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Climate is disrupting children's education


This past week has seen unprecedented bushfires across north-eastern Australia and predictions it will only intensify in the coming months. Experts concur that the underlying conditions are driven by climate change, itself caused by increased amounts of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.

Fire crews wait at a property in in Colo Heights, NSW, as the fire front approaches on 15 November 2019. (Photo by Brett Hemmings/Getty Images)Leading government and public figures have argued that we shouldn't discuss climate change during this bushfire emergency. Yet when citizens, and most especially our children, previously tried to raise climate change on the public agenda, Prime Minister Scott Morrison told them that they should 'stay in school' rather than participate in the global School Strike for Climate. Implicit in this statement is that children should perform their part in 'business as usual'. This presumption that our normal routines will and must continue denies evidence that these routines and obligations are already being disrupted by climate change.

What does education look like under climate change? Last week almost 600 schools throughout NSW and Queensland had to close due to the catastrophic fire danger levels. Consequently thousands of children missed out on school because of the climate change they were told to not worry about. It was evident that on those days it was too risky and dangerous for children to attend school.

This is just one example of how climate change is threatening, and will increasingly threaten, children's education. Both climate 'shocks' — short term, intense events like bushfires — and 'stressors' — long, drawn out and slower changing processes like drought — can negatively affect children's schooling.

Perhaps most evident is the basic issue of accessing school. As seen with these fires, disasters can prevent children from attending school if the threat they pose triggers precautionary school closures.

In some cases, school closures are caused more directly and devastatingly by disasters. The loss of Bobin Public School has left all of its children without the school many of them no doubt loved and all needed. Others' access to school may be disrupted not by an impact on their school as much as on the infrastructure, transportation and/or adults they need to get there, or on their home. Many children this week have been displaced from their homes. For many of these, this displacement will likely be for an extended period, if not permanent. For them, getting to their original school, or indeed to any school, will be one of the enormous challenges they now face.

Even for those able to access their school, their education can be badly affected by disasters and more chronic climate change impacts. Research shows that decreased cognitive capacity and school outcomes are related to disaster experiences. Children who live through disasters (including when in utero) can experience a host of negative impacts, including depression, post-traumatic stress disorder and family breakdown. All these severely impact on children's capacity to thrive at school.


"Climate change impacts are increasingly causing anxiety and other mental illnesses in young people and those around them, further undermining their ability to learn."


Chronic climate change impacts can have very negative effects on children's education too. Increased temperatures, for example, can limit children's ability to concentrate and learn. Extreme heat exacerbates related problems such as poor air quality and food borne pathogens that children are especially vulnerable to. As any parent or teacher knows, sick children cannot learn to their maximum capacity.

'Slow burn' climate change impacts on children's education are illustrated by the long and extreme drought many children across NSW and Queensland are living through. For some this is in addition to the fires, illustrating the compounding impacts of climate change coming from many different directions.

The acute financial pressure associated with drought can mean children are pulled out of schools, particularly if — as in many rural areas — they are sent to boarding school for their secondary education to avoid unworkably long commutes. The erosion of the economic base of communities due to drought and disaster adds to pressure on small rural kindergartens and primary schools struggling to stay open. Students, school teachers and other staff are all exposed to the resultant psychological and social impacts as well.

Climate change impacts are increasingly causing anxiety and other mental illnesses in young people and those around them, further undermining their ability to learn. But the answer is not to ignore climate change as if the offending information can be deleted or tossed away. As seen so horrifyingly this week, pretending climate change isn't happening only allows its impacts to mushroom. The complexity of climate change impacts is real, and challenging. This complexity is what our children will inherit to confront and solve as adults.

What kind of absences do we want for our children? Absences where they take a few hours off school to march in the streets with collective commitment to a viable future and engage in public debate? Or do we want the slow burn over many years with them cowering in emergency shelters, stressed, despairing and living towards very difficult and 'unprecedented' futures?

If our politicians seriously care about Australian children attending school and learning well, they will not demand students shut themselves away until the day their school is closed by disaster. Instead, they will show intelligence, wisdom and courage — of the sort school children have already been displaying — by rapidly implementing a radical reduction in greenhouse gas emissions and a transformational plan for climate change adaptation.



Lauren Rickards is Associate Professor and co-lead of the Climate Change Transformations group in the Centre for Urban Research and School of Global, Urban and Social Studies at RMIT.

Blanche Verlie is a Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the Sydney Environment Institute, at the University of Sydney. Her PhD is in climate change education.

Briony Towers is Research Fellow in the Centre for Urban research at RMIT University, Melbourne. Her work is focused on children, bushfire and climate change.

Bronwyn Lay is the Ecological Justice Co-ordinator at Jesuit Social Services and the Climate Change Exchange Co-ordinator at The Centre for Urban Research RMIT.

