• The role Latin American families play in their children's education is well documented.
  • But new research suggests children play a big role in encouraging their parents to behave more sustainably.
  • A national climate change education programme in schools would have much wider environmental benefits.

New generations of children and adolescents are increasingly taking action to ensure their future wellbeing against the implications and effects of climate change. They are key actors, therefore, who should be taken into consideration when creating policies that will incite the behavioural changes necessary to combat climate change.

Much attention has been drawn to the importance and participation of Latin American families in their children’s education. A 2005 UNESCO report points out that parents in Latin America are fully involved in the education and development of their children. Given their increased participation, they are able to exercise their power and authority for a longer time in comparison to families in other continents.

The report also mentions that the first educators of children are mothers and fathers, and that the education children obtain at school is an extension of what is learned at home. The organization which I direct - Sin Planeta B (No Planet B) - has been evaluating the extent to which educating children on climate change in Mexico can be effective in creating a more sustainable future by impacting their parents’ behaviours.

Previous studies have shown how children can transmit and translate the knowledge they obtain in school when back at home, enabling their families to improve their attitudes and decisions towards eating and healthy activities. Similarly, children are now using their knowledge and agency to influence their families in Mexico to favour better, more sustainable decisions when it comes to climate change. ­­­

Our research

Through observation, interviews and questionnaires, we have been finding out the extent to which households employ sustainable behaviours - and within the results, children often mention at home whether they are being taught to take care of the environment or not.

Most of these children have told us how they are teaching their parents how to be more responsible consumers and how to take care of the environment. For example, children relate how they transmit information on how some electronics use power while on standby, or the importance of consuming locally produced products due to the lower ecological footprint. The parents, meanwhile, are telling us how their children invited them or almost forced them to take part in environmental activities such as reforestation and river cleaning.

We have also found that the best ages to educate children about climate change is from around 8.5 to 11 years old; this, in our experience, is when children are most proactive and really want to learn about this topic.

So - how might a national climate change education programme promote environmentally-friendly behaviours amongst all citizens?

It has been observed that in schools and localities positioned in locations with restricted educational opportunities and a lower socioeconomic level, environmentalist culture can be non-existent -and that income and education can play an important role in determining sustainable behaviours.

Our research, for example, has shown that children and teenagers from families with an advanced education level and higher incomes show more environmental awareness and willingness to learn on climate change topics, in comparison to children and teenagers from families with a lower education level and income.

The results of our interviews and activities with children strengthen the argument for this correlation between education level and lifestyle and awareness of - and education in -climate change and environmental topics.

We have learned that one of the main reasons behind this is that people with lower education levels and lower incomes are more concerned with getting food and accessing primary services such as healthcare, housing and education; environmental concerns are relegated to a lower priority.

Above all, it seems pertinent to remember that given the world's current environmental condition, it is necessary to expand climate change education in order to find better strategies to help us ameliorate and adapt to climate change. Although climate change education is only in its beginning stages, it does hold promise, given related studies on childrens' agency through education. For now, the evidence that exists is anecdotal; improved monitoring and evaluation will be necessary to collect more quantitative data.

Empowering children agents of climate change education will leverage family involvement. Children will act to help their parents to promote changes in their behaviours.

We have experienced the temperature increasing over recent years; the past five have been the hottest on record. But the temporary measures that have been taken to stand up to this pandemic don't give the impression of being an enduring response to the challenge of climate change. Why? Because the drop in greenhouse gas emissions and air contamination that we have recently observed is just an immediate response from having paused our linear economy model. The damage we are doing to the planet due to greenhouse gases emissions will continue.

Even so, we have witnessed what happens when we give the planet a break. So why not do it permanently? Why not be more considerate of the earth, change our habits and learn to coexist with the natural world?

COVID-19 has taught us the impact of a pandemic, but there is still another major challenge to come: climate change. We need to start now on changing our behaviour. We need to start to educate ourselves about climate change and environment. Then, we will have more resources for good mitigation and adaptation strategies.

By teaching a generation of children and teenagers, another generation will also be influenced to engage in sustainable environmental behaviours. Implementing a nationwide climate change education programme will act as a way to promote environmentally-friendly behaviours amongst all citizens.