COP26 is another London Olympics moment for the UK

COP26 begins today, a major conference attended by many, though sadly not all, of the world’s political leaders. With the world’s attention focused on Glasgow for the next few days — and on the issue of humankind’s relationship with nature and the environment — this feels like an ‘Olympics’ moment. Much of the talk in the UK ahead of the London 2012 Olympics was about ‘legacy’, using the once-in-a-generation event to reset the nation’s awareness of the importance of — and its relationship with — sport and physical activity. COP26 presents a similar opportunity to press the reset button on our understanding of the importance of — and relationship with — nature, the environment and the planet. Just as with the 2012 Olympics we need to use the event as a springboard for bringing about long-term change.

It is at least possible that, for many of us, the worst of the Covid pandemic is over. Societies, economies and lives across the world have been devastated, and a large part of the world’s population still faces a highly uncertain future. Nevertheless, attention is slowly shifting to how we repair the damage wrought by the pandemic, with much talk of ‘building back better’. It is time to think about our children and young people — and, in turn, their children and their children’s children. The state of the planet they will inhabit. The future they will inherit.

“If we continue on our current path, we will face the collapse of everything that gives us our security: food production, access to fresh water, habitable ambient temperature, and ocean food chains … and if the natural world can no longer support the most basic of our needs, then much of the rest of civilization will quickly break down.

“People today all over the world now realize this is no longer an issue which will affect future generations. It is people alive today, and, in particular, young people, who will live with the consequences of our actions.”

So said Sir David Attenborough to the UN Security Council in February 2021. A stark and sobering warning indeed.

Climate change is surely the gravest foreseeable threat the planet faces in the coming decades. It is far from the only threat, however: characterising humanity’s current relationship with the natural world as a war, the United Nations also identified both the devastation of wildlife and nature and pollution as existential threats to the planet.

But climate change is a key driver of many of the threats we face — from species extinction to desertification, from sea level rise to changing work patterns. Climate change is also, at least in part, a consequence of human choices and human behaviour. Changing our choices and behaviour will alleviate some of its catastrophic effects and, ultimately, enable us to build a sustainable future.

There has been no shortage of soaring rhetoric and earnest promises from world leaders in the build-up to COP26. However, rhetoric and promises alone will not be enough. As the UK is the president of COP26, the conference is both a massive responsibility and a massive opportunity for the country.

Large-scale public events like COP26 generate attention, headlines and discussion. They can raise public awareness and galvanise people into action. However, too often the momentum is quickly lost — as arguably was the case with the Olympics — the message, the hope, the ambition all but forgotten once the event itself is over.

Sir David Attenborough has described young people as “the great hope”, welcoming the growing numbers of young people who are concerned about the threat of climate change and the need to look after the planet.

A truly imaginative approach to COP26 will put education at the heart of its legacy planning, looking again at what we are teaching our children so that environmental education isn’t just another box-ticking bolt-on, achieved via a few science lessons and an awareness-raising day once or twice a year, but an integral part of the curriculum.

Life-Based Learning emphasises the importance of children and young people learning much more than at present about climate change, and about the environment and nature more generally, as part of a fully rounded, life-based curriculum. Such a curriculum will help them adopt the skills, values and practices that ensure they are able to live sustainable lives in harmony with the needs of the planet.

Children and young people need, in other words, to be learning about the urgent environmental problems that confront us now, about actions that we can all take to help alleviate those problems, and about the need to live sustainably in order to secure the long-term survival of the Earth’s resources on which humankind depends.

This blog brings together arguments that we have been making in our blogs section over the last two years. Click here to read more.

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