I applaud Prime Minister Kevin Rudd in identifying on the international stage that our young people are a significant resource in the fight against climate change. His comments made recently in New York, issuing a challenge to American university students to devote their talents to solving climate change, are timely but I wonder if he realises how far ahead of the game Australian students are?
It is often said that young people are less than 20 per cent of the population, but are 100 per cent of our future. From my work over ten years involving 15,000 students and their teachers across Australia in environment education and action, I know that young people in Australia are very active already when it comes to solving environmental issues.
Ten years ago Australian youth environment conferences started with “kids teaching kids” about environment issues and action. Since then, students have delivered over 2,600 workshops on energy, water, agriculture, waste, biodiversity and climate change which has resulted in on-ground projects across Australia with communities united behind kids and schools around an environment issue of concern to them.
However, we only have to pick up any paper in Australia to read about national debates or the complex negotiations going on in the lead up to Copenhagen to realise that it isn’t a simple issue politically because there are so many different levels of understanding. Ultimately it comes down to how we are educated on the issue and what base level knowledge we have on the implications of NOT acting on climate change. Something that most of the decision-makers can hopefully agree on if they think about it is that education is the key to a sustainable future.
In around three week’s time, 2,500 students from every Australian State and Territory and New Zealand will converge on Canberra for the International River Health Conference from October 18-20. Over three days students from years 5 to 11 will teach each other about the environment issues we face and the potential solutions we need to help solve them.
Given the conference has been scheduled in a sitting week for Parliament I invite any Government Minister, regardless of portfolio, to come and witness Australia’s best environmental succession plan in action. At this stage we have the Shadow Minister for the Environment Greg Hunt, Greens Senator Christine Milne, Senators Bob Brown and Nick Xenophon dropping down during the event, and we certainly hope to hear from many government representatives too, including those that have been formally invited some time ago.
For a student to know a subject well enough to teach their peers, they know it really well. And to present it in imaginative ways such as drama, comedy, song, poems and interactive workshops means their peers are more engaged.
It’s been working for ten years and the Canberra event is a celebration of that 10-year history.
The power of this concept is revealed by the successful outcomes, both for the environment and the children. For the former, the benefits are clearly substantial. Trees have been planted, weeds cleared, water-saving devices installed, animals, fish and birds saved, and the list goes on. The program has also built many partnerships with environmental organisations, local and state government, Landcare groups and the business community.
For the children, the positive results are similarly tangible. The philosophy focuses on developing behaviours like responsiveness, empathy, caring, communication skills and a sense of humour in children of all ages. Problem-solving skills are also part of the program, along with abstract and reflective thinking, flexibility and a sense of purpose. It promotes empowerment through connection with like-minded students, the ability to self manage by being engaged in peer teaching and the opportunity for students from extremely varied backgrounds to come together around what is a very worrying issue for youth - the health of our environment and the impact of climate change.
It is clear that something powerful happens when students teach students.
The Prime Minister may have another way to engage our children in environmental education at a young age so they will have the necessary base level understanding and the motivation to answer his challenge to solve the looming climate crisis. We are ready and willing to continue to assist the Australian Government to engage our young people to secure a bright and compelling future for our nation.
The 2009 International River Health Conference will be held in Canberra from October 18-20, 2009. This article was first published in the Canberra Times on October 2, 2009.
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