Is education standing up to the task of climate action?

People attend a demonstration calling for action on climate change during the "Fridays for Future" demonstration in Aachen, Germany, June 21, 2019. REUTERS/Thilo Schmuelgen - RC1E9DEC43B0
Editor's note:

This piece is a summary of the new report, “Roadblocks to quality education in a time of climate change.”

Amid today’s climate crisis, the global education community is faced with the reality that it has done too little too late.

Despite the evidence that education, especially of girls, has a strong role to play in both climate adaptation and mitigation, the global education community has done little to advance widescale education efforts for, by, or with K-12 children and youth in school settings around the world. Indeed, where children and youth have taken to the streets to demand climate justice, education officials and teachers have been polarized in terms of whether they should join students in their “school strike for climate,” or punish them for truancy.

This rather tepid response, however, is not isolated to youth activism, but rather is symptomatic of the education sector’s overall avoidance of climate action. For instance, SDG 4 (related to quality education) nearly sidesteps climate change, rolling it into a broader Target 4.7 that is focused on education for sustainable development, global citizenship education, gender equality, and human rights education. Climate change education, notably, receives a parenthetical acknowledgement, as part of an indicator for SDG 12 (related to sustainable consumption and production).

What explains the education sector’s lukewarm stance on climate action? Here are three reasons—from which a forthcoming Brookings report will elaborate.

1. The global education community lacks a radical vision for education. Education systems around the world continue to trumpet the neoliberal, capitalist, patriarchal values of a modern western education system. Such a system posits learners as separate from the non-human world, and positions the content that they learn as enabling them to control, dominate, and exploit that world. We see this today in the overemphasis of global education discussions around the learning crisis framed in terms of children’s inability to read or to do basic mathematics, affecting their ability to become productive and successful adults who join the labor market and sustain corporate interests. Rarely do we see the learning crisis framed in terms of children’s inability to understand concepts like carrying capacity, human dignity, or to engage in planetary thinking. This in turn affects their ability to become sustainability citizens who are not only responsible “to distant people and places and past and future generations” but also stewards of the environment and non-human life.

2. The global education community won’t value what it doesn’t measure. While the 2016 UNESCO Global Education Monitoring Report—dedicated to the thematic area of “education for people and planet,”—helped to usher the education sector into the Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) era, the global education community responded with inertia. Why? In large part, because there isn’t an effective accountability mechanism for ensuring the education sector is doing enough to prepare learners to respond to, adapt to, and mitigate against further climate change. Due to conceptual, reporting, and political challenges with measurement, there has been no data collected to date for SDG global indicator 4.7.1—the indicator that measures whether countries are delivering on the vision that all learners have the knowledge and skills needed to promote sustainable development. Setbacks continue to mire efforts by UNESCO Institute for Statistics, the Global Alliance to Monitor Learning (GAML), and other actors to develop a more fulsome data collection methodology.

3. Teachers lack the systemic support to become change agents. As a result of both the lack of radical vision and the lack of accountability, those individuals on the front lines of classrooms have not been adequately supported to be the change agents our planet needs. An NPR/Ipsos poll shows that in the U.S., 86% of teachers think climate change should be taught in classrooms, yet only 42% actually teach it. Another study conducted by the National Center for Science Education shows that more than 25% of science teachers surveyed in the U.S. “give equal time” to perspectives that raise doubt about climate change, and nearly 31% of science teachers send “explicitly contradictory messages” about the cause of climate change. While such classroom practices might be a product of teachers trying to be more inclusive of student experiences, or even a result of pressure from parents or principals to not teach climate change, researchers have shown that these reasons comprise a minority of cases. Rather, such patterns are more likely a result of teachers’ own knowledge gaps, as well as a lack of training on how to respond to misinformation about climate change that might arise in the classroom.

Despite such roadblocks, the good news is that just as we know what works to drawdown carbon emissions, we also know what the education sector needs to do to disrupt business as usual. Multilateral agencies like UNESCO, as well as regional-, country-, and local-level actors and partnerships, including Education International, the Alliance for Climate Education, and NASA in the United States, have developed resources and initiatives like the Climate Action Project that either have yet to trickle into the average classroom or remain unknown and unused. Pooling such resources into one place and learning from successful initiatives is an easy first step the global education community can take.

But the education sector cannot act alone. Instead, education should be seen as the site through which multiple sectors, including emergency management, energy, gender, finance, health, labor, transportation, urban planning, etc., can come together to “multisolve” for climate solutions—what climate leader Elizabeth Sawin describes as addressing multiple challenges through a single investment of time and resources.

The girls’ education community has done a really good job of leveraging a multisectoral, multisolving approach to address issues related to maternal and child health, sexual and reproductive health, women’s financial inclusion, labor force participation, and many other outcomes. With regard to climate change, we know that a single investment in girls’ education can: improve girls’ sexual and reproductive health and rights to ensure women can choose what size family to have, if at all, and when; build important green skills to ensure women can be part of a more sustainable, circular economy; and increase girls’ and women’s opportunities for leadership to ensure more sustainable decisionmaking. The global education community could learn a lesson or two from how the girls’ education community has harnessed ambition and resources from a diverse range of actors toward a vision of gender equality and empowerment. One would hope that rallying around a more ethical, transformative vision of education rooted in social and environmental justice for people and planet wouldn’t be so far off.

It’s time for the global education community to act and to put a stop to the misogynist shaming of kids for demanding a place at “the adults’ table.” Starting Friday, September 20, hundreds of thousands—if not millions of school children and youth (as well as concerned adults, too) from around the world—are anticipated to take to the streets to demand climate justice and an end to the age of fossil fuels.

At this critical moment on the cusp of the U.N. Climate Action Summit, it is high time that the global education community break from the status quo and support students to be the change they wish to see in the world.