Some pertinent and necessary measures are being taken by the State Government, through its agency the Penang Green Council (PGC), to raise awareness with regard to environmental issues. General manager Josephine Tan explains, “PGC conducts a wide variety of programmes and through them, we are encouraging Penangites to slowly develop and embrace eco-friendly habits.” There is even a Junior Green Camp programme which emphasises combining fun with eco-friendliness. But for all its efforts, PGC is the only government-funded environmental organisation in Penang, and for this reason, its scope of influence is naturally limited.
Furthermore, even if these government programmes do increase in scope and size, their overall impact is still liable to scepticism and questioning. More often than not, programmes on climate change focus on very specific topics such as recycling and lessening plastic consumption. While these factors in themselves are important, they distract from the larger overall picture, and that is climate change is so intrinsically weaved into many facets of our lives that attempting to address the issue through reductive rather than holistic measures may prove ineffective.
To understand just how interconnected climate change issues are, the fishing industry can be used as an illustrative example. In 2017 alone, the industry contributed RM1.4bil to Penang’s economy1. But the ripple effect of global warming has also caused a steady decrease in daily catch, and less fish translates to lower profits for local fishing businesses. One of the easiest ways to cut corners is to pay fishermen a lower wage for working longer hours. But this can very possibly violate labour laws as well. If their poor working conditions are brought to light, and if justice is sought, these fisherfolk may risk losing their rice bowls. The easy solution, therefore, is to hire undocumented migrants. Though, this would certainly pose challenges of its own, namely in a rise in local unemployment and labour exploitation of poor migrant workers.2
Cheng Mun is the senior assistant of co-curriculum activities at SMK Convent Butterworth.
This interconnectedness is not a common narrative in the education on climate change. On one hand, it places too much emphasis on facts and statistics and on the other, the syllabus highlights abstract, far-away concepts of melting ice caps for example, that fail to resonate locally. To be fair, while there are topics covering conservation and preservation of living organisms, there is currently nothing in the Integrated Curriculum for Secondary Schools that specifically addresses climate change3. Any education students do have on the issue usually depends on teachers purposefully including it in class.
Cheng Mun, the senior assistant of co-curriculum activities at SMK Convent Butterworth, confirms this. “In Malaysia our curriculum is very exam-oriented. Teachers always try to chase the syllabus, finishing whatever is required. In-depth on issues such as the environment or climate change… it’s rather touch-and- go.”
Climate change and environmental education in general is not yet the norm in Penang. Based on the survey, only 28.7% of participants reported having learned about climate change in Primary School. Young adolescents (aged 10-13) are at the ideal stage of neurocognitive development in being able to comprehend the ramifications of climate change. Perhaps, it is during this age that climate change education should be introduced; as it stands, environmentally conscious children are more likely to grow into environmentally conscious adults4.
Students are exposed to climate change education at SMK Convent Butterworth.
Furthermore, there is evidence to suggest that children are uniquely positioned to inspire a change of attitude in adults who may not have reaped the benefits of environmental education. This is termed “intergenerational learning” and although it is mainly used in the context of older generations influencing their young, recent research finds that child-to- parent intergenerational learning is effective in myriad forms (and not just in bridging the digital divide!).
Environmental education programmes directed at children which are designed with intergenerational learning in mind have in many cases resulted in the successful transfer of said education to adults. This includes knowledge on flood education and general environmental conservation, and behaviours on waste education and energy conservation5.
... three conclusions can be drawn: i) Young people do care about climate change; ii) They believe they can take action in attempting to reverse its effects; but puzzlingly iii) Most aren’t doing so.
But to iterate, starting them young may not, on its own, be enough. The issue is not that young people are not aware of climate change; what is troubling is that in spite of their awareness, youths often fail to act. A relevant question to ask is how climate change education is “framed”? Framing refers to how specific pieces of information are presented to people, and this can have a great deal of influence on how they respond.
Over the past decade, climate change education has been framed primarily around scientific (facts and statistics) and economic problem-solving methods, leading to an almost clinical approach in getting the message across. Why such a method is ineffective may be that it does not account for the strong emotional responses students often have to this subject, and more worryingly, it does not provide them with healthy methods for dealing with these emotions.
