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Post date: Wednesday, 20 May 2020

Our education system responded to COVID-19. How will it respond to climate change?

We’ve experienced significant disruptions to schools, businesses, and everyday life as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.  We’ve seen people and systems adapt quickly to a highly unusual situation. Schools, whānau, and education sector organisations across Aotearoa have mobilised resources, thought creatively, worked collaboratively, and responded compassionately to make things work.  

How will the COVID-19 experience change the education system? What adaptations and innovations will be maintained across schools, kura, and other learning settings in a year, two years, or ten years down the track?  That remains to be seen, and it seems timely to reflect on how education might respond to another major threat to our collective wellbeing— climate change.  

Scientists and environmentalists have been concerned about climate change for decades. The pace at which climate impacts are being experienced, and global acceptance about the scale of the problem, has increased in recent years. In 2018, the International Panel on Climate Change released a landmark report in which leading scientists warned that we may have just a dozen years left to act to limit the global temperature rise to +1.5 degrees Celsius. This level of warming will have a big impact on our world, greater warming would be catastrophic. Surveys show that a majority of New Zealanders are concerned about climate change and think more action is needed. In 2019, tens of thousands of New Zealand school students joined millions of others worldwide in school strike for climate action marches.  

Last week we released a new report: Climate change and sustainability in primary and intermediate schools: Findings from the 2019 NZCER national survey of English-medium schools. The NZCER national survey has been undertaken in three-year cycles since 1989, tracking many aspects of policy and practice change in schools over time. In 2019, we included a few questions about climate change and environmental sustainability. 

What did teachers and principals say? 

In 2019 we asked primary and intermediate teachers and principals what impact they think climate change will have on the place and community where their school is located, within their own lifetimes and within their students’ lifetimes. More than half said that climate change will have “major impacts” within students’ lifetimes, compared with 22% who expected to experience major impacts within their own lifetimes; 79% think students will experience “moderate” or “major” impacts in their lifetimes, and 60% expect moderate or major impacts in their own lifetimes. While 33% thought climate change would have “no impact” or “minor impact” during their own lifetimes, just 14% percent thought this would be the case for their students.  

Graph showing princial responses to What impact will climate change have in your student's lifetimeDue to limited space in the national survey, we did not ask teachers and principals to explain the nature of the impacts they anticipated for their areas and communities. However, in another part of our research, we have been interviewing a range of people who have talked about some of the effects they expect to see in their communities and schools across different parts of Aotearoa.  These include physical impacts, social and economic impacts, cultural impacts, impacts on health and wellbeing, migration, impacts on food systems, and much more. We’ll be reporting the interview findings later in the year.   

The findings from the 2019 national survey provide also provide a high-level snapshot of climate change and sustainability practices in primary and intermediate schools, including whole-school practices, and what is happening in classrooms.  Some of the findings raise further questions, and there are still many research gaps to fill. We hope to add further insights through the next phases of this project.  

This year, we intend to gather data from English-medium secondary schools. We’re also keen to hear from any schools and Māori-medium kura that are addressing climate change through their school curriculum and learning activities. We are especially interested in learning about solution-focused practices, localised activities, effective collaboration with community organisations, student engagement, and agency.  

Keep an eye on our Climate change project page or contact the project team using this form

Rachel Bolstad is a Senior Researcher at NZCER. 


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