Systems Thinking and Climate Change Education
by Raichael Lock
In this short essay I discuss systems thinking in relation to educating for sustainability and to climate change education. I refer to my experiences as an environmental educator for the Manchester Environmental Education Network1 and through my work delivering the Sustainable Schools agenda in the North West of England in the late 2000s.
Systems thinking is closely related to environmental education and education for sustainability. In the 1960s ecology re-emerged as a part of the environmental movement and its focus was to map systems, cycles and flows. An ecologist’s task is to draw a boundary around a particular eco-system or species and map out the inter-actions that occur within that boundary to gain an understanding of how the system works. More precisely, ‘The ecosystem, then, consists of a biotic community and its physical environment’2 and how they inter-relate. Systems thinking works along similar principles to ecology as it maps how different parts of a whole system work together. Therefore, systems thinking and environmental education are easy allies.
Such thinking was ground-breaking when it emerged because it challenged the Descartian view that analysing everything into smaller and smaller component parts helped science understand the world. Instead, systems thinking stated that, ‘the properties of the parts can be understood only from the organisation of the whole‘3. Systems thinking is contextual and focuses on how everything is organised and inter-related.
Stephen Sterling, in his book ‘Sustainable Education‘, describes whole systems thinking ‘as a quality of thinking and being that appears necessary to go beyond the dominant forms of thinking which are analytic, linear and reductionist‘4. In this regard educating with systems thinking needs not only being able to work with the bigger picture but also to think in circularity and in fullness.
Learning about climate change requires similar skills: we need to think through the entire biosphere interlinking cycles of gases whilst relating them to all of our everyday activities: from this perspective climate change education is an excellent example of working with systems thinking.
But thinking through, or with, systems is a specific skill and it is necessary to define how it is possible to think with the biosphere in mind.
Nolet, in his book ‘Educating for Sustainability’, describes ‘four broad skill areas’ in systems thinking which include: 1) being able to see a whole system and being able to identify the different components in the system; 2) analysing how the different components relate; 3) understanding that systems can change over time and can generate their own behaviours and finally, 4) being able to find ways to represent the exchanges that are taking place5.
But what do these skills look like in action? At its simplest systems thinking is a skill we use innumerable times a day. For example, when I am invited to work with a school to deliver sessions on climate change, I will find out what networks the school already engages with, whether they are an Eco School or a Rights Respecting School or whether they practice Forest Schools. I also consider the wider spheres of the school’s curriculum, their community and school policies, and their environmental and geographical situation. How these school systems work together directly informs how I facilitate environmental education within that community.
In this regard systems thinking has a very practical, every day, application which enables insight into the flows and systems in the field of activity. But it can also be an abstract experience and I would like to give an example of a young person working effectively with systems thinking during a MEEN event.
MEEN regularly works with young people on issues of climate change, we try to consolidate their understanding of climate change, we help them take an action to lower their school’s carbon footprint and then we facilitate intergenerational conversations so they can share their experiences. In this instance the pupil was part of a climate change exhibition at the Manchester Museum:
In this context a primary pupil approaches a tall man in a suit. I’m within earshot as a safeguarding measure but far enough away not to be a participant in the conversation. The pupil asks whether the man is concerned about climate change. He replies that he is not because scientists are working on carbon capture and storage. The pupil says she hasn’t heard of this, so he explains how it works. She contemplates this scenario then says she’s not sure it will work as a solution, firstly, because the technology is untested and we need to act now; then we would still need to extract fossil fuels which takes energy and then transport the gas to a storage site, with no guarantees the gas will not escape. She then states there are other safe renewable energy sources that could sort out the problem. He acknowledges her challenge by commenting that he hadn’t thought about all the energy involved in mining, processing and transportation and he is clearly thinking through her ideas when she asks him to step into the Carbon Classroom to look at the games they are running. He accepts. His written feedback states she, ‘Challenged my views on mining and oil extraction. Gave me good feedback,’ and he verbally stated to the MEEN coordinator that his views on climate change had been well challenged.6
Here we have an adult who presented a (relatively) abstract, low risk, closed loop system as a viable solution to climate change. The young person took that system and, thinking with the proposed system, challenged it at every step and engaging with it as an open system.
But which system description is the most accurate? The pupil pointed to the time lapse between the system’s actual creation and the urgent need to respond to climate change raising the question whether systems thinking can include time. But equally of interest was the way in which the pupil widened the sphere of inclusion by examining other systemic aspects of the Carbon Capture and Storage system which presented the possibility of risks. The participating adult had the grace to acknowledge that their thinking about a particular system had been effectively challenged by the thinking of a nine year old.
As this example shows, systems thinking is invaluable because it enables us to think about cycles and flows but deciding what to include in a system is an important matter. In another example taken from working with a high school, a group of pupils decided to feed the birds in their neighbourhood so we purchased a bird feeder and bags of seeds to see them through the Winter. But I also asked them to investigate where the seeds had come from. With a little research they discovered that there are farms in the UK which are dedicated to growing seed for the bird food market, food which is processed, packed in plastic and transported from the countryside to the city in lorries. Thinking through this system prompted questions such as why the birds were unable to eat the seed on the farms, whether creating plastic birdfeeders and packaging was sustainable and whether the farmers used fertiliser based on fossil fuels to grow the seed. Suddenly, feeding the birds was queried in its sustainability.