Main image: Fire crews wait at a property in in Colo Heights, NSW, as the fire front approaches on 15 November 2019. (Photo by Brett Hemmings/Getty Images)

Topic tags: Lauren Rickards, Blanche Verlie, Briony Towers, Bronwyn Lay, climate change, education



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Existing comments

One could surmise that the authors are pressing an agenda which is shaped by their predominantly "urban" occupations. I don't normally have issue with experts expressing their (collective) opinions but the article should reflect the facts more accurately; it might also help to state the authors contention that children should attend climate protests. The children were not told not to worry about climate change, they were advised to stay in school. For reasons best know to the activists, protests seem to occur in urban, CBD areas rather than suburban and rural which is where the school closures became necessary. The emotional pleading of "if politicians seriously care" and "demand students shut themselves away" is a bit beneath PhD and post-D articulation; the imagery of years "cowering in emergency shelters" adds a nice post-apocalyptic touch... but no cigar. Regretfully, unlike Lewis Carroll's walrus, who stated: "the time has come...to talk of many things...". No. That talking time has passed; we're looking at a bleak and hostile season and despite our various misgivings on the elected decision makers the action time is now. Let's collectively hope no further fires are lit by "children" in the coming holiday season; maybe a good time for a few marches?

Ray | 18 November 2019  

Have to disagree with Ray. Action is well and truly taking place in rural areas. Our town of Mudgee has had two marches organised by the kids from the local schools and well supported by the town. I am dispirited by not much being done and people constantly trying to make this a them and us issue. We are all at risk in so many ways.

Jorie Ryan | 19 November 2019  

Pat writes, 'for reasons best know to the activists, protests seem to occur in urban, CBD areas rather than suburban and rural'. As someone who lives in rural Tasmania this seems at odds with the facts here. We had children on climate strikes in towns such as Wynyard, Latrobe, and Sassafras to mention just three of numerous rural areas throughout the state represented in the strike and led well by the young students. Thank you to the insightful writers for this very appropriate and timely piece. I look forward to joining the next strike at the end of this month. I would rather not be at this event but!

Tom Kingston | 19 November 2019  

Dorothea McKellar's poem “My Country” reminds us of what Australia has always been. It’s difficult fro city people to understand, when all you have to do to get water, is turn on the tap or flick a switch for light and power. "a land of...droughts and flooding rains ...her beauty and her terror... Her pitiless blue sky, When, sick at heart, around us We see the cattle die But then the grey clouds gather, And we can bless again The drumming of an army, The steady soaking rain. I strongly recommend studying this poem for anyone who has not grown up in the country. For many generations, my own family have been in this district Dorothea Mackellar describes so well. The poem was written in 1904, it was still like this in my childhood and it still is. “Core of my heart, my country! … Wherever I may die, I know to what brown country My homing thoughts will fly.”

Jane | 19 November 2019  

the children who attended the global school strike did the right thing after all it is their future to which people like the prime minister should be concerned about and doing something about

maryellen flynn | 19 November 2019  

I also must disagree with Ray. I attended two student strike marches by students in the rural town of Nowra. The students were well informed and articulate and in the first instance courageous as they proceeded despite the resistance and public criticism of their elders . The second was a resounding success with huge public support. The students demonstrate that they understand the science and and its implications and reflect this to the community at large. They are our spoke persons. I appreciate and endorse the comments of the authors. From Delhi, I suppose urban, but where students likewise are striking in demand for action on climate change.

Denis Quinn | 20 November 2019  

Of course Scomo would tell the students to stay in school. Like Tony Abbott, he is a climate change denialist. He likes "quiet" students who dont rock the boat. The environment is a very unpopular portfolio and Ms Susan Ley his docile puppet. Scomo is becoming more like Xi Jinping, who lets the elite vote in HongKong to supress the masses, then has his police thugs shoot dead the ones who dare protest at their lack of a vote.

francis Armstrong | 20 November 2019  

Well written authors, I totally agree with your reflections as also I agree with all the comments, excepting Ray's. I understand that there were many rural protests too. I taught in the bush many years ago. I was struck by the awareness of the students to the environment around them. They were also far easier to teach! Ray , they see the impacts of climate change around them every day. Farmers are more aware than city dwellers of the impact of humanity misuse of resources upon the earth. According to the ABC Survey, Australia talks politicians are now less trusted than used car salesman!

Gavin O'Brien | 20 November 2019  

Well said! I add a reflection to my earlier comments My wife, a secondary school teacher is dealing with the stress and strain being forced on her students as they approach end of year examinations, for the Seniors, an uncertain future. I am a retired educator. Each day she 'debriefs' as we drive home after another hectic day in the classroom ; to be faced with hours of marking and assessment at home, often past midnight. Her students are stressed, she is stressed. She remarked yesterday how concerned her students are becoming with the ongoing drought, the extreme heat, the smoke and the dust they are seeing so often this Spring. They are worried and confused by what they hear from the Government when they go on strike in protest at lack of action on climate change, as well their concerns about other social issues that are affecting their families. Some are expressing fears of a bleak future , even questioning why they should be at school! It is a emerging worry for us at the chalk face.

Gavin | 27 November 2019  

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