Did you know that climate change is NOT the same as global warming?
By Miriam Chacko
Ostriches don’t bury their heads in the sand, pigs don’t sweat, and climate change is not the same as global warming. Misconceptions can seep into our most basic understanding of how the world works and don’t stand corrected till much later, if at all.
Building awareness to remove such misconceptions usually starts in school but a prescribed curriculum limits its scope. Some topics are not covered explicitly in the syllabus and its awareness is brought to students through informal interventions.
Climate change is one such topic and its awareness in schools is led by environmental organisations and people who are passionate about the environment.
My experience in organizing such programmes has been eye-opening and I have realized ways in which they should improve not only to stop perpetuating misconceptions but to elicit positive behaviour based on a clear and logical understanding of environmental issues.
1. Start with the basics
A standing misconception is that global warming and climate change are the same. It is an oversimplified and incorrect understanding of two phenomena that are related but not the same. The science of climate change or global warming need to be presented to students in a logical and relatable manner.
Environmental awareness programmes should structure presentations to start with the basics (eg. greenhouse gas effect), and then escalate to more complex and related concepts (eg. global warming). This allows children to use information that is familiar to them, in order to understand the distinct nature of complex environmental trends.
2. Pester Power
In 2007, a colleague introduced me to the term ‘pester power’. Despite its negative connotations, it implies that children have the power to change adults – mostly their own parents – into being more conscientious about the environment through pestering them.
This may ensure that parents perform better by not charging their phones overnight or switching off lights and fans when not needed, but as the Hawthorne Effect goes to show, that could just be because they know they are being watched. The jury is still out on the effectiveness of pester power in making sustainable change in behaviour, but time and study should eventually give us the answers.
Suppose instead of relying on reverse parenting as a solution, the schools involve the parents in the programmes and encourage them to support their children in being ‘agents for change’. This way, they would understand the urgency of changing their ways, and not do it only because their children are monitoring and reprimanding them.
Furthermore, when the word ‘pester’ is coupled with ‘power’, it creates a problematic visual of children throwing tantrums over their parents’ poor lifestyle choices. A simple shift from ‘pester power’ to labels like ‘agents for change’ or ‘champions for change’ could lift this image drastically.
3. Avoid imagery rhetoric and overload
How many times have we seen photos of the solitary polar bear or ice sheets breaking off and falling dramatically into the water below? Too many.
On top of being over used, these images distance the threat of climate change for most of us in the tropics whom have yet to see a real polar bear or iceberg. Instead, it would be far more useful to use images of climate change related happenings closer to home. They would present a clearer cause-effect narrative, and would be more likely to invoke a sense of urgency in mitigating the threat.
Climate change powerpoints are usually cluttered with images of forest fires, desertification, famine, floods, logging, industrial pollution and more. The impending doom of it all will catch the children’s attention but it is yet another trick that should be avoided.
Here’s why – first, you will not have enough time to explain the relevance of each image, reducing them to background gimmicks. Second, these images could breed further misconceptions. Thirdly, they could create a disconnect between individual behaviour and ‘larger than life’ occurrences. Simple green initiatives, such as using an eco-bag while shopping, fall short as a plausible solution to mitigate threats like desertification.
Instead, a representation of CO2 emissions, along the life cycle of a can of Coke or a plastic bag from production to recycling accurately reflects how consumer decisions can increase or decrease carbon emissions.
4. Sustain eco-friendly behaviour
Activities and assessments surrounding environmental programmes in schools are extra-curricular and don’t hold weight in a student’s average grade. This limits the commitment of the child in sustaining a pro-environment attitude beyond the tenure of the project.
The Centre for Environment, Technology and Development (CETDEM) has been successful in raising awareness on environmental issues in schools in Malaysia. Anthony Tan, executive director of CETDEM mentioned in an interview that one of the challenges is not knowing if the behaviour continues to sustain itself.
One of CETDEM’s projects had classes competing with each other to reduce their carbon footprint. Each class decided to appoint a monitor who would ensure that lights and fans were used judiciously, among other regulatory tasks towards achieving their goal. This decision came from the students, not the organizers, and even after the competition was over, the role of the monitor remained. Such initiatives reveal and promote an internalization of the goal which is to minimize one’s negative impact on the environment, thereby sustaining the new behaviour.
Between ignoring the basics, pester power, imagery rhetoric and overload, and short-lived behaviour change, this piece has confronted recurring missteps in environmental awareness. The real debate, however, is the need to introduce climate change in school syllabi earlier and more widely than Form 4 Biology.
Until such time, while environmental programmes are the main source of awareness on climate change in schools, they should present a logical and accurate narrative, create a sense of urgency without doomsday images, allow the audience to develop and suggest effective mitigation measures and ignite a ceaseless curiosity in students about the impact they can have in improving their surroundings, individually and collectively.
Miriam Chacko is essentially an environmentalist. After completing her postgraduate degree in Environment and International Development from the University of East Anglia, she got involved in projects promoting environmental awareness. Drawing on her experience, she has written articles on climate change and conservation.
A keen traveller, she has visited many countries in and around Asia and her love of the outdoors and interest in different cultures comes through in her writing.
Miriam has been writing for The Borneo Post SEEDS since 2013.