A Teen’s Quest for Better Climate Education
WIRED talked with youth activist Scarlett Westbrook about the secrets of effective campaigning and how schools can prepare kids for the future.
Backpacking around Europe after finishing school is a rite of passage for many, but for British climate activist Scarlett Westbrook, it may be the only thing she has ever done on schedule. Westbrook joined the school strike movement when she was just 10. She became the youngest person to pass an A level in government and politics at 13—a failed effort, she says, to impress her older sister, who must be very hard to impress indeed. She is believed to be the world’s youngest policy writer, having coauthored a bill with Labour MP Nadia Whittome on transforming climate education.
But today, Westbrook is speaking from a room in a hostel in Tirana, Albania’s capital—one stop on a very normal summer trip around the Balkans to mark the end of her secondary education. It’s an education she says was inadequate given the scale of the climate crisis humanity is facing. A precocious learner who revised for her early A level in her spare time and who now wants to study medicine, Westbrook says she is “very much the cookie-cutter version of what the government seems to want students to look like.” But she still doesn’t think the education system is up to scratch. It probably didn’t help matters that the only question in her GCSE exams about climate change asked students to list its potential benefits.
As a member of campaign group Teach the Future, she and her peers are hoping to change the way children learn about climate change and the biodiversity crisis in the United Kingdom. They advocate for climate change to be taught as part of every subject at school, including vocational training, and for school buildings themselves to be retrofitted to net-zero emissions standards.
WIRED talked to Westbrook about her fight to rewrite the curriculum, the secrets of effective climate campaigning, and how the world underestimates what young people can do. The interview has been lightly edited for clarity and length.
Scarlett Westbrook: School is meant to prepare us for the future, but that’s not currently happening. We need to build a resilient society that can deal with all of the now-inevitable impacts of the climate crisis, given we’re failing to meet our decarbonization targets. That means ensuring the next generation of workers and citizens are aware of what the climate crisis is, how it’s going to affect them, and the things we can do to change that.
One of the root causes of climate anxiety, which we’re seeing is a growing epidemic, is that people don’t learn about climate change. They’re not taught about it unless they take optional subjects, like triple science or geography. But not only scientists and geographers are going to be impacted by the climate crisis—it’s everyone, whether you’re a builder or a banker, farmer, or pharmacist, and that needs to be taught.
So many new jobs are going to be created that people don’t know about yet, because we’re not talking about climate change. There are going to be positions for environmental researchers, people who work on natural disaster risk, people who figure out what kind of resilience measures need to be put in place. There should be more construction-related jobs in insulation and improving energy efficiency. All of these jobs are going to be created in every stream, both academic and nonacademic, yet many people don’t know they exist because we’re simply not taught about that in school.
What should climate teaching look like?
Right now, we have a very prescriptive education system based on memorizing facts, regurgitating them, and then forgetting everything as soon as we leave. We need an education system that embeds climate education into every single subject, like a golden thread.
I also think we need a more holistic style of teaching. Not everyone is going to learn from people standing in front of a whiteboard—I know I definitely didn’t. With climate education, I look at it not just as making climate more prominent, but also as a way to rethink how we see education as something that prepares us for the future, instead of being about passing exams, so we can do another set of exams, which we can then pass to do a job.
You started out in climate activism work when you were 10, and you’re now 18. What have you learned since then about the most effective strategies in climate campaigning?
The biggest thing I’ve learned is that you can’t do anything by yourself. Going back to when I was 10 (which is eight years ago now—I feel very old), in school you learn a lot about individuals: Gandhi, Mother Teresa, Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King. You are taught that these individuals changed everything. I’m not saying they were not influential, but they didn’t do anything by themselves: There were thousands and thousands of people who took part.
So perhaps when I was 10, I thought, “I have so much power, I can do everything by myself.” Not true. I’ve learned that there are loads of things I can’t do, but for all the things I can’t do, someone else can. I’ve learned that there is so much power in community and in collective action, and that no individual can achieve everything by themselves.
As a society, do you think we underestimate what young people are capable of?
Yes, definitely. I think the school strikes are a good example, as we’ve achieved so much. In September 2019, we had 350,000 people strike—that wasn’t just young people, adults joined us too, but it was young people who organized the protests.
There’s so much stuff that goes into it. Especially the logistical, boring stuff that you perhaps don’t think about, like getting permits from the council, making sure you have stewards and that people are safe, finding first aiders in London—we had to train them because we didn’t have enough—all of these things. They’re hard. They’re things people get paid to do in event planning, and we were doing that with basically no money. Most of us had no academic qualifications and no previous experience. That’s enormous, and it shows how much young people can do, no matter how underestimated we are. We got basically every trade union in the UK to strike with us. And for kids to do that—kids who are too young to even join those trade unions—is massive.
What have you learned about the value of facing the system from the outside using direct action tactics like the climate strike, versus changing the system from within by working on policy with MPs?
People usually either choose to do things as a political pressure group, or they choose to be a protest pressure group, but they don’t do both. I have done both, which is weird, and I think people probably have mixed opinions about that. But I think it has been good, because the two have informed each other.
Being involved in protest keeps me accountable when it comes to working inside parliament. When you’re working within the system, you’re pressured to water down your asks, to be more realistic, to do things that won’t annoy MPs, because any win is a win and we don’t want to destroy our bill. The ambition from the protesting side of me keeps me accountable when it comes to fighting for parts of public policy that I don’t want to be taken away.
Writing policy probably makes me a better protester, because I can see exactly where the pitfalls are and where we can get more influence. The school strikes were nonviolent direct action. I’d say we were successful even though we didn’t get material change, because things did happen, like the UK becoming the first country to declare a climate emergency. (There was no policy backing to it, so success has limitations.) But the reason that worked was because we disrupted things.
One of the things I never want to do is become desensitized to people’s suffering. When you’re protesting, you’re protesting with people from all walks of life, all ethnicities, socioeconomic backgrounds, and nationalities—you can see what’s at stake. The people you’re protesting for are always there. Whereas in policy, they’re not.
When we think about writing policy, there’s a stereotype of the people who do that. But you’re showing that teenagers can be part of the process. What do you want people to know about who can write policy and how people outside the bubble can get involved?
It’s been a very weird experience—as a disabled, working-class, BAME teenage girl with a fairly thick Brummie accent, I’m so out of place in Westminster.
I think laws should be written or informed by people whom they affect, and that’s one of the reasons why I got into writing policy. I would argue that for all of the time I was unable to vote, I knew way more about current affairs than the majority of people who did. I actually began contributing to the climate education bill when I was 15. So I was writing policy before I could vote. I got no say in anything and neither did any other young people, because we’re so dismissed, even though we have a great stake in our future and also in our present.
I wanted to make sure we had young people’s voices in parliament. And because I taught myself so young, I had the academic credentials to fall back on when people questioned why I was there. Everyone has a place in policy, because policy is for everybody and should be informed by everybody.
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