… And How Do You Feel About This?
The most common responses to climate change fall under six general emotions: anxiety, frustration, being overwhelmed, grief, guilt and hope. These are observed in the survey, but the question remains as to why they occur and how they can be resolved. If the goal of climate change education is to inspire action, then the most important emotional response to address is that of apathy, which is understood to be caused by a lack of an emotional connection to climate change.
To spur people into action, there is a general belief for concern to be inspired in them6. But more recent research into this theory suggests a backfiring. Emotions such as anxiety and guilt, rather than inspiring action often lead to a “shut down” which causes us to avoid situations/messages that evoke these negative feelings. Continuously stressing how catastrophic climate change could potentially be in the future, while technically true, is therefore not particularly effective7.
Emotions such as anxiety, frustration and being overwhelmed by the sheer magnitude of climate change are all associated with a lack of control. This leads back to likening climate change to Cthulhu, an entity so large, we are but ants before its might. It is this loss of power and agency that can lead to the disintegration of a sense of agency. Young people have grown up in a world where human domination of the planet appears to be the natural order of things. Having this entitlement challenged can be quite a shock.
As humans have trouble imagining the scope of climate change, it is essential that climate change education reframes the issue on a more localised scale. The benefits of this are that firstly, the effects of climate change are made direct and personal. This raises the relative importance of climate change and avoids the issue of Cthulhu, keeping climate change on a level that is easily comprehensible.
Secondly, with the issue shrunk to a local scale, people are given the ability to act. Charles R. Snyder theorises that both agency, the ability to participate in solutions, and a concrete pathway to such solutions are needed to avoid despair and encourage hope8. Therefore, climate change education must focus not only on presenting facts, but also on providing concrete ways in which students can help, and see the impact of their actions. This is a difficult task as such pathways are naturally limited by the influence each individual has. Still, this is not altogether impossible.
The localisation of climate change to Malaysia is not yet the norm, but steps are being made. Rexy Prakash Chacko, co-author of Creating Future-Proof Cities: How to Navigate the Climate Crisis has been active in this pursuit. “We [with coauthor Murali Ram] wrote this book with Penang as an example. We narrated it with very specific examples so that when a city policy-maker reads it, he knows what to do. When individuals read it, they know that climate change is not rocket science and that there are things they can take action on.”
Encouraging younger generations to engage in climate change and environmental action is undoubtedly critical in ensuring that we are all prepared for its impact in the mid-21st century. The depths of the sinking current may not drown us yet.
Kim Evers is a student of International Relations and Politics with various interests in other fields such as Psychology, Philosophy and Media studies.
- 2002. Integrated Curriculum For Secondary School. [ebook] Kuala Lumpur: Ministry of Education Malaysia. Available at: <https://www.academia.edu/23115281/Integrated_Curriculum_for_Secondary_ Schools_Curriculum_Specifications_SCIENCE_Form_2>.
- Haltinner, K. and Sarathchandra, D., 2017. Climate change skepticism as a psychological coping strategy. Sociology Compass, [online] 12(4). Available at: <https://www.researchgate.net/publication/324849816_Climate_change_skepticism_ as_a_psychological_coping_strategy>.
- Harker-Schuh, I., 2019. Why Is Early Adolescence So Pivotal in the Climate Change Communication and Education Arena? In: W. Leal Filho and S.Hemstock, ed., Climate Change and The Role of Education. [online] London: Springer, pp.279-290. Available at: <https://link.springer.com/chapter/10.1007/978-3-030-32898-6_16>.
- Hornsey, M. and Fielding, K., 2016. A cautionary note about messages of hope: Focusing on progress in reducing carbon emissions weakens mitigation motivation. Global Environmental Change, [online] 39, pp.26-34. Available at: <https://www.researchgate.net/publication/301744933_A_cautionary_note_about_messages_of_hope_Focusing_on_progress_in_reducing_carbon_emissions_weakens_mitigation_motivation>.
