James Murray's speech to the National Sustainable Schools Conference
I was delighted to be invited to speak here today, not least because I owe my environmentalism, and therefore my career, to teachers. Or four specific teachers to be exact.
The first two were my parents.
They say you can't choose your parents, but if you could teachers would be a good bet. Obviously, there's a temptation to plump for an astronaut or a Premiership footballer or a Silicon Valley billionaire, but let's be honest, they'd be away a lot.
Teachers, in contrast, tend to be present, which as a grumpy teenager you don't always appreciate, but as an adult looking back you absolutely do.
I was lucky enough to grow up in the East Anglian countryside and because my parents were able to enjoy the long holidays that remain one of the professions big upsides we spent a lot of time outside. And not just in the fields of North Essex, but thanks to a tent and a somewhat battered caravan in the Lake District and Cornwall and Wales and Scotland and France and Switzerland.
Long before all those studies confirming a child's development benefits from engagement with nature I was lucky enough to be treated to an informal environmental education.
Since having our own children two years ago one of the most heartening developments my wife and I have seen is how this research is now being applied through both the Forest School movement, wider attempts to get outdoor learning on the curriculum, and, of course, our hosts today at Sustainability and Environmental Education.
The other two teachers who pointed me on the way to a career as an environmental journalist were my geography teacher Mr Wright and my economics teacher Mr Wallace.
I still remember the critical lessons.
I remember coming into the classroom after break to discover an intricate diagram on the blackboard that Mr Wright had clearly spent considerable time slaving over.
It detailed the greenhouse effect and I remember even then - this was the early 90s - thinking 'if we can't solve this we're screwed'.
I also remember, several years later, Mr Wallace teaching us about externalities.
Externalities are the market failure where a product or process has impacts that are not reflected in the market price, the most obvious example being the pollution a company emits but does not have to pay for.
I still clearly remember hearing about externalities for the first time and thinking 'this means the whole underlying theory on which our market economies are built doesn't work'.
As Lord Stern was to observe a decade later in 2008, climate change is the biggest market failure the world has ever seen. We are still striving to work out how to correct it.
Twenty years on from those lessons my career at BusinessGreen is still focused on trying to answer the questions they prompted.
How do we stop the climate crisis escalating into a planetary-scale catastrophe?
How do we organise our economy to correct the market failures that created this crisis?
How do we build a sustainable economy without compromising the health, prosperity, and innovation that has come from our current system?
The best answer the world has come up with, and possibly the only answer available, is provided by the full spectrum deployment of low carbon policies, technologies, processes, and business models at an unprecedented pace and scale. It is that which we report on every day at BusinessGreen.
Essentially what needs to be delivered is the construction, in a matter of a few decades, of a global green economy.
The completion of a sustainable industrial revolution before most of us have reached retirement and before a child starting school today has reached their 40s.
The way I like to think of it is that if Justin Bieber tours for as long as Bob Dylan, his career should culminate in him touring in a near zero emission world - which would be kind of bitter sweet I guess.
Another way of looking at it is when a child starting school this September comes to sit their A-levels the UK power grid should be almost entirely free of fossil fuels and our roads should be filled with electric vehicles.
What is rarely understood is the epic scale of this undertaking, both in terms of the terrifying nature of the risks we face and the exciting and rewarding nature of the opportunities.
All of which brings me to the other reason I was so pleased to be asked to speak here today on this topic; because if we succeed at delivering this low carbon revolution we are going to create a lot of new careers.
We are going to make millions of new jobs that need filling.
And we are going to need a motivated, highly skilled and committed young workforce to take up those roles.
Which means if we are to avert a planetary crisis you and your colleagues have an absolutely critical role to play - so, no pressure then.
The question for today is what do we need to teach and what do we need to learn, to prepare young people for a place in an economy undergoing such convulsive change and an environment facing such critical challenges?
What is the green career advice we should offer?
