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November 23, 2015
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January 13, 2016
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Learning in a Warming World

By Susan Wight

We are living in a warming world.

Climate change is observable pretty much everywhere: air temperature is rising over every continent, the oceans are heating up and expanding, and ice is melting on land and at sea.  The climate has already warmed by 0.8 degrees. This may not sound dramatic, but in the delicate balance of life, it is. Humanity depends on a climate in the ‘goldilocks’ zone – not too hot, not too cold.

Already heatwaves, floods, droughts, and fires are intensifying, costing lives and reducing crop yields. These things are happening at the current temperature. In 2013 for example, Australia experienced the hottest January on record, the hottest summer on record and the hottest day ever in Australia. Globally, 2014 was the warmest year ever recorded and 2015 will exceed it.

Climate does vary naturally – there are hot years, there are cold years. But, with the increase of CO2  in the atmosphere, the bell curve of variation has moved. Consequently, the chances of a year like 2013 have now risen to once in every six years – up from once in every 12,000 years. (1).  As well as a gradual rise in temperature, there are also climate tipping points where warming increases suddenly rather than in a linear fashion – for example the Arctic reflects heat, if it becomes ice-free, a sudden increase in warming can be expected. There is some evidence that we have already passed some tipping points. This makes action a matter of urgency. Despite an international agreement to keep warming below two degrees, global fossil fuel emissions have risen 61% since 1990 and the present scale of emissions has the Earth on track to four degrees of warming. Four degrees could mean mass extinction, collapse of the food chain, 40% more extreme rainfall, the Amazon rainforest burning up, southern Australia turning to desert, Australian heat deaths overwhelming the healthcare system – and more! Climate scientist Kevin Anderson says four degrees would be incompatible with human civilization. Even at two degrees, we would be living in a climate never before experienced by humans. It is an experiment we cannot afford to run. So how do we ‘teach’ our children about this important issue if overt teaching is not our style? Basically, it comes down to the same principles we use to facilitate our children’s learning of any important thing – from personal hygiene to nutrition. Because climate change is such a complex issue though, I have a number of suggestions…

Inform Yourself

This is the most important issue of our time, so the first step is to educate yourself about it. Go beyond the news and seek out good quality information.

A basic introduction can be found at Explain That Stuff 

Next stop is the Climate Council, an Australian non-profit organisation crowdfunded to educate the public about climate change. You will find their information both user-friendly and reliable, and their infographics are very helpful.

If you are unsure about the science, a good resource is The Scientific Guide to Global Warming Skepticism The website also has a handy guide to many of the myths about climate change. Many have three explanations – basic, intermediate and advanced – depending on the level of detail you want to read. The resource is put together by a team of volunteers (including my son James), translating peer-reviewed science into a readable format for laypeople.

Other good resources are:

Leave information lying around

No doubt you’ve heard of ‘strewing’. It is a simple idea, if you’ve read something interesting, leave it lying around for a little while and someone else in the house may pick it up and have a read. By all means recommend reading too if you genuinely think it is something your child/teenager will be interested in.  Also, let the kids roam the internet (install a good adult content filter first) and they will find their own resources.


Conversation is a big part of home education. Talk about what you are reading on climate change. Ask the kids what they think about it, what they’ve read, what their friends say. Talk about climate news on an ongoing basis, talk about the information you’ve gathered, the books you’ve read. When I say talk, of course, I don’t mean lecture. Be prepared to have spirited discussions with your kids. Encourage them to challenge your deeply held views, explain why you think the way you do and be prepared to let go of views that are proved wrong. This is certainly the way things worked in our home, where the climate part of home education actually worked in reverse with our son educating us. Ten years ago Rob and I thought climate change was an overblown issue and that, even if there was a genuine problem, the market would sort it out. Our son James, an independent reader who’d found many good science resources, presented us with good evidence and, many passionate discussions later, convinced us that climate change was not only real but was happening already, and governments and corporations are not dealing with it adequately.

Encourage Inquiry

The habit of encouraging questions and research from an early age is a good basis for science knowledge. For young children, help them find information to answer their questions. Just because you follow a natural learning style, doesn’t mean the children need to discover every scientific principle for themselves. Have good quality science books on hand that match their age, stage and interests. For older children, especially as they begin to use the intenet more, help them sort reliable information from unreliable. Encourage them to check the credentials of their sources. Information based on peer-reviewed research is more reliable than something in today’s newspaper for example. This is because peer-review means an article has undergone a rigorous review process involving professionals in the field. Whereas journalists are trained to aim for balance and always present a conflicting point of view even it is held by a tiny minority. Lack of qualifications does not necessarily equal a lack of knowledge but when assessing the credibility of a source, a scientist is very likely to know more about the complexities involved than a politician, shockjock or other celebrity. Look beyond qualifications as well. Who does the author work for? See if you can identify any bias, for example, a vested interest. By the same token, don’t accept that all scientists have an equal knowledge of climate science – scientists specialise in many different areas and their deep knowledge of one field may mean they have little in another. For example, if you had appendicitis, a geologist may not be the best scientist to go to. If your children come across information suggesting global warming is not happening, help them to deconstruct this material. Talk about how facts can be misused – for example it is true that CO2 is necessary but too much of it is not a good thing. Just as water is necessary to life, there is a healthy range – too little and you dehydrate, too much and you drown. Talk also about the vested interests that promote such views. Here, it is helpful to know that much of the misinformation now circulating was designed by a small group of people formerly employed in the tobacco industry to cast doubt on the medical science showing the dangers of smoking.(2) Their arguments and tactics continue to be recycled today – often by groups that have links to the fossil fuel industry. Talk about lobby groups and how they work.

