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Teaching global climate change


Emilio Anteliz, Patrick Danaher and Michael Danaher argue that effective education about climate change needs to be located in a country's educational and socio-political system.

Emilio A Anteliz (upper photo) is an administrative staff member in the Faculty of Engineering at the Universidad Central de Venezuela in Caracas, Venezuela. Patrick A Danaher (middle) is Senior Lecturer in Education, and Michael J M Danaher (lower) is Associate Lecturer in Japanese Language and Culture, at Central Queensland University in Rockhampton, Australia.

Weather Eye in Issue 23 of Tiempo (March 1997) identified "two different ways" in which the term "flexibility" was being used by delegates to the sixth session of the Ad Hoc Group on the Berlin Mandate in Bonn in March 1997. "In some proposals, the word was used to promote a variety of approaches... within the framework of a loose and evolving schedule for [greenhouse gas emissions] reductions... In other proposals, the word flexibility described a reductions schedule which differed from one nation (or group of nations) to another taking account of their differing circumstances."

While not commenting in this forum on the appropriateness of flexibility being assigned to emission reductions, we wish to apply this concept to a different but perhaps equally significant topic: the challenges and opportunities facing educators who wish to teach their students about global climate change. Specifically, we believe that a "single model" approach to education about global climate change is doomed to failure. Instead, we advocate an approach that combines certain common principles with the flexibility to address those principles within the educational and socio-political contexts in which schooling is located.

We illustrate this argument by referring to two particular educational systems: in Venezuela and Australia. Although this might seem at first glance an eccentric pairing, we believe on the contrary that considering Venezuela and Australia side by side in this way encapsulates many of the difficulties and possibilities confronting educators concerned with teaching about global climate change (and by implication confronting policy makers seeking to reduce greenhouse gas emissions). Venezuela stands as the gateway from North and Central America to Latin America; its recent history combines the prosperity of an oil boom with subsequent high inflation and a growing external debt; it has experienced both military dictatorship and democratic government. Australia remains a largely Anglo-Celtic nation geographically located as part of the Asia-Pacific region; although in that region its living standards are relatively high, it is recovering from a deep recession and still has historically high unemployment. These are precisely the material and cultural realities that form the backdrop to any effective approach to educating about global climate change.

Educational contexts

The educational systems in Venezuela and Australia exhibit several distinctive features. Venezuela has a unified educational system, administered by the national government. Quality of provision varies according to the school sector, with an increasing polarization between the private schools patronized by wealthy families and government schools attended by the bulk of the school age population. A recent concern has been the large number of dispossessed rural residents who flock to large cities, particularly the capital Caracas, and for whom it is very difficult to provide sufficient housing, let alone educational access.

This situation contrasts with Venezuela's rich cultural life and its respect for learning, reflected in the establishment of its oldest and still its largest university, the Universidad Central de Venezuela, in 1722. Important influences on Venezuelan educational life include the predominantly Roman Catholic orientation of its population (although government schools are strongly secular), and the reverence that is paid to heroes of the wars of independence, particularly Simon Bolivar, "The Liberator." This latter influence tends to induce subtle examples of resistance to perceived contemporary cultural imperialism by the United States, and a determination to retain traditional instances of cultural identity. On the other hand, the oil boom of the 1970s made an exchange of activities between Venezuela and the United States very easy, and for many years the United States has been the principal supplier of imported goods and services to Venezuela. Inevitably, this situation has filtered through to influencing ideas about curriculum and pedagogy in Venezuelan schools.

The overall picture of Venezuelan education, then, features splashes of bright colour on a background of indeterminate shading. The political and economic uncertainties facing the country result in considerable pressure on some school students to work very hard in order to maximize the relatively few opportunities available for employment and advancement. For other students, their response is to leave school early to add to the family income by performing unskilled labour. For both groups of students, this leaves relatively little time to engage intensively with global issues such as climate change. On the other hand, young Venezuelans have shown themselves adept at publicly demonstrating for causes in which they believe, to a much greater extent than their Australian counterparts. This gives grounds for a certain optimism about the regeneration of Venezuelan education.

Australia's educational system reveals many of the anomalies and contradictions that derive from its status as a federation of states. Constitutionally, primary and secondary schooling are the responsibility of the six state and the two territory governments, while the federal government is responsible for university and vocational education. This has meant that educational issues have often been used as "political footballs" between federal and state governments, regardless of their political persuasion.

One example of this politicization of education that has continued throughout the 1990s is the attempt to introduce a form of national curriculum to Australian schools.

At the time of writing, eight national Key Learning Areas have been proposed with accompanying curriculum documents, with which state education authorities are encouraged to articulate their respective programs. Teaching about global climate change is most likely to be accommodated in the Studies of Society and Environment Key Learning Area, which has for example "environmental," "futures" and "global" "perspectives" that are intended to inform the preparation of individual units and lessons. This is the beginning, rather than the end, of educational hurdles to be jumped, however: such units and lessons need also to be located in the respective state-based curriculum documents with which teachers are dealing. Although these documents share some similarities, they also have important differences from state to state, particularly with regard to student assessment.

