In this century we are faced by a number of major global changes that will affect every aspect of society. Do we continue in our current unsustainable ways or do we work together to create a more sustainable future? For better or worse we find ourselves facing a 'long transition'. A former UK Government chief scientific adviser, for example, believes that several upheavals may all come to a head around 2030. The result could be a 'perfect storm' of energy shortages, water scarcity and food shortages that could, in turn, lead to public unrest, cross-border conflicts and major migrations (The Guardian, 18 March 2009). There are three interrelated issues – climate change, energy use and the limits to growth – which students and teachers need to become familiar with in order to develop the skills needed to facilitate such a local/global transition. This needs to be one of the central tasks of education in the 21st century. See ‘Living with climate change’ [pdf23]. and ‘The long transition’ [pdf13].
The overwhelming scientific consensus is that climate change is caused by man-made global warming, the result of the burning of fossil fuels (oil, coal, gas) and the use of their by-products in every aspect of modern life. Levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere have increased dramatically since the Industrial Revolution and will continue to do so for centuries to come.
- The consequences of climate change include shifting seasons, increased flooding, drought, extreme weather and rising sea-levels. The twin tasks facing society are adaptation (how to adapt to these changes) and mitigation (how to reduce the impact of global warming) both of which require the rapid shift to a zero carbon society based on renewable energies.
- The task for education is to help young people understand the nature of these changes and to acquire the skills needed to create a more sustainable and resilient society, a society which will be very different from today. All schools will need to be exemplars of good sustainable practice whether in relation to buildings, energy, food or waste.
- Useful background reading includes: Henson, R. (2011) The Rough Guide to Climate Change, Rough Guides; Urry, J. (2011) Climate Change and Society, Polity; Oreskes, N. & Conway, E. (2010) Merchants of Doubt, Bloomsbury, and Klein, N. (2015) This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs the climate, Penguin.
This refers to the major current debates that have arisen about the ways in which we both create and use energy in society today. Since the Industrial Revolution, some two-hundred years ago, we have relied almost totally on fossil fuels – coal, oil and gas – for our transport, heating and many other useful by-products such as pesticides, fertilisers and plastics. In the 80s it was confirmed the global climate was heating up as a result of greenhouse gases arising from burning such fuels. Thus high-carbon fossil fuel sources of energy are now seen as highly dangerous to both humans and the natural environment.
- The consequences of this are that a major societal transition has now begun from a high-carbon to a low-carbon economy and society. Renewable energies - wind, solar, wave and biomass – are clean and safe and their presence increasingly visible around us. In this new world energy efficiency will become a priority in all areas of life, whether at home or work.
- The task for education is to help young people understand the nature of these changes and acquire the skills needed to create a more sustainable low-carbon society, a society which will be very different from today. All schools will need to be exemplars of good sustainable practice whether in relation to buildings and consumption or energy and biodiversity.
- Useful background reading includes: Buchan, D. (2010) The Rough Guide to the Energy Crisis, Rough Guides; Berners-Lee, M. & Clark, D. (2013) The Burning Question: We can’t burn half the world’s oil, coal and gas. So how do we quit? London: Profile Books; Randall, M. & Brown, A. (2015) In Time for Tomorrow? The Carbon Conversations Handbook, Surefoot Effect.
Limits to growth
Contrary to popular opinion economies cannot grow indefinitely due to the finite nature of the earth and its resources. Growth for growth's sake has led to ever increasing consumerism which is damaging the biosphere (species, habitats, soils, rivers, oceans, the atmosphere) and contributing to global heating. Rich world countries live wastefully and disregard the planet's ecological limits.
- The consequences of ignoring the limits to growth have been fourfold – on-going damage to the environment, exploitation of the poor, making consumption the measure of human happiness and ignoring the right of future generations to inherit an ecologically stable world.
- The task for education is to help young people re-assess their relationship with the biosphere and learn the skills needed to live within ecological limits. This applies to what is taken from the earth as well as the waste that is created as a result. This requires a very different society from today, one that is more sustainable in every aspect and therefore more resilient.
