Climate change – Shrill reporting is making life harder for geography teachers

photo of teenage boy with a shocked expression holding up a model globe

Overheated media coverage is making it harder for geography classes to grapple with the complexities of climate change and natural disasters, argues Dr Alex Standish…

Alex Standish
by Alex Standish
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More than most subjects in the curriculum, geography engages with media reporting of current affairs – from the hosting of the World Cup, to Brexit, migration, poverty, racism, earthquakes and hazards relating to weather and climate.

Engaging with contemporary issues, both here in the UK and around the world, is important for understanding the nature of a place, its interconnections and the challenges its people face with respect to their location and environmental interactions. So how should teachers approach topics that are political in nature, and often reported in frightening terms?

Prevailing biases

In 1979, writing in the context of television becoming increasingly influential in young people’s lives, American educator Neil Postman distinguished between what he called the ‘media curriculum’ and the ‘school curriculum’. He surmised that the school curriculum must take students beyond the media curriculum and “Make visible the prevailing biases of a culture.”

He suggested that intellectual and cultural advance is made not through argument, but through argument and counterargument, since “The counterargument makes the deficiencies of the argument visible, and makes improvement and synthesis possible.”

In the online age, where reporting is often agenda-driven rather than committed to accuracy and neutrality, making sense of the news and getting to the truth of the matter can be highly challenging for young people and adults alike.

I expect most teachers and parents would want to see schools provide opportunities for media and critical literacy in the curriculum – but what does that mean in the context of media reporting around weather and climate-related events? The recent floods in Pakistan and Bangladesh, for example, California wildfires or heatwaves affecting Australia, Europe, China and the UK?

Apocalyptic framing

In the UK, most weather-related hazards are typically reported as evidence of climate change, and indicative of us being on track to a climate disaster induced by human greed and modern lifestyles.

In 2018, The Guardian highlighted a warning from the UN that we have “12 years left to limit climate catastrophe.” The COP27 summit was opened by UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres proclaiming to the world that we’re on a “Highway to climate hell.”

There is growing evidence that young people have been (understandably) frightened by the shrill nature of media reporting, and often apocalyptic narrative framing of global warming discourse. A recent survey of the attitudes towards climate change held by 10,000 young people across 10 countries found that 76% of respondents agreed that ‘The future is frightening’. 56% thought that ‘humanity is doomed’, while 39% were “hesitant to have children” of their own.

Hype and scaremongering aren’t conducive to constructive discussion of how best to mitigate and live with climate change, which is why schools need to move away from lessons that present issues and hazards in simplistic and moralistic terms – such as those that entreat children to reduce their carbon footprints.

Instead, they should do more to close the gap between the way climate change issues are discussed in the media, and the complex reality of climate science and human responses.

Statistically significant

One obvious authoritative source for teachers to draw upon in place of media reporting is the IPCC. In its report, ‘Managing the Risks of Extreme Events and Disasters to Advance Climate Change Adaptation’, it’s stated that: “Globally, in many (but not all) regions with sufficient data there is medium confidence that the length or number of warm spells or heat waves has increased since the middle of the 20th century.

“It is likely that there have been statistically significant increases in the number of heavy precipitation events… in more regions than there have been statistically significant decreases, but there are strong regional and subregional variations in the trends.”

This fits the recent pattern in Europe, with hotter summers, milder winters and a slight increase in heavy precipitation events. With warmer oceans, we can expect to see more moisture in the atmosphere as the water cycle intensifies, but precipitation won’t be evenly distributed.

For other weather phenomena, such as tropical cyclones, however, the trend is less clear: “There is low confidence that any observed long-term (i.e. 40 years or more) increases in tropical cyclone activity are robust.”

The true extent

Highlighting the differential regional patterns of climate change gives students a better understanding of its complexity and impacts on people and wildlife.

Warming has actually had beneficial effects in some high latitude countries, in the form of long growing seasons and milder winters, resulting in fewer deaths from cold. Conversely, the effects in mid and low latitudes are widespread and adverse – more extreme heat and heat-related deaths, increased water and food insecurity, as well as greater spread of disease via food, water and other vectors.

Indeed, in the IPCC’s assessment, “Climate change has caused substantial damages, and increasingly irreversible losses, in terrestrial, freshwater and coastal and open ocean marine ecosystems.”

Quotes like this can help explain the true extent of climate change and its impacts. Yes, there’s cause for alarm – but also a recognition that much of our extreme weather is down to climate variability rather than climate change, and that humanity has a long history of dealing with it.

Environmental management

Teaching young people about the geological history of the planet, cycling between glaciations and inter-glacial periods over thousands and millions of years, will enable them to view recent warming in the context of past change.

They should be taught about how homo sapiens lived through the last Ice Age (the Pleistocene) and survived when temperatures were 5°C to 10°C cooler than today, while using primitive technologies and working as communities.

When examining more recent history, students can study how societies have used environmental management, infrastructure projects and other technologies to reduce people’s vulnerability to extreme weather and climate.

This includes drainage basin management, flood defences (rivers and sea), central heating and air conditioning, water storage and irrigation, improved transportation safety and advances in weather forecasting and warning systems.

In the 1920s, on average almost half a million people each year died from a combination of storms, floods, droughts, wildfire and extreme temperatures. As the Danish academic Bjørn Lomborg observes, thanks to human development and environmental management, this has since dropped in the 2020s to 18,000 people a year – a decrease of 96 %.

Even as the climate has warmed and populations have risen, fewer people are dying and we’ve continued to increase agricultural production. Though given that thousands of people continue to experience the effects of storms, floods, heatwaves and droughts, more clearly needs to be done to improve the resilience of people and ecosystems.

Open debate

Looking at historical trends, and outlining for students the progress countries have made in improving public safety, access to education and healthcare, sanitation and life expectancy illustrates the benefits of modern societies, and provides a counterbalance to the doom-mongering of the media curriculum.

Finally, I would argue that teachers have a moral obligation to offer their charges hope for the future – to show them how we will live with, and manage climate change. That means teaching students about the steps that have already been taken by countries to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, as well as the development of alternative energy sources – like nuclear fission and hydrogen – that can potentially produce the cheap and abundant energy modern societies require.

This should be an open debate to which young people should be encouraged to contribute.

Dr Alex Standish is a senior lecturer in geography education at the UCL Institute of Education and co-editor of What Should Schools Teach: Disciplines, Subjects and the Pursuit of Knowledge (£25, UCL Press)

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