For nearly 30 years, many governments have acknowledged education as an important element in national and global efforts to combat climate change and for setting the stage for a sustainable future. As with the original U.N. climate treaty of 1992, it is even included in an article of the landmark 2015 Paris Agreement along with such interlocking issues as training and access to information.
Yet despite this understanding and many inspiring examples of projects and best practice—often led by determined NGOs and passionate teachers—climate literacy often remains on the fringes of education systems, if it is there at all. Could this all change in 2021—the year when governments everywhere are supposed to ratchet up ambition on climate action?
Growing momentum for climate education
There is certainly real momentum building across the globe toward a strong outcome on climate education and environmental literacy with less than seven months to go until the next U.N. climate conference (COP26) in Glasgow, Scotland in November.
This momentum is coming in large part from a new and refreshing aligning of diverse interests committed to stepped up ambition on climate education now and over the years to come spearheaded by groups such as EARTHDAY.ORG and Save our Future.
In the past six to 12 months, teachers, labor organizations, youths, women’s and justice groups, researchers, and environmentalists have joined forces under unique alliances to demand quality and compulsory climate education for all.
These movements now represent hundreds of millions of people from almost every corner of the Earth and are growing daily. A recent Brookings report, “Unleashing the creativity of teachers and students to combat climate change: An opportunity for global leadership,” highlights the power of this moment, noting the diverse coalitions of actors across the globe interested and ready to scale successful climate literacy approaches.
The immediate focus over the coming weeks—that builds on Earth Day 2021 week’s Teach4thePlanet manifesto of close to 33 million unionized teachers under Education International and on the recent UNESCO World Conference on Education for Sustainable Development—is catalyzing action among education ministers.
While they are not perhaps directly responsible for the outcomes of climate and environmental agreements, their determination and political influence will be crucial for their environment and foreign affairs colleagues who are responsible and in determining their national curricula.
The next big opportunity to do this is the G-20 Education Ministers’ Meeting 2021 in Sicily later this month under the Italian G-20 presidency.
In a statement to the ministers and the G-20 published this week, these alliances have joined hands to say that quality climate education is also linked to strong civic engagement and key to better decisionmaking by governments, the creation of green jobs, and the building of a stronger and more sustainable 21st century economy.
The statement recognizes the importance of efforts by governments focused on renewable energies and the electrification of transportation systems—these efforts, along with smarter more efficient buildings and the greening of financial flows, will be crucial to realizing the aims of the Paris Agreement.
But it also states that without the behavioral and cultural change made possible through climate education and environmental literacy, the long-term goal of “net zero” carbon emissions by 2050 (a target widely regarded as the safety line) will be tough to realize—if not impossible. This point was corroborated in a recent Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences paper by scientists from close to 20 research centers.
Research suggests, for example, that individual behavior changes around food and waste, agriculture, transport, and heating can reduce emissions by 20-37 percent—vital reductions for the world to keep climate change in check and within science-based safety limits, the statement argues.
Support for action by COP26 is emerging everywhere. Guy Ryder, the director-general of the U.N.’s International Labor Organization, for example wrote on Earth Day 2021 that “The effects of climate change will alter the structure of employment. New jobs and new job families will emerge, others will disappear or become unsustainable, and enterprises will have to find ways to organize work and production differently.”
“We need to prepare the youth for this changing world. Environmental education can empower students to solve the climate crisis and develop the skills, optimism and resolve to lead the environmental movement of tomorrow,” he added.
The good news is that some governments also agree. These include countries like Argentina, the Maldives, and Italy—the co-host with the United Kingdom of COP26.
In 2019 the then education minister surprised the world by announcing compulsory climate education in Italy’s school systems. This week Italy is scheduled to announce how this will be done through its ecological transition policy for education.
While the U.K. has not been so public on the issue, Dame Karen Pierce who is the British ambassador to the United States, said on Earth Day 2021 that “We really need everybody to be using all their brain power and all their potential to work out how to mitigate the effects and how to adapt (to climate change), in the most innovative, creative and sustainable ways possible. One way or another, we need to find a way to embed this in the next generation.”
With less than seven months to go to COP26, everyone everywhere who cares about our planet and the young people who will inherit it needs to voice their support for stepped-up quality climate education for all.
Almost 30 years of waiting is three decades too long. Later this month and then again in November, let us hope that governments make the bold decisions to show us all—and especially young people—that it was worth the wait.