- Useful background reading includes: McKibben, B. (2010) Eaarth: Making a life on a tough new planet, Henry Holt; Heinberg, R. & Lerch, D. (2010) The Post Carbon Reader, Watershed Media; Randers, J. (2012) 2052: A global forecast for the next forty years, Chelsea Green Publishing.
These three global issues are inextricably linked and will not suddenly disappear. Whilst their detailed impact may not be known the broad parameters are increasingly clear. Changing climate, energy issues and the limits to growth will affect all our communities wherever they are and ensure a future very different from today. For an overview of these issues see: Heinberg, R. (2011) The End of Growth: Adopting to our new economic reality, Clairview Books; Hopkins, R. (2011) The Transition Companion, Green Books; the Transition Network, available at: www.transitionnetwork.org.
In entering into this ‘long transition’, which has already begun and will change our lives forever, education has a crucial and exciting role to play [pdf13]. You can begin to find out more about how sustainable schools, futures education and global education can contribute to this in the pages of this website. See also Educating for Hope in Troubled Times [Publications].
Climate change and ideology
There are many reasons why people argue about climate change and one of these is because it raises all sorts of big questions – How serious is it really? What can we do about it? Who can we trust? What does the future hold? Like any other issue the way people approach climate change will depend on their existing beliefs and values, in other words the collective ideology that seems to make best sense of the world to them. Three differing worldviews or ideologies are outlined on this website – neoliberal, welfare state and green. It shows how each of these ‘explains’ life and society in a different way. No one hands us a form when we arrive, setting out the differences between these and other ideologies, with a tick box for us to make a choice, they are the ideas about life and society that we simply take as ‘normal’. We unconsciously pick up varying values and beliefs from our parents, families, friends, school, the media, politicians and others. What we take in and accept, often subconsciously, we then believe to be ‘the world as it really is’, ‘what most sensible people think’, or even the ‘truth’.
These three ideologies, discussed elsewhere in relation to education, also directly affect how one views the world and issues such as climate change. Check out the pages on Education &Ideology to see how this works and the key differences between them. In relation to climate change some of the main differences of belief are summarised below.
Amongst the key elements of this worldview are that the state should not interfere with people’s lives; the rights of the individual subsume all others; the competitive ethic drives all spheres of life; a business model is the measure of all things; privatisation of goods and services is the key to everything; the free market acts as a guiding ‘hand’ which brings out the best in society. In this view government should give minimal guidance or leadership on climate change, minimal support for low-carbon ventures such as renewable energy, and put the support of big business before social and environmental concerns. Neoliberalism is the dominant economic and political ideology in the west today. Under this view responses to climate change are often tokenistic and therefore things are likely to get worse.
Welfare state ideology
Amongst the key elements of this worldview are that the state has a significant part to play in the well-being of society, particularly in relation to the disadvantaged; it is important for individuals to recognise their responsibility to society; the cooperative ethic should be central in all spheres of life; the key goal is equal opportunities for all; the redistribution of resources is needed in order to create a fairer society. In this view government gives significant guidance and leadership on climate change, maximum support for a low-carbon economy, and encourages business to accept its social and environmental responsibilities. From the 1980s onwards welfare state ideology in the UK has been attacked and marginalised by neoliberals and the political right. Under this view, however, climate change adaptation and mitigation could begin to be more effective.
Amongst the key elements of this worldview are that the state should encourage all of its citizens to live their lives more sustainably; the creation of vibrant and resilient communities are central to this; humans and nature are inextricably interrelated; ecological responsibility is the goal in all things; one needs to live on enough rather than always wanting more; society should acknowledge the rights of future generations. In this view all sectors of society work together to help create a more just and sustainable economy, supporting business and industry in creating a low-carbon economy, and working towards a more sustainable future. At present, whilst no government fully endorses this worldview, millions of citizens across the globe are working from the bottom up to achieve such an end. Under this view society could begin to live sustainably in a climate changed world.
If you have not already done so you can gain a better understanding of these three competing ideologies and their impact on climate change, society and education here.