Hong Kong’s new Climate Action Plan 2050 outlines a comprehensive decarbonisation vision for the next few decades. However, the plan overlooks the importance of climate education in Hong Kong. What opportunities do schools and educators have to support Hong Kong’s decarbonisation despite its marginal role within the plan? What lessons from psychology can we learn to promote climate messages in the classroom more effectively?

On October 8 2021, the Hong Kong Government unveiled its new Climate Action Plan 2050, setting out an ambitious vision for decarbonising Hong Kong and combating climate change, which includes achieving net-zero electricity generation, promoting energy-saving buildings, popularising green transport and encouraging waste reduction.

These goals indicate the government’s recognition that tackling climate change in Hong Kong effectively requires simple mitigatory measures but also fundamental changes in how we interact with the environment in the long run. As Secretary for the Environment Mr Wong Kam-sing says, the extent to which Hong Kong will be able to achieve its goal of carbon neutrality will heavily depend on the participation of local actors, in particular their willingness to support and take advantage of “green” developments in the city.

One can immediately notice the centrality of the industrial sectors within the strategies. Their strong incorporation positively represents an understanding from the government that it is essential that we “greenify” everything: our homes and workplaces, our transport systems and options and our food and so on; that we “greenify” the means to which we conduct our day-to-day activities within the city. To facilitate this industrial “greenification”, the plan emphasises interdisciplinary collaboration between sectors and regions, the development of a green finance infrastructure and innovation and technological development, in hopes that we may summon the brightest minds to come and solve Hong Kong’s climate crisis.

However, the new policies have overlooked a key ingredient to effective climate action: education. While the policy documents do mention the importance of education and professional training, they appear to only play a peripheral role.

Why Has Climate Education in Hong Kong Been Ineffective?

Within the plan, the government describes two objectives for education: “capacity building” and “enriching learning content”. With regard to the former, the government wishes to “nurture talent … [and enhance] cooperation and exchange among universities and tertiary institutions … [to allow] teachers and students [to] equip themselves with up-to-date and relevant professional knowledge and skills”. With regard to the latter, the government believes that the “[strengthening of] learning materials and [the provision of] diversified learning experiences [can] enhance students’ awareness … [and therefore] promote low-carbon transformation”.

These two objectives are highly interdependent. Hong Kong’s decarbonisation, in the long run, cannot be possible without nurturing “green” expertise; a greener workforce will be key to expanding Hong Kong’s green economy. Yet, we cannot just have “technicians” reduce our carbon footprint for us; citizens should also actively lower their footprint through their actions and habits.

Despite such understanding, the overall plan appears to prioritise the former objective significantly over the latter. The key aim of the plan seems to be to “change technology first”: by first creating the “green” system, we can then “insert” our citizens into this new system.

This passive logic raises questions: if citizens are only “spoon-fed” changes, they may not be able to develop the proactiveness needed to help the system evolve through time. For example, if the government wishes to popularise electric vehicles but does not encourage citizens to be conscious about their carbon footprint when travelling around the city, then the number of vehicles on the road may not decrease and congestion problems may persist. When there is uncertainty, they may not adapt; when there is an opportunity, they may not rise.

It is not the curriculum per se that is the problem; climate education in Hong Kong has always emphasised the importance of climate awareness and personal responsibility. It is the way in which the curriculum is being taught that is perhaps hindering the effectiveness of climate education in cultivating citizens capable of identifying and willing to implement their own solutions.

One of the major barriers to effective climate action globally relates to the perceived distal nature of climate change. This is also the case in Hong Kong. As a survey conducted by the Hong Kong Public Opinion Research Institute (HKPORI) and commissioned by Civic Exchange in 2020 showed, most Hongkongers do not see climate change as an immediate threat and therefore do not feel an urgent need to act for the planet. So what has been ineffective about climate education today?

The ineffectiveness of climate education stems not from its lack thereof in Hong Kong, but from a lazy assumption about education itself: that action naturally follows knowledge. Learners, upon receiving information about climate change, are assumed to immediately recognise the significance of climate change and naturally acquire the motivation to transform themselves and the world.

As a result, education systems around the world have often only done the bare minimum. Topics related to climate change appear only as a chapter in a textbook to be briefly touched upon. These “information campaigns” often leave students with abundant knowledge but not the will to convert what they have learnt into meaningful action. As founder of Outdoor Wildlife Learning Hong Kong Dr. Xoni Ma points out, “everyone realises the issue” but “not everyone goes green”. Even when schools organise awareness-raising activities, they are often held as stand-alone events, thus failing to cultivate genuine low-carbon and sustainable lifestyles in the long run because they have not been encouraged to do so within their educational settings.

So how can climate education more effectively foster climate agency in Hong Kong, “the capacity to positively influence the collective future through transformative change”?

Changing Climate Education: From Fear to Power, Knowledge to Responsibility

A growing line of research in climate change activism and education has been in “climate psychology”. Climate psychology studies how human psychology and other behavioural tendencies can galvanise or impede collective action for the environment. Understanding climate psychology allows us to improve our methods of teaching about climate change in the classroom.

