Education’s role in building back better for the planet

Girl draws the Earth using chalk

The COVID-19 pandemic is a stark reminder that we live in a socio-ecological system in which our human systems are deeply interconnected with our natural systems. Yet our education systems do not educate us to recognize, respect, or nurture this interdependency.

The zoonotic nature of the coronavirus has exposed how human-caused environmental degradation and destruction of wildlife habitats have increased human risk of exposure to new infectious diseases, not to mention contribute to the current climate crisis. At the same time, the COVID-19 economic shutdown has shown how changes in human activity can directly improve the health of the natural world. For example, climate scientists have documented decreases in air and water pollution levels in cities around the world as a result of widespread lockdown measures. The sudden halt in heavy pollution-emitting activities has demonstrated that rapid behavioral change is possible and that addressing the climate crisis is within our collective power.

But COVID-19’s positive impact on the environment will be short-lived. For long-term change, we need a radically transformative education that will change the way we humans think about, interact with, and care for each other, the natural world, and this planet. And as a result, we must change how our underlying human systems coexist with the natural world in a more sustainable, regenerative way.

What would a transformative education for climate action look like? For starters, according to a Brookings analysis forthcoming this winter, it would include basic knowledge of climate change and the development of sustainability competencies (like systems thinking and strategic thinking) and green skills (like coping with uncertainty and working within complexity) to ensure—at a minimum—pro-environmental behaviors and a green job-ready workforce capable of helping us transition to a greener economic model.

Beyond leveraging education to help us achieve such practical changes, a transformative education must also set in motion deeper epistemic changes in the way we view the human and natural world—a shift and expansion of our mindsets that enables the political transformations needed in the social and economic structures driving climate change. This means education must include a critical and historical understanding of the destructive relationship between unfettered economic growth and the natural environment. It must also address the social inequities, structural inequalities, and economic injustices underlying both the drivers of climate change and its uneven impacts. And it must illuminate how unequal relations of power are just as destructive to life on this planet as an imbalance in greenhouse gases.

Yet, realizing a transformative approach to education will be hard as its implementation would disrupt the status quo. It means highlighting the knowledge, perspectives, and experiences of marginalized, disenfranchised, and invisible populations, including indigenous populations and people of color, women and girls, and climate refugees.

Existing attempts at climate change education have very far to go. The forthcoming analysis, for instance, illustrates that the few national climate change learning strategies that exist today are focused primarily on teaching the technical aspects of climate change mitigation and adaptation. Other studies have shown that climate change education has been overly focused on low-impact technical solutions like recycling and using energy efficient lightbulbs. Far fewer strategies include attention to the social aspects of climate change and sustainable development (e.g., human rights, gender equality, and global citizenship), and high-impact action associated with political statements like avoiding air travel or adopting a plant-based diet.

A transformative approach to education would help us achieve the sustained efforts by governments and communities worldwide to take bolder measures to protect the planet. To paraphrase Einstein, we cannot solve existential crises like climate change and the COVID-19 pandemic with the same kind of thinking that led us into these crises. Even the United Nations has proclaimed that “this is a once in a generation opportunity to improve education, alongside economies, to fight the climate crisis.”

Some countries and cities have recognized the opportunity in this pandemic to ensure COVID-19 recovery plans simultaneously address the health of the environment, the economy, and human well-being. However, these “green” recovery discussions are paying little attention to building back better education systems that can help achieve these green visions. At the time of writing, out of all the plans, open letters, and academic studies included in Climate Interactive’s Green, Resilient, and Equitable Actions for Transformation database (which is tracking green COVID-19 recovery plans), only the International Energy Agency and the Oxford Smith School of Enterprise and the Environment have explicitly mentioned that education must be prioritized amid COVID-19 recovery plans. At the moment, we are clearly missing that once in a generation opportunity to transform education.

Climate change is a cross-cutting issue that involves diverse sectors such as emergency management, energy, gender, finance, health, labor, transportation, and more. If post-COVID-19 recovery strategies are our opportunity to lay the policy framework for building more resilient communities and a more sustainable society, we need to ensure a new green learning agenda is part of that.