Addressing climate change with outdoor learning

Answers to popular questions on climate change, rewilding and what you can do to help.

Classroom resource

We’ve consulted experts and gathered responses to common questions from young minds about climate change, sustainability and how outdoor learning can help.
This interactive poster has been designed to support learning and teaching as well as create an eye-catching classroom display. Support pupils to learn independently and find the answers by scanning the QR code on each poster.
Any of these materials can be paired with one of our talks from the RSE schools talks programme, and are ideal for use with pupils in broad general education (BGE).
 
  • I can explain some of the processes which contribute to climate change and discuss the possible impact of atmospheric change on the survival of living things. SCN 3-05b
  • I can identify the possible consequences of an environmental issue and make informed suggestions about ways to manage the impact. SOC 3-08a
  • I can investigate the climate, physical features and living things of a natural environment different from my own and explain their interrelationship. SOC 3-10a
  • I can investigate the relationship between climate and weather to be able to understand the causes of weather patterns within a selected climate zone. SOC 3-12a

ANSWERS PROVIDED BY

Dr Roger Scrutton, Honorary Research Fellow, Moray House School of Education, University of Edinburgh
Dr Scrutton’s academic journey began in 1974 at Edinburgh University, where he specialised in geology and geophysics. Retiring from his role as a Reader in Geophysics at the School of Geosciences, he embraced his passion for outdoor pursuits. Now an Honorary Research Fellow at Moray House School of Education, University of Edinburgh, Dr Scrutton explores the benefits of residential outdoor education. He chairs the Outdoor Pursuits Group within the Scottish Sports Association and is a Trustee for the Orienteering Foundation and the Friends of Benmore Outdoor Centre. As a member of the Scottish Adventure Activities Forum and the Scottish Outdoor Recreation Alliance, Dr Scrutton remains dedicated to promoting outdoor education and activities.

Why should we plant trees?

Just after the ice retreated from Britain at the end of the last glacial period, about 10,000 years ago, about 70% of Scotland was covered in woodland or forest; today, only 15% is covered. We need to replace lost forests quickly for many reasons, not least because they help to offset climate change. Concerning climate change, as they grow, trees take in and store a lot of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere during the day, when photosynthesis occurs. However, through burning fossil fuels, increasingly from the time of the industrial revolution in the early 19th Century, humanity has released a lot of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere very quickly where it has created a greenhouse effect, trapping the warmth from the sun as it is reflected off the surface of the earth  Trees help to reduce (what we call sequester) carbon dioxide and, thus, reduce the greenhouse effect. Of course, trees grow and die, and when they decay, they will release their carbon dioxide, but as long as we keep planting trees quickly, they will provide a net sequestering of carbon dioxide. We must plant more trees rapidly. Other good reasons for planting trees are that they provide a habitat for insects, birds and animals, thus offsetting biodiversity loss. Many species of trees provide us with food, and others provide wood for building, furniture, etc., but these activities must be done sustainably in keeping with our future food and building needs.  Trees also offer recreation space, help us with our health and wellbeing, and help us manage the landscape, e.g. reduce flooding.

Will rewilding solve our biodiversity crisis?

Potentially, on a step-by-step basis, but much of the task will fall on the shoulders of plants and animals. Rewilding is defined as ‘restoring an area of land to its natural, uncultivated state’ or ‘large-scale restoration of ecosystems to the point where nature can take care of itself’. However, for practical purposes, it might be just letting the land grow wild, reintroducing a species of plant or animal that was forced into extinction or simply not mowing the grass in your back garden.   Fortunately, if left to its own devices, nature is resilient and will happily recolonise land provided the local environment is favourable. One of the most spectacular examples of rewilding in Scotland and elsewhere in the UK is the reintroduction of beavers, hunted to extinction about 400 years ago. Beavers are known to be landscape engineers, which leads to multiple benefits, although there are also one or two reservations. In Scotland, beavers were reintroduced to Knapdale in 2015, but there is also a colony in eastern Scotland whose origin is a mystery. Beavers build dams across watercourses, which requires coppicing trees and thus encouraging tree growth, improving water quality and flow (moderating droughts and floods) and creating habitats for wildlife. Another successful and quite famous rewilding project began in 2001 at Knepp Estate in Kent. What was once a relatively unsuccessful farm is now a haven for a vast variety of wildlife. The transformation was triggered by running down the farm and introducing four well-known free-ranging grazing animals – cattle, ponies, pigs and deer. It seems remarkably simple! Learn more here.

