By Orna Herr, Communications Officer (Education) at the British Science Association


The long-anticipated COP26, also known as the 2021 United Nations Climate Change Conference, commenced on 31 October 2021 in Glasgow, under the co-presidency of the UK and Italy. World leaders including US president Joe Biden and French president Emmanuel Macron are attending, along with other prominent figures such as Sir David Attenborough and Barack Obama.    

On the summit agenda for today, Friday 5 November, is Youth and public empowerment. The sessions will focus on the theme of ‘elevating the voice of young people and demonstrating the critical role of public empowerment and education in climate action’.


Young people's feelings and ideas about the climate crisis have become more prominent through the lens of a relatively new phenomenon known as eco-anxiety – ‘anxiety and distress about the ecological crisis’. (The American Psychological Association first released a report discussing the connection between climate change and mental health in 2017.) While this is something experienced by people of all ages, one study found that eco-anxiety in children has ‘an additional layer of confusion, betrayal and abandonment because of adult inaction towards climate change’. Conscious of the need for young people to feel better informed about, and in control of, issues facing our planet, we held a focused Climate Café at this year’s British Science Festival, with specific time set aside for 16-25-year-olds to talk openly about climate change.

Studies have been carried out with young people around the world to understand how eco-anxiety manifests, and how they feel their respective governments are handling the crisis. One particular study surveyed 10,000 people aged 16-25 from ten countries around the world including the UK, Finland, Brazil and Nigeria. Across all the young people surveyed, close to 60% said they felt ‘very’ or ‘extremely’ worried about climate change. Approximately 75% find the future frightening, while 58% believe their respective governments are betraying them and future generations with their approach to the climate crisis.

Can education help?

We can often alleviate a fear of the unknown by educating ourselves about the situation in question. Knowledge is power, after all. But does this apply to eco-anxiety? The climate crisis is no imaginary monster hiding under the bed - it is real and its effects are already being felt around the world, with climate scientists reporting that not enough is being done to prevent the situation escalating.

Anxiety, often related to feelings of grief, anger and guilt can be paralysing, and teachers working with young people who are experiencing eco-anxiety will have feelings of their own about the climate crisis that could impact their teaching style. A 2020 paper by Finnish academic Panu Pihkala, which considers the relationship between eco-anxiety and environmental education, recommends that educators ‘practice self-reflection about their emotions and attitudes' and make an 'effort to provide various positive role models of coping with eco-anxiety’.

In fact, if harnessed correctly, Pihkala argues that anxiety can also be a great motivator for action. Pihkala’s paper says that ‘finding ways to participate in problem-solving in relation to the ecological crisis’ can help to alleviate distress and help to stem the flow of the climate crisis. Collective action is recommended over individual action, too, to avoid students feeling helpless by the limits of what they can do alone. The importance of emotional resilience is also flagged as a cornerstone of dealing with eco-anxiety. School education is not just about learning facts and academic skills, it is also about teachers helping to shape young people into adults who are equipped to face the challenges of the modern world.

Is the curriculum up to the task?

So, education around the climate crisis, and how young people can play a future role in coping with it and adapting to a more eco-friendly lifestyle, is needed for the sake of the planet and our mental wellbeing. But is this happening? The short answer is no. Professor of Meteorology at the University of Reading, Andrew Charlton-Perez, guest wrote an article for CarbonBrief in September 2021 in which he lamented the lack of climate education in schools. In it he observes that the word ‘climate’ appears only twice on the Key Stage 4 (KS4) science curriculum, once on the KS3 curriculum, and not all on the KS1 and KS2 curricula for our youngest learners. As is stands, teachers are not being encouraged to discuss climate change with their students.

Fighting back

This is not a situation welcomed by eco-wise school students and climate academics, who are working for change. Mock COP26, an online conference which took place last year when COP26 was originally scheduled, was attended by 330 youth delegates representing 140 countries. Their mission is to campaign for global leaders to act on their policies around climate education, among other things. Their policies include building the topic of the climate emergency into the curriculum for school children of all ages, across countries, with teaching to include ‘the measures which need to be taken to substantially address and reduce the crisis and mitigate and adapt to its consequences’.

The Climate Education Summit, held by the University of Reading on 15 September 2021, echoed this, discussing the idea that there is a need for schools to teach ‘essential skills and knowledge, to prepare for the challenges of a changing climate, to be taught across a breadth of subjects’.

What can be done now?

While it is key that the curriculum includes teaching on the climate crisis, and that schools offer support around eco-anxiety, there are other ways that teachers and parents can help to instil the importance of caring about the environment into young people.

Studies show that being connected to nature from a young age can lay the foundations for eco-aware and eco-friendly adults. An Australian research paper found that ‘positive, direct experiences in nature during childhood, and role models of care for nature by someone close to the child, are the two factors that contribute most to individuals choosing to take action to benefit the environment as adults’. This topic was also explored at a talk about the benefits of nature by Professor Viren Swami at the British Science Festival 2021.

CREST Awards, the British Science Association’s education programme, includes lots of Star and SuperStar activities to encourage children aged 5-11 to connect with nature and the outdoors through science learning. There are also more in-depth CREST projects for older children, which inspire them to investigate topics around climate change. These include the brand new Silver and Gold 'Hydrology' resource packs, which ask students to consider the relationship between water usage and climate. 

The climate crisis is one of the biggest challenges that we face today, and the actions (or lack thereof) that global leaders and individuals take today will have repercussions on the future of today’s children. Taking steps to ensure that young people are comprehensively educated about the crisis, and how they must adapt to a highly eco-conscious future, should be high on the to-do list of the attendees of COP26.