For systems thinking to be effective it also requires us to question the boundaries of our thinking, especially in relation to adopting sustainable solutions which, in this instance, involved planting a hedge to provide food, habitat and a living system for birds to dwell within for years to come.
If the boundaries we draw around systems really matter so to do the disturbances, such as fluctuations and feedback loops. These occur continually with Capra and Luisi describing ‘the web of life’ as a ‘flexible, ever-fluctuating network’7. But systems also have what they term ‘tolerance limits’ and they state that, ‘There is always the danger that the whole system will collapse when a fluctuation goes beyond those limits and the system can no longer compensate for it’8. They explain that, ‘The same is true of human communities’9 and, I would argue, that this is also true for climate change. As science has extended our knowledge of climate change what we used to represent as a closed loop atmospheric system has transformed into an intense and increasingly complex open system. It needs to remain open in order that we can keep adding new knowledge and climate change education similarly needs to encourage open-ended thinking.
I would also argue that systems thinking is only of use if we know how to apply our thinking and, in terms of climate change education, I want to point out that there are two key features missing: systemic action and systemic response-ability.
To turn back the clock momentarily, and to continue with the theme of human/bird relations, I would like to refer to Carson’s seminal work ‘Silent Spring’10 and ask what difference it made. By tracing the inter-actions between pesticides and birds Carson mapped out a food cycle which informed us that unless we wanted to imbalance eco-systems by the removal of top predators it was necessary to stop spraying DDT. Eventually it was banned. Some 60 years later though, we are faced with similar struggles as insecticides continue to decimate ecological systems. Companies may be using different chemicals which are impacting different parts of the eco-system but the issues are repeating themselves. This means we need to return to questions about who and what we include in our systems thinking, what we can learn from them over time and how we can implement systems that enact what has been learnt.
Applying systems thinking to England’s education system I would point out that the current curriculum limits climate change education to STEM and Geography in high schools and has virtually removed it from the primary curriculum. The secondary science curriculum boldly outlines the systems that are causing the climate to change and young people’s knowledge base in relation to climate change is generally good because of this. Ask most pupils in high school what they know about climate change and they can explain what is happening with considerable accuracy and outline the likely impacts. They have learnt how to think about climate change through thinking with systems but questions need to be asked about what elements are missing in their educational experience.
Knowing about climate change, even in a formal educational setting, can be terrifying and the young people I have worked with do not want to just know about climate change they want to do something about it. First and foremost, they want to know adults are taking appropriate action. Given the timescales scientists declare we have to take appropriate action it is unsurprising that young people have taken to the streets to demand social action: the UK government declared a climate emergency but have not planned an urgent response.
"Consequently, systemic change is vital: if schools are to become zero carbon a strategy is needed which delivers the finance and creates a practical plan for delivery. Without planning the change needed will be far too slow and many young people understand this."
Systems thinking is helpful for examining not just the relations that occur but also the blocks and young people in the climate movement are beginning to connect the blockages to the current economic system. When talking to a group of high school pupils about why the response from adults to climate change was so slow one pupil was clear it was ‘Capitalism’ and that the drive for profit was valued more than the need to safeguard the future. They were clear that this was unethical and that adults needed to think differently. It is this thinking which is leading youth climate activists to increasingly demand ‘system change not climate change’.
The stress of facing the existential threat means that young people are becoming disaffected, depressed, angry and impatient. Learning how to engage with systems thinking is helpful but systemic action and systemic response-ability need to be added to the educational offer.
So what needs to happen? We can apply systems thinking to untangle the blocks that are occurring in the response to climate change and I would posit that we need long term planning and effective policy changes.
In the education system I would suggest that one block in the system is that many adults have not received climate change education themselves and that many do not feel equipped to understand the science, the sense of urgency or how to tackle it. Teachers often feel as powerless as young people in relation to the climate emergency. Therefore, climate related continuing professional development (CPD) is necessary for school staff and not just STEM teachers, as the UK government proposed in a recent draft paper, but all staff. This could enable climate change education to become embedded across the whole curriculum as an inter-disciplinary subject.
I would also suggest that young people want to be a part of the solution: MEEN’s intergenerational learning opportunities, such as our climate classrooms, enable young people to make a valuable social contribution on climate change and there are plenty of exceptional youth led organisations, such as Fridays For Future and Teach the Future, who would welcome the opportunity to work with adults to embrace change. Another model for promoting adult focused climate change education is Manchester’s Carbon Literacy programme.
But we also need young people to be involved in the activity of change. I know of 6th form pupils who have been engaged in making decisions to decarbonise their schools, pupils that have helped raise money to deliver change, young people who have taken on responsibilities which help towards lowering their school’s carbon footprint. In other words, climate change education needs to include intergenerational social action.
We need people of all ages who understand climate change to apply their systems thinking skills to organise systemic, response-able, action in their communities. Thinking is useful but using systems thinking to devise response-able action is imperative.
1 Feel free to visit the website meen.org.uk. 2 Capra and Luisi, 2014, The systems view of life: a unifying vision. 3 Ibid. 4 Sterling, 2001, Sustainable Education: re-visioning learning and change. 5 Nolet, 2006, Educating for Sustainability: principles and practices for teachers. 6 Brown and Lock, 2018, Enhancing intergenerational communication around climate change. 7 Capra and Luisi, 2014, The systems view of life: a unifying vision. 8 Ibid. 9 Ibid. 10 Carson, 1962, Silent Spring.