Can I rewild my garden?

Yes. It depends on your garden, but here are a few things you can do. If you have a lawn, don’t mow all or part of it and let the grass grow wild. This attracts insects, including pollinators, butterflies and birds, when the grass goes to seed and allows wildflowers, essential food sources for many insects, to grow. If you have a small patch of garden, you might find space to plant a bush or small tree, which will draw down carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. Similarly, you might be able to sow some wildflower seeds. A range of different plants will encourage biodiversity. If you only have hard standing, pot plants are helpful in wilding the environment. In all of these possibilities, you can create a home for pollinators with an insect hotel and put out (squirrel-proof) bird feeders.

What else can I do to offset global warming and climate change?

Everybody can make a small contribution towards halting global warming. Many people follow all or some of the five R’s as far as consumables are concerned: refuse, reduce, reuse, repurpose, recycle. We have become a society of consumers and very often consume more than we need. Most, if not all, consumables have a carbon footprint, releasing carbon into the Earth’s atmosphere along the way from raw materials to end products. Even if they don’t have much of a footprint, such as water, in some cases, we can often still help the environment if we follow the five R’s. Our extensive use of fossil fuels as an energy source, especially since the early 19th Century, is the primary cause of global warming and its consequences.  We must move away from fossil fuels as quickly as possible and use renewable energy sources instead. Renewable energy commonly comes to us as electricity; moving to electric appliances will offset climate change. Moving to electric cars, switching to electric heating and cooking, holidaying locally and even minimal contributions, such as switching off lights, smartphones, and computers when not in use, and keeping only rooms in use warm, can all make a slight but helpful difference.

Why are tipping points important to environmental sustainability?

In any environmental system, a tipping point occurs when the following relatively small change in conditions, e.g. the extinction of a keystone species or the subsequent slight rise in Earth’s surface temperature, triggers a central, sometimes runaway, change in that system. The examples most frequently mentioned about the UK are related to what is happening in the oceans. As a result of the thermal expansion of seawater, the sea level is rising. Land ice melting and releasing water into the oceans add to the rise of sea level. Increased water run-off from land also contributes. Although scientists fear that a collapse of the Greenland and Antarctic ice caps because of global warming will trigger a sudden increase in the rate of sea level rise, predictions are that this would be perhaps as much as a century away, providing us with enough time to turn round global warming. The second tipping point of regional importance to Scotland is a sudden change in the circulation of warm and cold waters in the North Atlantic Ocean. Currently, the Gulf Stream brings warm surface water across the N. Atlantic to the west coast of Scotland. As these waters move northwards, they eventually cool and sink to the deep ocean for re-circulation. However, Greenland land ice is melting and discharging cold water into the N. Atlantic in such a way as to cause the Gulf Stream waters to start sinking earlier, i.e. further south, reducing sea-surface temperatures off Scotland’s west coast with significant consequences for our weather (ironically, colder, in contrast to global warming), renewable energy generation, marine life and fisheries. There is some evidence that the shrinkage of the Gulf Stream is already beginning, but the possible collapse of the Greenland ice sheet would create a significant tipping point.

How does outdoor learning help us to understand the sustainable development of the natural environment?

The primary reason is to understand the sustainable development of our natural environment; it is essential to experience and understand the natural environment first-hand. A lot can be learnt in the classroom, but outside, we can observe nature directly and relate that to what might be learnt indoors. A good example is biodiversity. Indoors, you might see a photograph of an insect, bird, animal or plant, but how can you observe or measure their presence in your neighbourhood and how they behave to sustain the natural environment? Another example is the weather. Indoors, you might hear about wild or angry weather, but how does this feel, and what are the consequences in your area? Is your local river in flood? By how much? Why? Climate change is affecting our food supplies – some schools now have a small garden where a variety of plants can be grown that will illustrate which are the best for protein (peas?), vitamins and nutrients (spinach?), carbohydrates (potatoes?). Growing essential foods that give a high yield for the land area they use helps to sustain the natural environment. These examples illustrate that outdoor learning is cross-disciplinary and experiential and can be linked to what you might learn in the classroom. However, another great benefit of going outdoors is that at the same time as learning differently, you probably feel a lot more relaxed – a feeling of well-being – and are more active and motivated to learn. You can collect data (on pond life, for example), experiment (put out a variety of bird seeds and observe birds’ preferences), or describe a variety of natural environments and record how you feel about them – fresh, stale, relaxing, stressful, potential for rewilding, etc. – compare a natural environment with a built environment.