Why Education is the Key to Managing Climate Change

Education that improves climate literacy builds consensus and lays the foundation for the acquisition of the specialized expertise required to solve the problems we face. Education including basic scientific literacy is a catalyst for change and a bulwark against misinformation and disinformation that impedes action. A well-informed population also serves the public interest on many other levels. People who are apprised of the threats faced by civilization can make informed decisions in their personal lives and at the ballot box. No threat looms larger than climate change and while this is a daunting challenge we still have time to avert a catastrophe. If we are to act at the required scale in the limited time we have, we need a society-wide effort that helps people to understand both the gravity and the urgency of the threat. We also need to increase awareness about what we can do.

For eleven years the Green Market Oracle has been publishing its annual Green School Series as part of its core mission to advocate on behalf of environmental education. In recent years this has expanded to include efforts to provide tools that combat disinformation. These efforts highlight the importance of education to build consensus. Providing science-based information can bring people together and galvanize support for climate action. A well-informed public may help us to bridge the political divides that separate us. Support for climate education can unite people on the right and the left, whether they are rich or poor. A 2015 survey found that 77 percent of people said education is the number one action needed to tackle climate change and this held true regardless of socioeconomic status. Climate action may even be able to unite people in the U.S. which is arguably one of the most divided nations on the planet. 

The acknowledgment of the fundamental importance of education is not new. Article 6 of the 1992 UN Rio Earth Summit treaty acknowledges climate education as an essential part of a national response to a global emergency:

“Education and training are integral in enabling citizens’ contributions to local and global efforts to meet the climate change challenge. Increased knowledge and learning about the causes and impacts of climate change affect everyday lives. People become more aware of their role as consumers and are empowered to make ethically informed decisions. Communities can contribute to a solution-oriented public dialogue while engaging local decision-makers in taking meaningful action and shaping climate policy.”

A 2019 paper published in PNAS, echoed these sentiments declaring climate education to be an essential part of the social tipping dynamics required to transform human attitudes and decarbonize our economies so that we can bring them in line with the aims of the Paris Agreement.

However, the sad reality is that we have not prioritized climate education. Rather than educate kids about climate change, the facts have been withheld and the purveyors of disinformation have provided textbooks that mislead children in American public schools. Young people have been deprived of climate education. This is the view of Sharan Burrow, the general secretary of the International Trade Union Confederation, and Kathleen Rogers the President of EARTHDAY.ORG. In an article titled, It’s time to step up climate education, they explain that billions of children have graduated from high school having learned “little or nothing” about climate change. According to research conducted by Teach the Future founder Joe Brindle, only 4 percent of students feel well-informed about the climate crisis, and 68 percent say they want to learn more. This is a tragedy and a missed opportunity to arm those who will be most affected by this global emergency with the information they need to combat it.

Progress

After decades of dithering, promising signs are emerging that buoy optimism. In recent years universities, international organizations, and national governments are increasingly prioritizing science-based climate information. At the annual UN Climate Summit in 2019 the United Nations Education, Science and Culture Organisation (UNESCO) and its partners organized a series of events to highlight the importance of climate change education and encourage countries to include strong education commitments in their Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) under the Paris Agreement. As they explained:

“Education is the most powerful element in preparing societies for the global challenges that climate change brings. It can bring about a fundamental shift in how we think and act. Through Education for Sustainable Development (ESD), UNESCO seeks to equip individuals and communities with the understanding, skills and attitudes to engage in shaping a green, low emission and climate-resilient future. UNESCO advocates for making education a more central and visible part of the international response to climate change. It seeks to support countries to mainstream climate change into their education systems and to help people understand the causes and impact of global warming today.”

In 2020 Italy announced that it would make climate education compulsory. New Zealand has introduced climate change studies into its secondary school curriculum, and other countries such as Argentina and Mexico are moving in this direction. We are also seeing governance arrangements to combat disinformation led by Finland which has developed society-wide educational efforts.

There are numerous organizations providing resources that support sustainability-focused education including Penn State’s Center for Global Studies. As reviewed by Burrow and Rogers, climate education is supported by a growing global alliance of over 350 trades unions, teachers’ associations, environmental and youth groups, representing over 400 million people. This is part of a campaign coordinated by EARTHDAY.ORG and other institutions that advocates for compulsory climate education and civic engagement skill-building. Less than a year ago, the UK’s citizens’ climate assembly proposed measures to deal with global warming led by a call for climate education. In May UNESCO, held the World Conference on Education for Sustainable Development and they said environmental studies should be standard teaching in all countries by 2025. Encouraging the teaching of climate change was also on the agenda when G20 education ministers met in Catania, Sicily in June. 

