is exposed to. The ensuing confusion is made worse by the fact that people tend to only remember recent weather anomalies or catastrophic real-world events, like the COVID-19 pandemic, while gradual changes in weather patterns will go relatively unnoticed.

COVID-19 will eventually pass, and a sustainable environmental future will still be needed after that. Such a sustainable environmental future can only be secured if we start educating our children on these issues. In many countries, environmental or sustainability education has been infused or integrated into existing school subjects.

While climate change education is not included as a distinct unit in Singapore’s school curricular subjects, the topic is being taught explicitly in Geography and Science, and environmental education is infused in other subjects and activities. This has allowed us to take a holistic approach to climate change education—an approach supported by the then Minister for Education Ong Ye Kung, who stated in his Facebook post on 23 October 2019 that it is “far more meaningful to embed these lessons [in sustainability] into existing school subjects and activities, and inculcate in students good habits, such as reducing the use of air-con or devices, minimising wastage, saving water, to do our part for the environment”.

For a start, we need to describe what is meant by learning about climate change to distinguish between the cognitive and affective learning outcomes, and identify any consequent change in learners’ behaviours. Defining clear outcomes of what teaching climate change would look like will make it easier for educators to identify what learners do and do not know. It also enables teachers to develop useful instructions for the classroom, and design meaningful assessment tasks for students.

I argue that the geography classroom is the best place to teach about climate change as it provides both space and time for students to connect and make sense of related concepts of human-environment interaction in climate change. This is important in developing critical learners who can engage in climate change issues with an appreciation of local context. For instance, while composting is an environmentally friendly way of disposing food waste, composting as an industry may not be a practical or financially viable solution for Singapore due to land scarcity.

I have always believed that in teaching geography, we could enable students to imagine the future and its possibilities, to reason and challenge conventional practices, and to make choices in life based on a sound understanding of the environment. This is a critical learning outcome in climate change education.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, many nations have gone into a lockdown mode, compelling students in these countries to learn remotely at home. As students are now living through the pandemic, their personal experiences are the most authentic ways for them to understand about human-environment interaction, with plenty of real-life issues and first-hand knowledge to generate discussion in rich context.

Education is our passport to the future, for tomorrow belongs to the people who prepare for it today.
Malcolm X

While the pandemic will eventually come to pass, we need to continue to learn and cooperate on taking care of our only home—Earth. Given the unprecedented rate and scale that climate change related issues are occurring, there is an urgency to provide our children with a sound education on climate change. For our sustainable future depends on how well we prepare our children today.