Inspiration Opinion

Three reactions to the climate crisis

Scientists say the climate is reacting more quickly and more violently than expected. And that’s just the one degree of global warning that is currently baked into the system. We are on track for 2.5C and maybe more.

But why should we care?

I’m not suggesting you don’t care. Presumably at an individual level we all feel concern for the younger people in our lives who will have to face whatever the future holds.

But why should we care as providers of often short-term English language courses? Courses that, because most pupils travel by plane to us here in the UK, have very high emissions.

In recent years, we’ve not only experienced a pandemic, but massive wildfires in Australia and the USA. Droughts and heatwaves have been affecting every part of the planet. Floods in West Africa and Pakistan have displaced millions of people. Heat records were broken all over the UK in summer 2022. We saw catastrophic flooding in Germany and unbearable temperatures in Athens, Madrid and Rome.

If the crisis felt remote before, there’s no way we can pretend it’s not our problem now. And, as we all know, our emissions are helping to create and intensify the problem.

So what should language centres do? It seems there are three possible reactions to the situation:

  • One: shut up our schools, the flight emissions are just too high.
  • Two: carry on as before, it’s a losing battle and we can’t make a difference anyway.
  • Three: transform our schools in response to a changing world and as part of shaping a better future.

Three reactions

Close up shop

So what now? Things are bad and set to get worse. But what should a junior summer school like mine do about it?

I find myself in a contradictory position. On one hand I am helping encourage organisations to reduce their emissions through Green Action ELT. At the same time, I’m trying to drum up business for our summer school, knowing most pupils will fly.

It’s not a comfortable position. Should I pack up my bags and find something else to do?

While this reaction may absolve us of personal responsibility, children will still come to the UK to learn English. And, if they don’t visit my school, they’ll go somewhere else. Perhaps to a school that doesn’t discuss environmental topics in the classroom or try to reduce waste and energy use in the way that we do.

Carry on as before

Or perhaps I shouldn’t worry so much, and just get on with things.

Carry on ‘business as usual’ because we’re just one school and can’t do much about global problems anyway. Maybe it’s easier not to acknowledge the problem, or at least our part in it. Besides, we don’t want to risk putting pupils off; we don’t want to kill the goose laying the golden egg.

The problem with that position is that it isn’t very moral. And it’s short-sighted.

Are we happy taking money from parents with the promise that we are preparing their children for the future, while in the process helping putting at risk the very future that we say we are preparing them for?

While we may be losing the battle to keep global warming to 1.5C, every fraction of a degree above that will be counted in greater human misery and lives lost. Which means everything we do to cut emissions will help reduce suffering. We are morally obliged to do what we can.

Prioritising profit now over a liveable planet later, may not be good business in any case. Why are so many brands and products shouting out their commitments to carbon neutrality and a clean, green planet? They know shoppers and staff care. Whether they’re pushed to act or lie about action, they are responding to changing pressures and priorities. People, especially young people, care about sustainability.

And we can apply the same logic to our courses.

Time for transformation

So, scrapping closing the school and carrying on regardless, our third option is: do something. Respond to the situation and try to reduce our emissions as far as we possibly can.

It the right thing to do. We are facing a crisis that is already taking lives, and we must act.

Action gives us agency in a rapidly changing and often scary situation. It gives us a chance to reshape our lives, schools and communities to address other problems, like inequality, that are so entangled with the climate crisis.

It is also means responding to a topic that is increasingly important to our pupils and their families.

So where do we start?

Responses in the sector span a continuum. At one end we see superficial changes – recycling and quitting plastic cups, say. Really just tinkering around the edges and risking the charge of greenwashing if the impact of these actions is overemphasised. At the other end, organisations are examining every part of their operation to find ways to reduce emissions and use their position for positive change.

As the Green ELT movement grows, we must be careful to fall on the impactful end of the spectrum. To start with, if you have not already done so, write an environmental policy. Get together as a team and find colleagues who can lead and maintain the momentum of your environmental efforts.

Do everything you can, from food to fuel, classroom to conference.

Take action.

Adapted from a talk at the Young Learners English UK AGM 2022