Another manifestation of the politicization of Australian education is the ongoing debates about the purposes and outcomes of schooling. Governments, bureaucracies, employers, parents, teachers and students argue about the appropriate balance to strike between the vocational and philosophical goals of education, and about whether schools should be sites of social reproduction or of social change. A recent example is the proposal to introduce national civics education into Australian schools: potentially this move could include teaching students about global climate change, but it shows signs of being caught up in the previous Australian prime minister's republican agenda.

All of this discussion is not intended to be disheartening, or to downplay the importance of education about global climate change. It is designed to alert the reader to the fact that the Venezuelan and Australian education systems are directly located in each nation's social system, both in their organization and funding and in the ideological debates about their place in helping to prepare Venezuela and Australia for the 21st century. To have any chance of being effective, global climate change education needs to address these social systems explicitly.

Socio-political contexts

Venezuela and Australia also exhibit several features of their respective socio-political contexts. Venezuela's recent history includes the end of a military dictatorship in January 1958, an oil boom in the middle part of this century, and an economic predicament that has continued largely unchecked since 1982.

In February 1989, spiralling prices of petroleum and transport, prompted by the world oil crisis, led to two days of mass demonstrations in which more than one thousand people were killed. Attempted military coups in February and November 1992, and the disgrace of the former Venezuelan president, underscored the fragility of Venezuelan democracy, particularly when the country's foreign debt continues to grow in diametric proportion to its declining revenue owing to reduced world oil prices. Moreover, Venezuela's dependence on oil as its largest industry has a particular relevance for current efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, because of the contribution of burning oil to the greenhouse effect.

These economic and political circumstances mean that it is relatively difficult for organizations such as Greenpeace to establish a high profile in Venezuela. This is not because individual Venezuelans are uncaring about the future of the global environment. Instead, it reflects the growing socio-economic polarization of the Venezuelan population and the increased desperation of poorer people for whom daily living is a matter of survival against high odds. In this situation, conservation issues often attract a lower priority than more immediate concerns.

On the other hand, in keeping with "the pro-active role of Latin America in the AIJ [Activities Implemented Jointly] regime" (Kalipada Chatterjee, Tiempo, Issue 23, March 1997, p. 14), Venezuela is a signatory to the Vienna Agreement for the Protection of the Ozone Layer (1985), the Montreal Protocol (1987) and the London Addenda (1990) as well as the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (1992). Furthermore, the Venezuelan Government acted to make these agreements national laws to supplement the Environmental Penal Law and similar legislation. However, it is difficult to enforce these laws, demonstrated in the fact that leaded petroleum and air conditioning units with CFCs are still the norm in Venezuela (even though Venezuela exports unleaded petroleum to the United States), and that natural gas was introduced to some public transport systems only two years ago.

In Australia, the effects of the recession of the early and mid-1990s continue to be felt. With unemployment above eight per cent and economic growth under three per cent, all sectors of Australian society (including education) are constantly exhorted to contribute more positively to regenerating the economy. At the same time, debates about Australian immigration policies reflect widespread disagreement about the extent to which Australia's future lies in the Asia-Pacific region. Similarly, proposals to reduce tariffs on Australian industries to the levels enforced in most Asian countries prompt the response that this policy will reduce Australian workers' real wages, which are substantially higher than in most neighbouring countries.

The relevance of these socio-political contexts to discussions of education about global climate change lies in identifying the multiple ways in which policy makers can score political points when considering propositions for change. We have noted already that Australia's federal political system results in ongoing conflict between federal and state governments, even when they are of the same political orientation. The same principle applies to many accounts of international change: it is very easy to appeal to "the national interest," and to argue that the United Nations, the European Union and the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade — to name but three — are pursuing policies that will be inimical to Australia's sovereignty, social cohesion and/or economic prosperity. It is difficult to conceive of an issue of international scope that has not been subjected to this kind of politicized construction and contestation.

A current example of this politicization is the efforts by the Australian Government to argue that Australia should be exempted from an internationally agreed set of targets for greenhouse gas emissions. On the one hand, Weather Eye (Tiempo, Issue 23, March 1997) identified Australia (in the company of the United States and New Zealand) as advocating a form of "flexibility" that could easily become a pretext for doing very little in relation to emission reduction. As Weather Eye observes, "the problem here is that... most countries can lay claim to special circumstances on some grounds or other."