The first answer is, if I'm honest, pretty depressing. But it is, I think essential, and if you disagree then luckily I will finish on a much more upbeat note.
The World Meteorological Organisation confirmed last month that atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gas emissions are at their highest level in 800,000 years.
Meanwhile, global temperature and extreme weather records are being set on a near annual basis.
The UN Environment Programme warned last month that based on current emission reduction pledges, we are on track for at least 3C of warming this century.
A Guardian analysis suggests that at such levels of warming, sea level rises could result in Miami, Tokyo, Shanghai, and Bangkok all being inundated.
Military advisors warn the impact on water supplies and food production in tropical and sub-tropical regions will lead to the biggest refugee crisis the world has ever seen.
A few years ago the scientist Stephen Emmott staged a sell-out show at the Royal Court theatre called 10 billion about the environmental crises the world faces as it seeks to feed a growing population.
In it he told of a colleague who when asked how he would prepare his son for these challenges replied that he would 'teach him how to use a gun'.
Now, I wouldn't go that far.
None of these apocalyptic scenarios is guaranteed and we still have the ingenuity and the ability to avert them.
However, what is beyond dispute is that we are conducting a massive experiment on both the atmosphere and the biosphere, and there is no reserve planet available if it goes wrong.
Students today are amongst the first generations to be born into the Anthropocene - the geological era defined by mankind's impact on the planet.
We exist in a different geological time to that of our grandparents, which is both exciting and terrifying when you think about it.
I understand there is an argument that we should soft-pedal these realities when teaching children about the world they live in.
No doubt the Daily Mail is poised and ready to run stories about the teachers who terrify 10 year olds with tales of environmental apocalypse.
But if one of the jobs of education is to prepare people for the world in which they live, then it would be a dereliction of duty for of us not to inform young people of the epoch-defining environmental changes that are shaping that world.
If they live in a city where flood risks are rising with global sea levels, then they deserve to know.
It is for this reason why leading thinkers such as Yuval Noah Harari and others are asking serious questions about how we teach young people about climate change and the skills they will need for the world of tomorrow.
Across every subject that teaches young people about the world - across physics, chemistry, biology, geography, and yes, literature, history, politics, and economics - the seriousness of the environmental trends we face has to be properly communicated and given due importance within the curriculum.
That's the bad news. Here's the good news.
As well as being born into the Anthropocene, children today have been born into the biggest and most important technological revolution since the first Industrial Revolution.
A child leaving school this year will have started their formal education when renewables accounted for less than five per cent of the UK's power mix and coal accounted for over a third. They will leave school with renewables accounting for a quarter of the mix, coal accounting for less than nine per cent per cent, and low carbon sources delivering more than half the UK's electricity.
We have gone from renewables powering one in every 20 light bulbs in your school to one in every four.
When a child leaving school this year entered primary school electric vehicles literally did not exist, beyond milk floats. Now, the most desirable cars on the planet are electric.
Globally the cost of solar power has fallen more than 80 per cent since 2008 and the cost of wind power has halved. Energy storage technologies are seeing similarly rapid cost reductions.
The green economy in the UK is estimated to be worth £43bn and employs nearly 450,000 people.
Crucially, these jobs span a vast array of skill sets from waste management and advanced engineering roles to finance and law.
Better still, these trends are accelerating.
Last month the government released its long-awaited Clean Growth Strategy. You would be forgiven for missing it as it did not get the coverage it deserved, but if you get a chance to read it you will discover nothing less than a blueprint for the complete transformation of the UK economy and its supporting infrastructure over the next two decades.
Among many other things it sets out plans to end the use of coal power by 2025, ban the use of fossil fuel cars and vans by 2040, drastically increase the use of renewables, and explore new technologies for decarbonising the UK's heating technologies and industrial sites.
It proposes billions of pounds of new investment in clean technologies, greener business models, and low carbon infrastructure.