In the UK, former Schools Minister Jim Knight presented an environmental education bill that calls for “sustainable citizenship” to be taught as an integral part of the basic school curriculum. Teach the Future has advanced a Climate Emergency Education draft bill that includes a requirement for all education providers to teach students about the climate crisis. It secured the support of politicians in both the House of Commons and the House of Lords. The bill obligates schools to teach young people about the anthropogenic causes and consequences of the climate emergency and the ecological crisis as well as methods of mitigation. It includes the following funding provisions:

  • Training teachers and lecturers
  • Developing new resources
  • Creating centers to teach practical environmental skills
  • Creating boards so young people can express their opinions on action
  • Increasing the number of youth-led social actions
  • Supporting those afflicted with eco-anxiety
  • Requiring all new schools to be carbon-neutral by 2022
  • Requiring current schools to be converted to carbon-neutral grids by 2030

A recent Brookings report titled  “Unleashing the creativity of teachers and students to combat climate change: An opportunity for global leadership,” highlights the diverse coalitions of actors across the globe interested and ready to scale successful climate literacy approaches. Brookings reviewed a number of climate-focused educational initiatives including the Kingsmead green school projectSave our Future,  and Teach4thePlanet whose manifesto speaks for 33 million unionized teachers under Education International. The Brookings Institution is calling for climate action projects in all schools by 2025. Citing the growing support for climate education and environmental literacy from diverse interests around the world, they suggested that 2021 may be the year that governments commit to quality climate education

Universities 

Young people are at the forefront of climate activism. They are demanding change because they are literally fighting for their lives. For more than a decade student advocates have spearheaded fossil fuel divestment efforts at university campuses around the world. Institutes of higher learning are also responding to student demands by greening their curriculums. According to the organization Americans for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education (AASHE) there are now at least 2860 sustainability-focused academic programs offered by 672 organizations in 27 countries including 52 U.S. States and Territories and 9 Canadian provinces. 

Universities in the UK are also increasingly responding to student demands by offering classes and programs on climate change and sustainability. As reviewed by Megan Tatum, many schools across the UK are adding climate and environmental concerns to their curriculums and some are focusing on helping young people to be better advocates. At Sheffield University all students will receive a sustainability-focused education regardless of their major. Sheffield is also exploring ways that arts and humanities students can communicate sustainability issues to the general public.  

The University of Winchester has climate policies in all of its campuses, an accredited climate training program for teachers, and an activism module for undergraduates. Goldsmiths has a new MA in art and ecology that teaches artists to express ideas around climate breakdown, pollution, and biodiversity loss. Keele University has changed its geology program, moving it away from the oil and gas industry and aligning its curriculum with the UN’s Sustainability Development Goals. SOS UK is working with examination and accreditation bodies to advance climate-focused education.

Opportunity

As Brindle explains students need a climate education to enable them to meet the challenges head-on. “It’s so important that students are prepared – prepared for what lies ahead, but also prepared to make a difference in the world and change what they can for good. It’s the most important mission for any educational establishment to tackle,” said Joy Carter, Winchester’s vice-chancellor and co-chair of the UK Commission for Climate for Further and Higher Education. Governments need to step up and provide quality compulsory climate education alongside civic engagement Burrow and Rogers wrote. They are also calling for efforts to assist poorer countries with climate education.

As stated in the climate manifesto:

“The climate crisis is the greatest threat facing humanity and our planet. With little time left to reverse the current course and keep global temperature rise below +1.5°C, climate action is more urgent than ever. Education must be transformed to catalyze the fight against climate change and to support a just transition to a more sustainable world. Students have a right to gain the knowledge, skills, and attitudes necessary to sustain our world for present and future generations, and they have the right to receive an education which prepares them for the world of work in a green economy.”

Climate literacy is about understanding the urgency of the crisis and a sustainability-focused education gives people the tools to act. Perhaps most importantly, education is the key to building consensus in support of the required transformational change. This point was made convincingly by the 12 million people who participated in the People’s Climate Vote poll which found that support for climate action was above 80 percent in all countries among people with post-secondary education. 

As Burrow and Rogers wrote, “[education is the] cornerstone and key indicator of progress for every country…we need to equip future generations with the knowledge, skills, and enthusiasm to survive and indeed thrive in the decades to come. And that begins in school.” They point out that sustainable consumerism could generate a profound ripple effect. The Brookings Institute report said giving people access to climate education could augur changes in consumer behavior that could have a bigger impact than Investing in renewables.

“If we are to make the changes in energy consumption, transport, and food choices that we need to reach our carbon zero goal then the best place to start is in schools,” said Knight. People deserve to know the facts and a science-based education could help to unleash the required behavioral changes. Sustainability is imperative and it should be taught alongside core subjects like mathematics and history. 

This article is part of the 11th edition of the Green Market Oracle’s annual Green School Series. To see more articles like this click here

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