Call-Out Greenwash

Talk with your children about advertising in general and greenwash in particular. Greenwash is when companies market their products with the claim or impression that they are good for the environment. Watch out for climate greenwash and talk about it as a family. Be skeptical of all such claims. The first step is to point out that images of sunflowers and wind turbines don’t actually mean a company is reducing their emissions – they may just be ‘greening’ their image. Begin to notice how often windmills and sunflowers crop up in advertising and talk about how, without changing anything about their manufacturing process, companies create an impression that their product is somehow climate-friendly. Such companies have recognised the advantage of being seen to be more climate-friendly than their competitors. Take care not to allow marketers to use our own desire to do the right thing, against us. Talk to the kids about this, e.g. “The windmill makes the product look climate-friendly. I wonder if it really is.” You don’t have to have all the answers, asking the questions is the important thing. This encourages kids to think critically rather than accept what they are told. Often, the less climate-friendly a product, the greater lengths a company will go to try to convince us otherwise. Take electricity for example, most of it comes from burning coal which causes warming. To try to make us forget that, the industry talks a lot about ‘clean coal’, sets company targets for renewable energy (while simulataneously lobbying the government to do away with Renewable Energy Targets), plasters their website with windmills and sunflowers, and uses the colour green ad infinitum. One trick of a high-emissions business is to have their office go carbon-neutral and to publicise this fact widely. “At Fossil Fuel Burner we’ve gone carbon neutral!”  Wise up to the fact that the office has gone carbon neutral, not the business which continues to produce its product in the same old way, belching out CO2 as they have always done.  Another greenwashing trick is to make one climate friendly product (or even promote the fact that you plan to do so in the future), and advertise it heavily. By brand association, every product with that logo basks in the nice green glow of the company’s improved green image, even if the promoted (and probably over-priced) product represents a tiny portion of their actual sales. There are lots more such tricks and techniques employed by carbon-intensive businesses. Take a look at Guy Pearse’s Greenwash to help you spot them. We all certainly need to do our bit to combat global warming but let’s not allow advertisers to trick us into believing we can save the world one ice-cream at a time or anything equally as silly.

Make lifestyle choices and talk about them

Make changes to your lifestyle if necessary and talk about the choices you are making and the research you undertake to make responsible decisions and product choices. Talk too about such decisions which were made in the past – if something has always been a certain way in your household, don’t assume the kids know when and why that decision was made.  Also, be willing to admit your mistakes and talk about them. As home educators, it is really important to let go of the adult mind-set of always being right. Talking about some of the reasons for mistakes made can be beneficial too. Maybe we bought a product because we fell for greenwash. Or maybe we clung to an outdated notion too long out of commitment bias or confirmation bias. Being willing to talk about these things helps to set the whole global problem in context and frame discussions about why countries do the same things.

Be Political

Watch for greenwash from governments and political parties who try to spin their policies as greener than they are.  Regardless of which political party you normally vote for, take notice of what their climate policies are and assess them on the basis of the future climate they are working towards. Contact your local candidates and tell them that you want strong action on climate, and keep contacting them often on the subject. Consider other parties and check their policies also. Sign petitions and spread the word. Climate change is refered to as a ‘threat multiplier’. This means that whatever you care about – whether it is feeding your kids, defending our borders, getting a job, social justice etc – climate change will make things worse. There is further warming already in the pipeline, we need to prevent as much as we can.

Home educators span the political spectrum but we share a desire to leave a good legacy for our children. Climate change threatens that, so let’s inform ourselves and do what we can to protect their future. It’s our planet, it’s our children’s future: let’s protect it.


  1. http://www.theguardian.com/environment/planet-oz/2014/ oct/03/scientists-find-human-fingerprints-all-over-australiashottest-year-on-record. 2. The Climate Commission was an independent body established in 2011 by the Federal Government to communicate “reliable and authoritative information” about climate change in Australia. Abolished in September 2013, it was relaunched as an independent non-profit organisation called the Climate Council. See http://www.climatecouncil.org.au/
  2. Naomi Oreskes, Merchants of Doubt: How a Handful of Scientists Obscured the Truth on Issues from Tobacco Smoke to Global Warming, Bloomsbury Press 2011.
  3.  Two out of every 100 are not sure and one disagrees.


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