Eco-awareness in Education: GDST and UN Climate Change COP26

With the UN Climate Change COP26 starting this week, we address the issues of eco awareness and eco anxiety, and how we can discuss this with our children. As parents, we may naturally feel conflicted: too overwhelmed with the day-to-day responsibilities involved in running a family, home and work, to engage meaningfully. Perhaps we do worry about climate change but don’t know how to engage our children without transferring our own anxieties to them. Or maybe we just don’t yet have the words to reassure our youngsters given the scale of the problem.

Our guest today is Kathleen Hamilton, Programmes Director at Force Of Nature, a youth non-profit who work to empower young people to turn their eco-anxiety into action, and with leaders across business and education to drive intergenerational solutions. Kathleen suggests ways for us to engage with our children and students to reassure, encourage and mobilise them, hopefully reigniting our own agency in the process.

What is COP26?

With climate change, sustainability and eco-friendliness being at the forefront of many people’s minds, this year’s UN Climate Change COP26 is receiving wide-spread attention.

COP stands for Conference of the Parties, and is a summit attended by countries that signed the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) in 1994. The COP26 event is a global climate change-focused event discussing how countries are planning to address various environmental issues in the future. It is a forward-thinking event which will be attended by many political and social figures to try to help the global environment. This collaborative approach to climate change benefits societies around the world.

What is environmental awareness and its importance?

Environmental awareness is a term often used to reference the mindful consideration of the natural environment as well as the understanding of how making economic choices can help protect, as opposed to harm, the earth. Recent changes around the use of plastic straw are a good example of this, with large corporations, such as McDonalds, making efforts to reduce their use of plastic by introducing paper straws. In the UK, a ‘plastic bag tax’ has been introduced by the UK government with the aim ‘to reduce the use of single-use carrier bags, and the litter they can cause, by encouraging people to reuse bags’. This is because plastic takes a very long time to break down, and in many cases can end up polluting our oceans, posing a significant threat to plant and animal life.

Practicing environmental awareness can vary from person to person, from small mindful decisions, like reusing bags, to more significant life adjustments, such as cycling to work. Environmental awareness can be summarised as a person being aware of the natural environment and making the effort to action lifestyle changes that support the environment.

What is Eco-anxiety?

The discussion of the climate crisis has birthed the new term ‘eco-anxiety’. This is not a diagnosable condition;  rather, it is a term used to describe how the current climate and environmental issues are affecting the mental health of children and young people. Eco-anxiety means the extreme fear of environmental destruction or despair. Public Health experts have warned that eco-anxiety is not yet fully understood and that this chronic fear could have negative effects on many individuals in the future.

GDST and specialist guest, Kathleen Hamilton discusses how to minimise the risk of developing eco-anxiety by teaching children about the environment and the benefits of environmentally friendly choices through eco-friendly school projects, ultimately giving children eco-agency. This allows children to understand the positive impact they can have on their environment and feel encouraged and empowered by their actions as opposed to fearing the effects of the climate crisis. 

The importance of COP26 with Kathleen Hamilton

GDST’s Raise Her Up is a parenting and education podcast discussing current trending topics with specialist guests to keep you informed. Our ‘Force of Nature: From Eco Anxiety to Eco Agency’ episode features discussions with GDST students and guest, Kathleen Hamilton. To listen to the full podcast, visit Raise Her Up or find it on Spotify, Apple, Audible or wherever you listen to podcasts. Today, we summarise some key discussion points from our podcast in this article.

Kathleen Hamilton has been involved in climate action for years. Growing up in Southeast Asia, Kathleen attended the Green School in Bali, which, as the name may suggest, was founded on the principle that change was needed to reflect the need to engage more positively with the environment. The Green School uses innovative, sometimes holistic education techniques to educate students and support their academic development. The eco-friendly school encourages outdoor learning activities and a healthy relationship with the outdoor environment, encouraging eco-awareness at an early age through educational activities, such as children identifying renewable energy sources on campus and work on building structures out of bamboo.

This approach within eco-friendly schools could minimise eco-anxiety as children are  encouraged in early childhood to have a positive and proactive attitude towards environmental issues and made aware of the positive impact of even small lifestyle changes on the earth.

Kathleen Hamilton, having studied in a eco friendly school ,explains her thoughts on COP26 this year:

‘I think that what’s happening with COP26 this year is so necessary. Obviously, the IPCC Report, which came out only a couple of months ago, has said that it’s now or never, right? This kind of pressure is something that young people learn about and feel from a very young age, at school. It’s the reality now. And so, I think that why this is so important, why this conversation is so important is really something near and dear to my heart and near and dear to Force of Nature, where we really see the rise of eco-anxiety, the rise of powerlessness in the face of climate change, because there is so much pressure, there is so much overwhelm in all of these conversations that it’s not just about taking climate action. It’s actually about allowing young people to feel their emotions wherever they are, to help mobilise those emotions, to turn all of these into action and be able to feel like we have agency and the ability to make real change in our communities, so that we’re not just stuck and frozen in the face of this looming threat, right, that we all feel.’

As Kathleen Hamilton has identified, COP26 can be seen as a way to encourage positive thinking in people young and old, while also limiting eco-anxiety or environmental fears, as the summit is a call to action to address climate change in our local and international environments.

Eco Friendly Schools and GDST

The GDST family prides itself on being environmentally aware and eco-friendly, with an educational approach that encourages students to have agency over how they relate to the environment. Eco-friendly school projects support children at GDST schools to understand how they can have a positive impact on the environment, transforming any eco-anxiety  into eco-agency and promoting a healthy mindset around the environment.

Don’t just take our word for it! Sophia, Year 13 Sustainability Representative at Wimbledon High School, shares her thoughts on the climate crisis:

‘I’m Sophia Harley, a year 13 at Wimbledon High School Sustainability Representative. Global warming and biodiversity loss are driving high levels of anxiety amongst young people. A global survey of ten thousand sixteen- to twenty-four-year-olds showed 60% were either very worried or extremely worried about climate change and three quarters of them said they thought the future was frightening. Over half said they think humanity is doomed. Without immediate significant action, they have every right to be worried. Look, you don’t need me to reel off all the terrifying stats about biodiversity loss, increasing global temperatures, and mass extinction.

But, actually, from our perspective, there is something very positive about this. 60% of our generation recognise the urgent need for change, and 60% of our generation adds up to three quarters of a billion people. Seven and fifty million sixteen- to twenty-four-year-olds. And the numbers are increasing fast. The perfect antidote to climate anxiety is the hope that comes from scale.

In our context, scale comes from uniting students across all GDST schools and beyond. You can’t ignore the masses. With scale comes the ability to coordinate the activities and actions of willing, enthusiastic, and passionate environmentalists. With scale comes hope. The hope that comes from being part of a united and growing force composed of, for example, GDST schools, the UK Environmental Agency, Friends of the Earth, and the UN IPCC, all part of the same orchestra focused on changing the trajectory of humanity’s impact on earth.

We can sit at home and be anxious or we can take enormous hope that, at some point soon, we will be in the majority and to not accept previous generations’ continued failures to make real change. It’s not their future after all.’

GDST Podcast: Force of Nature: From Eco-Anxiety to Eco-Agency

Want to continue the conversation and dive deeper into COP26? Listen to the GDST parenting and education podcast for more insights from Kathleen Hamilton, COP26 information, and the importance of environment friendliness today. The ‘Force of Nature: From Eco Anxiety to Eco Agency’ episode is available to listen to on Spotify, Apple, Audible or wherever you listen to podcasts.