On the other hand, in Australia there is some sympathy for the view that Australia should be exempted from adhering to specific reduction targets. For example, Paul Kelly, a respected Australian journalist, asserted: "Any treaty that requires Australia to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to the same benchmark as other nations will impose a disproportionate economic and income penalty on Australia. This is because our energy sector, a source of Australia's comparative economic advantage now and in future, will be adversely affected."

We are presenting this view here not because we endorse the argument but in order to highlight the fragility of international agreements in dealing with global issues, and the apparent inevitability with which discussions of such agreements and issues are phrased in terms of "the national interest." It is precisely this point that we argue should form one of the principles underlying an effective education programme about global climate change.

Principles for educating about global climate change

In view of the foregoing discussion, it would be contradictory if we were to propose inflexible prescriptions for the content of education about global climate change. Such a proposal would be doomed to founder on the rocks of politicization inherent in any discussion of educational change.

Instead, what we put forward here are six principles that we believe could usefully inform the preparation of a more detailed programme of education about climate change. These principles are intended to be seen as broad, flexible, contextualized and open to contestation. They are also meant to contribute to a process of educational change, with the potential as well to ignite socio-political transformation.

First, education about global climate change needs to recognize the constructed and contested character of discussions of climate change. That is, in keeping with the thinking of critical constructivists, we argue that knowledge about climate change — including "scientific information" — is constructed from particular sets of assumptions and understandings about the world. Furthermore, that knowledge is contested and contentious, rather than commonly agreed or taken for granted, especially when those assumptions and understandings are strongly at odds with one another.

Second, climate change education needs to identify and evaluate the speaking positions underlying pronouncements about global climate change. By this we mean that it is important for students to be able to recognize that statements about climate change do not occur in a socio-political vacuum, or are value neutral, but instead encapsulate particular sets of interests. It is only by making those interests explicit and by evaluating their accuracy, intent and effect that students will reach a more comprehensive understanding of climate change.

Third, education about climate change needs to respond to the specific educational and socio-political contexts obtaining in each educational system. This is where a commitment to flexibility is especially important. This point recognizes, for example, that implementation strategies and content details that are appropriate for particular educational settings in Venezuela might be inappropriate or irrelevant to corresponding settings in Australia.

Fourth, climate change education needs to contribute to productive change of the specific educational and socio-political contexts in which it is implemented. By this we mean that no schooling context is fixed or immutable; as contexts change, so climate change education has an opportunity to help to make that contextual change more positive and productive. This in turn has the potential to contribute to broader socio-political transformation, of the kind needed if global climate change is to be addressed efficiently and equitably.

Fifth, education about climate change needs to draw on multi-disciplinary approaches. Part of the contestation of knowledge construction involves challenging the traditional privileging of particular disciplines such as geography and science. Instead, multi-disciplinary curricula offer the opportunity to exploit the benefits of creative and lateral thinking, and to apply research findings from across disciplines to a range of contemporary issues. This strategy is likely to be an important feature of education in the 21st century.

Finally, climate change education needs to feature international comparisons. Most of this paper has focused on comparing the educational and socio-political contexts in Venezuela and Australia. We argue that such comparisons can assist the identification, not only of constraints on curriculum change, but also of possibilities for creative synergies of understanding and application. For example, it might be possible to learn from the successes and failures in educational change in one country and apply that knowledge to managing educational change in the other country.

At a broader level, this kind of international cooperation and collaboration seems essential if "the national interest" is to be displaced as the dominant player in discussions of global climate change.


Recently, Dr Bradford Wilcox, newly appointed scientific officer at the Inter- American Institute for Global Change Research, wrote about the need for urgent research into global change: "This work must not only be multi-disciplinary in nature but also multi- national to insure that it be relevant and address the problems at hand." This paper has demonstrated the accuracy of Wilcox's claim in relation to another issue: promoting education about global climate change.

In particular, we have argued that such education needs to use multi-disciplinary approaches to knowledge construction and to draw on international comparisons of experiences of educational change.

We have also suggested that climate change education needs to focus on the constructed and contested character of discussions about climate change, to identify and evaluate commentators' speaking positions with regard to climate change, and both to respond to, and to seek to change, the specific educational and socio- political contexts in which educational programmes about climate change are located.

We began by referring to flexibility in relation to reductions in greenhouse gas emissions. We conclude by asserting that all six principles of an effective education programme about global climate change outlined in this paper are based on a recognition of the need for flexibility, and a rejection of a "single model" approach to climate change education. However, that flexibility needs to be balanced by a genuine commitment to responding efficiently and equitably to global climate change. If not, any climate change education programme is likely to fail, in concert with broader efforts to address the climate change issue.

Further information

Emilio Anteliz, Universidad Central de Venezuela, PO Box 50656, Caracas 1051, Venezuela. Fax: 58-2-6053064. Email:

Patrick Danaher and Michael Danaher, Central Queensland University, Rockhampton, Queensland 4702, Australia. Fax: 61-79-309604. Email: and

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