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Can technology teach climate action?

How climate educators are adapting to a new digital reality

From 3–10 December, the GLF team is in Dubai reporting from COP28. Follow us here for live updates, live-streamed interviews and daily wrap-ups.

Assignments plagiarized with ChatGPT. Classrooms distracted by smartphones. Homework discarded in favor of video games. Technology can often seem at loggerheads with education, but it doesn’t have to be that way.

Day nine of COP28 is about youth, children, education and skills, so we set out to understand how people are trying to future-proof education and engage young people – and everyone else – in climate action.

The GLF is delivering live daily updates from COP28 on social media.

It’s a digital world out there

Young people are, for the most part, digital natives – they’ve grown up in a world of computers, where smartphones are ubiquitous, and they’re ‘fluent’ in technology.

The number of smartphone owners increased by more than 73 percent between 2016 and 2021, and with COVID-19 forcing much of our interaction online, more people are communicating digitally than ever before.

So much so that large parts of young people’s lives are now lived online.

“By the time that people are 18 years old, they’re spending less than 10 percent of their lives in school and more and more of their lives online,” says Kay Poh Gek Vasey, chief connecting officer at MeshMinds, a creative studio and non-profit foundation that uses technology to promote culture and the environment.

With this new tech comes new challenges, especially for knowledge, learning and education – climate or otherwise. Most notably, misinformation has proliferated on social media.

“I think one of the biggest challenges of our time, in this information age, is making sure that there’s really good content on the Internet,” Vasey explains.

“We can never stamp out the bad on the internet: there will always be misinformation, there will always be bad actors, but can we increase the quotient of good information that is verified, that comes from trusted sources?”

“How are we making sure that young people are getting the right kinds of information, that they can spot things like fake news and misinformation?” Vasey asks.

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A TikTok video from The Economist on the U.A.E.’s controversial hosting of COP28.

The old guard is embracing the new

Part of the solution could be established sources meeting young people where they’re already getting their information.

“Would you believe that The Economist is now on TikTok?” Vasey says. “They’re noticing that TikTok is revolutionizing the way that young people are communicating with each other and sharing information.”

The numbers are significant – a quarter of all TikTok users are under 20 years old, and almost half are under 30. And according to a report from November 2023, 43 percent of TikTok users say they regularly get news from the app, a 10 percent increase since last year.  

Climate content 

What’s more, these networks are increasingly being leveraged by young people for climate education and advocacy work. 

“Technology is a massive opportunity when it comes to climate change education and advocacy because it really breaks down barriers,” explains Kupakwashe Matangira, a delegate from Australian Youth for International Climate Engagement.

Knowledge on climate change from universities is now available on podcasts and YouTube. As long as we’re interested, we can readily access that knowledge.”

And it isn’t only institutional knowledge that is being shared, but lived experiences and ideas too. Yu Han Soo, a global youth ambassador with the Global Alliance of Universities on Climate, explained: “Technology makes it easier to exchange our knowledge and also share our ideas. This enhances our climate actions and allows us to know what each other are doing and trying to do in the future.”

However, in-person meeting and knowledge sharing certainly still has its place.  

“What we want to do using technology is connect people from all around the world. But when we connect people, it’s about building trust, building lasting relationships – and some of that work is best done in person,” says Susie Ho of Monash University. 

“I think what we need is a mix of digital and in-person sessions to strengthen the mutually beneficial long-term relationships that we need between the education system, between youth, business, academics and society – the kind of partnerships under SDG 17 that allow for climate action.”

Virtual reality headset
Virtual reality can be a valuable tool to teach young people to care for the planet. Minh Pham, Unsplash

Education through engagement

Another challenge that is often ascribed to technology is a drop in engagement in education: young people don’t absorb textbooks and lectures because they’re too used to short-form videos and instant feedback.

For Vasey, rather than pushing back against these trends, we should embrace them as part of educational practices.

“Rather than reverting to the traditional method of the teacher standing at the front of the classroom, we need to make sure that these amazing digital worlds and digital tools are in the hands of teachers to revolutionize how we’re getting information into our kids.”

MeshMinds created Sky Farm Island, a free-to-play Roblox game, in which you grow vegetables on vertical farms. Importantly, it’s all rooted in reality: “In Singapore, we are actually attaching vertical farms to every single residential block,” says Vasey.

“If we can get kids to play, they learn about the future of food production: aquaponics, hydroponics, what’s vertical farming? What’s sustainable urban farming? How do I grow at home?” Vasey says.

This can inspire kids to help address the issues in our food systems, which currently account for about one-third of all greenhouse gas emissions, according to Vasey.

And MeshMinds aren’t alone. There are plenty of other organizations using technology to transform climate education, from virtual reality experiences that teach people how to clean the ocean to Pillow VR, which helps promote mental well-being in these turbulent times.

“Lots of people are using these technologies for good, and that’s what I see paving the way for the future,” says Vasey.

Article tags

artificial intelligenceclimate changeCOP28educationtechnology

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