It is increasingly recognised today that pathways to transformative climate action are rarely initiated only through the presentation of objective facts and figures, but also through attention to the emotions of students that “attest to their underlying care, concern and connection to the natural world ”. While more educators are aware of the importance of emotions that may be provoked through powerful stories of crises (e.g., the devastating impacts of typhoons on Hong Kong) and  remarkable actions taken by particular individuals, not all kinds of emotional appeals are effective, however. Widely believed that fear necessarily drives action, educators have often relied on dystopian images to “threaten” or “guilt-trip” students into action.

These manipulative tactics rarely succeed. Firstly, as discussed, if climate change is seen only as a distant issue, then it is hard to generate a sense of existential fear great enough to spur “life-saving” action. Secondly, these fearmongering or blameful tactics may only alienate rather than unite. As Norwegian climate psychologist Per Espen Stoknes suggests in an interview, feelings of fear, guilt and doom do not necessarily enhance the willingness to change but only turn people away from these messages because they do not want to feel bad. As a result, there is no individual action and there is no collective action.

To overcome this misconception properly, many like Stoknes argue that positive messages may actually be psychologically more effective. When students believe that they can actually make a difference and realise we are “all in this together”, they may be better motivated to do their part for the environment. Compared to negative messages, positive messages are more effective tools in affirming individuals in their ability to enact change.

What is important to climate education today, hence, is to instil in students a sense of confidence in their own ability to make a difference. Even within the limited physical confines of the average Hong Kong classroom, this is still possible. Students are no longer simply fed a list of what comprises a “low-carbon” or “sustainable” lifestyle or society, but are empowered by the realisation that their actions crucially shape the future, and are therefore emboldened to explore the possibilities of action beyond the classroom.

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But How Can We Sustain Motivation to Act?

Without a genuine realisation of the importance of action and responsibility towards our environment, climate action cannot be sustainable. Take the recent implementation of the Municipal Solid Waste charge as an example. This scheme may discourage wastefulness by promoting a passive financial disincentive to polluters; but in the long term, as Dr Winnie Tang from the University of Hong Kong argues, citizens will need to be able to recognise their active responsibility and ability to do more in protecting the environment without government “orders”. To complement waste reduction policies, she says, citizens should consider practices of “upcycling” – transforming unwanted products into new ones.

To sustain environmental behaviour in the long run, it is therefore useful to help students understand why changes are worth pursuing. One way is to promote what social psychologists refer to as “attitude inoculation”. Attitude inoculation refers to the process whereby students are exposed to counterarguments (e.g. climate change denialism) and then encouraged to reflect and develop their own responses. This mode of education may be more effective and sustainable in bringing about behavioural changes, not because students have been “policed” into making these changes, but because they will have intellectually convinced themselves about their decisions and actions. Such a process is open-ended not because it expects no answer, but because it recognises the diversity of ways to act as a responsible individual.

It is not knowledge but attitude that is at the centre of climate education. For example, the plan outlines comprehensive guidelines for promoting energy-saving buildings in Hong Kong. Climate education is thus not necessarily about understanding complex concepts such as retro-fitting and retro-commissioning, but about inviting people to think about what they can do in the present to support these goals. For instance, how can we save energy at home without having to keep our air-conditioners on all day during the hot summer? What are some natural ventilation tricks?

Challenges and Opportunities for Climate Education in Hong Kong

It is, however, not easy to implement such an ambitious and open-ended form of climate education in Hong Kong. According to a study in 2017, many teachers still believe that climate consciousness should be assessed through examinations and assignments. Climate change education is often still seen merely as an academic endeavour rather than a meaningful means to social change.

Furthermore, climate education is taught only as a small part of subject curricula. In primary school, climate education is only a small part of the General Studies syllabus; in early secondary school, climate change is only briefly discussed in the Liberal Studies curriculum. While the Education Bureau (EDB) hopes that the curricula can help students realise the effects of climate change on Hong Kong and promote action, there are very few opportunities for students to engage in discussions about climate change at school.

Indeed, especially since the COVID-19 pandemic, we have seen a rise in the number of young climate activists in Hong Kong and a reassuring increase in school involvement in city-wide initiatives that promote climate awareness through the Hong Kong government’s Environmental and Conservation Fund (ECF). Student-led environmental projects have proliferated in recent years as well. However, because of the demands of academic work and because they contribute little to exam grades, it is hard to lengthen the duration or expand the scale of these activities. Meaningful changes within school communities are therefore often hard to bring about.

But interestingly, the “academic constraints” also reveal opportunities for climate education: because the possibilities for climate action are endless and because there exists no “ultimate solution” ever known to man, climate action can be a personal and creative enterprise. Climate education and action need not be confined to a set curriculum or assigned a specific time of day to take place but can be actualised within the ordinary workings of school life, where students and staff all cultivate environmentally friendly and sustainable habits and practices. Climate action need not be complicated; they start with simple habits in life.