- Lawson, D., Stevenson, K., Peterson, M., Carrier, S., Strnad, R. and Seekamp, E., 2018. Inter-generational learning: Are children key in spurring climate action?. Global Environmental Change, [online] 53, pp.204-208. Available at: <https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0959378018304552>.
- Lopez, S. and Snyder, C., 2011. Handbook Of Positive Psychology. Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press.
- Loucks, D., n.d. Mythos Lore. [online] Hplovecraft.com. Available at: <https://www.hplovecraft.com/internet/ahcfaq/mythos.aspx>.
- Morton, T., 2017. Hyperobjects. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
- Nisbet, M., 2010. Communicating Climate Change: Why Frames Matter for Public Engagement. Environment: Science and Policy for Sustainable Development, [online] 51(2), pp.12-23. Available at: <https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.3200/ENVT.51.2.12-23>.
- Stoknes, P., n.d. Psychology Behind Climate Inaction: How To Beat The 'Doom Barrier' | DW | 24.05.2019. [online] Deutsche Welle. Available at: <https://www.dw.com/en/psychology-behind-climate-inaction-how-to-beatthe-doom-barrier/a-48730230>.
- Tickler, D., Meeuwig, J., Bryant, K., Forrest, J. and Gordon, E., 2018. Modern slavery and the race to fish. Nature Communications, [online] 9. Available at: <https://www.nature.com/articles/s41467-018-07118-9>.
- Vaghefi, N., 2019. Penang’s Fisheries Industry In Numbers. [online] Penang Monthly. Available at: <https://penangmonthly.com/article.aspx?pageid=15774&name=penangs_fisheries_industry_in_numbers>.
- Verlie, B., 2019. Bearing world: learning to live with climate change. Environmental Education Research, [online] 25(5), pp.751-766. Available at: <https://www.tandfonline.com/loi/ceer20>.
1 Vaghefi, N., 2019. Penang’s Fisheries Industry In Numbers. [online] Penang Monthly. Available at: <https://penangmonthly.com/article.aspx?pageid=15774&name=penangs_fisheries_industry_in_numbers> .
2 Tickler, D., Meeuwig, J., Bryant, K., Forrest, J. and Gordon, E., 2018. Modern slavery and the race to fish. Nature Communications, [online] 9. Available at: <https://www.nature.com/articles/s41467-018-07118-9>.
3 2002. Integrated Curriculum For Secondary School. [ebook] Kuala Lumpur: Ministry of Education Malaysia. Available at: <https://www.academia.edu/23115281/Integrated_Curriculum_for_Secondary_Schools_Curriculum_Specifications_SCIENCE_Form_2>.
4 Harker-Schuh, I., 2019. Why Is Early Adolescence So Pivotal in the Climate Change Communication and Education Arena?. In: W. Leal Filho and S. Hemstock, ed., Climate Change and The Role of Education. [online] London: Springer, pp.279-290. Available at: <https://link.springer.com/chapter/10.1007/978-3-030-32898-6_16>.
5Lawson, D., Stevenson, K., Peterson, M., Carrier, S., Strnad, R. and Seekamp, E., 2018. Inter-generational learning: Are children key in spurring climate action?. Global Environmental Change, [online] 53, pp.204-208. Available at: <https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0959378018304552>.
6Hornsey, M. and Fielding, K., 2016. A cautionary note about messages of hope: Focusing on progress in reducing carbon emissions weakens mitigation motivation. Global Environmental Change, [online] 39, pp.26-34. Available at: <https://www.researchgate.net/publication/301744933_A_cautionary_note_about_messages_of_hope_Focusing_on_progress_in_reducing_carbon_emissions_weakens_mitigation_motivation>.
7Stoknes, P., n.d. Psychology Behind Climate Inaction: How To Beat The 'Doom Barrier' | DW | 24.05.2019. [online] Deutsche Welle. Available at: <https://www.dw.com/en/psychology-behind-climate-inaction-how-tobeat-the-doom-barrier/a-48730230>.
8Lopez, S. and Snyder, C., 2011. Handbook Of Positive Psychology. Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press.