It all but confirms young people will see their careers play out in a world where many of the technologies and processes we regard as familiar will quite simply disappear.
The implications for investors, consumers, entire industries, geo-politics, and, of course, the career prospects of people entering the workforce, are simply enormous.
Preparing young people for a career in the fossil fuelled economy risks becoming like teaching a teenager in 1900 how to work on a whaling ship.
Or instructing a school leaver in 1920 how to shoe a horse and repair a cart.
Or giving a student in 1980 lessons on how to use a typewriter.
Such a focus on the technologies of yesterday is perhaps understandable, but it is ultimately short-sighted.
How should the education system and the teaching profession respond to this huge opportunity?
The first point is obvious.
Climate change is at its root an engineering problem. And to overcome it we are going to need engineering skills.
Consequently, the education system needs to meet the perennial challenge of delivering more graduates with science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) skills.
We need to teach children maths. They might not want to learn maths, but that's what we have to do.
If there was a simple way to improve the UK's STEM skills base no doubt we would have done it by now, but we have to keep redoubling our efforts to engage young people with science and engineering skills - and I say this as an English graduate and journalist whose technical skills are so weak I struggle to change a lightbulb.
You'll know far more than me about how it should be done, but I imagine finding more effective ways to link the central role of STEM to both the world we live in and some of the most exciting, inspiring and well remunerated industries in the world must play a central role.
However, there also has to be a recognition that this goes far beyond a narrow, utilitarian requirement to churn out more graduates who understand how to calculate the output from a wind turbine.
At BusinessGreen we have a joke that we cover the environment and the economy, which means we cover everything.
The thing is, it is not a joke, it is true.
The natural world is at the root of everything and consequently we can engage with it and the issues it faces through everything.
Through literature and history and art, as well as through geography and science and economics, there are ways to highlight how the environment shapes the world we live in.
We are well aware of the economic reading of the classics. How Jane Eyre or Oliver Twist or the Merchant of Venice are shaped by the economic fault lines they reflect, but there are environmental interpretations available as well.
We teach children about the historical events that shape the modern world, while often neglecting to mention the deforestation or industrial pollution that shaped geopolitics as much as any coronation or parliament.
Moreover, any part of the curriculum that deals with how the world is now - that is to say almost all the curriculum - can incorporate how the vast majority of global political and business leaders now recognise that sustainability is an imperative, not a luxury.
This is not a case of politicising education, but a simple recognition that our economy is built on finite natural resources and littered with polluting externalities.
As such husbanding those resources is an essential lesson, which we as a society should absorb as quickly as possible.
This same thinking can and should apply to careers advice.
I can't remember who first said it, but one of the best responses to the question 'what can I do about climate change' remains 'do what you are good at'.
Any skill set can be applied to driving forward the green economy if only people understand the importance of doing so and can be inspired to lend their shoulder to the wheel.
We need to see apprentices in plumbing and building and mechanics who understand the importance of resource efficiency and appreciate the way these industries will change as a result of the low carbon transition.
We need bankers and farmers and doctors who recognise how climate change will present new challenges and opportunities for their sectors.
And we need politicians and journalists and, of course, teachers who can communicate how the world is changing to as wide an audience of possible.
I'd like to finish with my two favourite quotes on education and children - like I say, I am an English graduate.
It was G. K. Chesterton who said "education is simply the soul of a society as it passes from one generation to another".
As we pass our shared natural world from one generation to the next it would be remiss of us not ensure that the soul of our society contains an appreciation for and understanding of that natural world.
The second quote comes from the American novelist Dave Eggers and it is one I aspire to live up to, but obviously struggle with from time to time. "The raising of a child is the building of a cathedral. You can't cut corners."
Failing to teach young people about the fragility of the environment and the immense, sweeping opportunity to create a healthy, clean, and sustainable society amounts to cutting corners, when we should be building a cathedral.
James Murray was speaking at the SEED National Sustainable School Conference
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