Why introduce a new Leaving Cert subject on climate action? Geographers have been teaching these issues for years

Inserting geography content into a new subject risks the loss of a rich and long history of solution-finding

The recent public consultation around the suggested content for the new Leaving Cert subject, climate action and sustainable development, has me, as a Geographer, utterly confused.

There seems to be a big disconnect between, on the one hand, what geography now actually means and what geographers actually do and, on the other hand, what the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment (NCCA) thinks geography means and geographers do.

Why else would Minister for Education Norma Foley and the NCCA be reintroducing, under the name of a “new subject”, what geography (certainly in the tertiary sector) has been doing for decades if not centuries?

On top of this, that “new subject” is also to cover a skill set that all secondary school pupils should be taught in all schools, regardless of their chosen subjects.


I know that I am not alone in my confusion which is as widespread among colleagues working in geography in the higher education sector in Ireland and the UK, as it is among our students.

For those of my generation who grew up studying geography, the confusion might have similar roots to mine: I was born in the 1970s, when we had 325 ppm (parts per million) of CO2 in our atmosphere.

Since then, we have emitted another 30 per cent more into the atmosphere. At the time of 325 ppm CO2, in my country of birth (Germany), attention was shifting heavily towards recognising the connection between our natural environment and human actions affecting the climate. Acid rain was pouring its environmental fallout on to treasured forest regions.

The following decade, nuclear waste became the focus, as did the pollution of our rivers and estuaries. Culminating in the Chernobyl disaster in 1986, the question for society began to move from “how do we carry on with business-as-usual?” towards “what are we risking or losing by doing so?”

For me, completing my Leaving Certificate equivalent in late 1980s Belgium, with geography at its core, the question also turned towards “what do I want to do next” to allow me to better understand those questions and work towards achieving a better world.

We have not moved far since then.

Now at 421 ppm of CO2 in our atmosphere, the question we are asking is becoming more nuanced than all that time ago: “Why are we, evidently, so continuously driven to destroy our own habitat?”

That question is now, more than ever, joined by two others: “What makes it so easy for our society to ignore the warning signs, the scientific evidence that what we are observing is so harmful to our own lives?” and “what even makes it possible to deny that such harmful effects are even occurring all around us?”

The answer to those questions does not lie in the sciences to which we have traditionally turned for solutions. I knew then, as I do now, that these questions are not to be resolved through better technology. We cannot “engineer ourselves out” of the dilemma we have got ourselves into.

You are more likely to find the answer elsewhere ... It ultimately requires you to be knowledgeable not only of the physical, chemical, and biological mechanisms that are at work in nature, but also of human behaviour: the social, economic, and political forces that push us in a certain direction when we make decisions.

What is more, it was clear to me then, as it is now, that answers to those questions were likely not universally valid but would have to be developed for every different location, culture, society, in all its diversity.

How did (and do) I know all this? I studied geography (and now research and teach it). The science of geography, in the way I was taught, consisted of an understanding of the physical environment as well as the human. It consisted of making connections between the two and being fully aware that those connections are place and space specific.

Since we ran out of “terra incognita” to explore and completed our global mapping effort, geography has continued to exist and thrive by focusing on fully understanding the human-nature-landscape of our existence and our impact on planet Earth.

Alexander von Humboldt (who died more than 160 years ago) was particularly good at that, travelling through the Andes of South America and recognising already then, the link between human deforestation of the Amazon and its regional climate. Over the past 200 years, that science has grown from strength to strength.

And, yes, I am talking about the subject of geography here, which encompasses all that is contained in the suggested curriculum of the new climate action and sustainable development Leaving Cert subject on which the NCCA is currently consulting.

By the time I made the decision to further study geography at university, we had emitted enough CO2 to reach 353 ppm and we were nowhere near to approaching any kind of international consensus around the problem of environmental degradation let alone climate change.

But it was as clear to me then, as it is now, that to find solutions, you must fully understand the problem. And the way to do that was through geography. We need to look critically at the rise of our present-day society, at our economic and social systems, as well as the physical, biological and chemical workings involved in soil erosion, river flooding, coastal change, ice-formation and ice-melting, sea-level rise etc.

It is simply a necessity for at least some of us to have this overview over the human and physical interactions on our planet, to lead the teams who need to be assembled to find solutions to our self-destructive predicament.

This knowledge is what geography has given me and so many others who have studied it and who now sit in leadership positions in big international and national organisations, funding agencies, and think tanks, campaigning tirelessly for change and a better way forward. Geographers never lose sight of the interconnectedness of everything – across space and through time. There is simply no better discipline for this.

Instead of recognising geography for what it is, does and delivers, why, in our senior cycle curriculum, are we now introducing the content of geography into a new subject, risking, at best, duplication of material and, at worst, the loss of a rich and long history of solution-finding which began over 200 years ago and from which we could learn so much?

Even if the “new” subject is supposed to be less about building knowledge and more about building skill, why are we restricting important skills such as critical thinking, active listening, independent researching, and team-working (skills that all pupils should learn) to a single “new subject”?

Prof Iris Möller is professor and head of Trinity College Dublin’s department of geography