Teach The Future: The Scottish Youth Advocating for Climate Education Reform

Lily – “If our generation is going to be the one to fix the problem, then we need to be taught about it.”

The Frontline this time returns to Scotland, and we are pleased to have had the opportunity to interview representatives from the Scottish branch of Teach the Future (TTF), our newest partner organisation. TTF is a student-led campaign demanding reform of the education system, aiming to, “repurpose the education systems of the world, around the climate emergency and ecological crisis.” This is a goal that the Third Generation Project supports and shares, with our core focus on education for climate justice. We spoke to Tess (16, campaign coordinator), Frances (17, volunteer) and Lily (16, campaign coordinator) from TTF Scotland. All three got involved after their participation in the Scottish Youth Climate Strikes (SYCS) in 2019; from there they learned of the expansion of TTF’s campaign to Scotland and haven’t looked back. Realising how ill-equipped the current education system is to deal with the deeper, pressing issues of the climate crisis, particularly climate justice and climate anxiety, they have been campaigning for change. It is these ideas of climate justice and climate anxiety which we discussed in the context of education, as well as some of the challenges they’re facing.

Climate Education and Climate Justice: “We need to flip the view-point from which it’s taught from climate change to climate justice”

Centring young activist voices is vital; not least because they witness first-hand the failings of the education system they’re in. On climate change, ‘there’s barely anything in school. I don’t do geography or religious/moral/ philosophical studies either, so there’s nothing!’ Lily says, highlighting the issue that climate change is both marginal and isolated to certain subjects. Tess tells us the result of this is that, ‘at the moment we’re only taught about the causes like sea level rise etc., rather than the real-world human impacts right now. We need to flip the view-point from which it’s taught from climate change to climate justice’. For Tess, climate justice means, ‘making sure that no one is left behind when solutions are talked about- across the world and in Scotland.’ The reference to climate justice at home is important, especially when movements like the Youth Climate Strikes have been cricisised for being overly white and middle class. We asked the youth activists about these criticisms, and they agreed these comments are absolutely correct. To work on facilitating more inclusion and diversity in the movement, they identified outreach and collaboration as vital; ‘We need to branch out to other climate movements’ said Frances.

Educating about Climate Anxiety: “If you can see the solution and teach it then anxiety drops”

The other major theme of our discussion was climate anxiety. They all identify social media as a double-edged sword when it comes to climate change and climate anxiety; both Tess and Frances noted how it is inspiring to see others spreading awareness and their activism, however, highlight the resulting feelings of hopelessness as, ‘statistics make it feel like things are getting progressively worse’ (Frances). ‘This is what makes climate education so important’, Tess said, ‘because if you’re not seeing these things on your social media you’re not going to know about it’. Education has an important role in understanding climate anxiety, Lily tells us; ‘If we don’t know about the problem we can’t come up with a solution. If you can see the solution and teach it then anxiety drops’. Education, they agree, is vital in working alongside social media in coming to terms with the scale and comprehension of the climate emergency.

Teachers themselves have a vital role to play. The youth activists tell us that part of TTF’s vision is to train teachers in how to deal with growing feelings of climate anxiety among young people. Because, right now, ‘teachers don’t know how to deal with it and not teaching it will lead to more problems’, Tess says, which is why, ‘Teacher training is a massive goal, because if they don’t learn [how to deal with climate anxiety] we can’t learn from them’. This really highlights how teachers’ work goes beyond delivering information, rather it has direct impacts on students’ mental and emotional well-being.

Balancing School/Activism and Navigating Adults’ Responses: “I don’t know what I would do if I wasn’t doing this”

Whilst their campaigning is both essential and impressive, it is inescapably time-consuming. They tell us that, ‘balancing school-work is tricky, as well as extra-curricular activities and applying for university’ (Frances), and express that the work is emotionally exhausting. However, ultimately, ‘climate anxiety would grow if I wasn’t involved; it feels like I’m contributing’, Tess says. Lily says that the ‘balancing act is draining, but I don’t know what I would do if I wasn’t doing this.’

Alongside the time-commitments of their work, another challenge was dealing with existing attitudes amongst adults. They felt that often adults had a lack of understanding about the urgency of the climate emergency, and that this occasionally slips into ageism. For example, Tess said that whilst politicians had been pretty responsive to them, they weren’t exactly rushing to follow up on their conversations, leading to a perception that perhaps their engagement with TTF was simply performative.

Whilst adults were often supportive of their work, this isn’t to say everyone felt this way, however; the youth activists mentioned to us the inevitable, deeply frustrating issue of dealing with climate deniers. They all had stories to tell of teachers who had expressed disdainful views on their work and climate change in general. But, they insist, this only spurs them on and goes back to their aim of having mandatory teacher training in the climate emergency. As Tess stated, “no one will solve it if no one knows what’s going on.”

Whether through Teach The Future or Youth Climate Strikes, young people in Scotland and across the world are holding societies to account for failing to address the climate crisis and for jeopardising not only their futures, but our collective future on a liveable planet. We commend Tess, Frances, Lily and everyone at TTF for their work, but we cannot stop there: we must act on their demands and educate for climate justice.