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Insight 22/06/2022

Connecting education and climate change

Alongside the ongoing learning crisis exacerbated by Covid-19, it remains as urgent as ever for education systems to respond to climate change. In many countries, extreme weather, floods and droughts are already causing disruption to schools and research shows that climate vulnerability is detrimental to learning outcomes. At the same time, emerging evidence shows education as a valuable tool for helping people adapt to climatic shocks, calculate risks and embed sustainable practices in their daily lives. So, what do we know about the role of education in the fight against climate change and what further research is needed to effectively address the intersecting crises of learning and climate?

In recent months, we have noticed growing noise around education within climate change circles – and vice versa. This includes COP26 where education leaders made pledges around climate education. Many policymakers now view global education and tailored climate change education (CCE) as an effective tool for climate adaptation and resilience. Others suggest that education can even help to mitigate the effects of climate change, with links made between higher educational attainment and the creation of ‘green’ specialists and lower birth rates.  

While some of these links present important opportunities, others are controversial or lack evidence and contextual nuance – such as the narrative connecting girls’ education with change to growth and lower emissions. Meanwhile, practical questions remain around ‘what works’ in delivering effective climate change education (CCE); how to make education systems more resilient; and the role of education as potential climate change mitigation strategy. At Education Development Trust we are trying to answer some of these big questions. We are currently concentrating research efforts on two key areas to help educators and policymakers respond to this global emergency. 

  1. How to maximize climate education  

Over the past few years there has been a push towards climate literacy with various CCE initiatives emerging globally. The idea is to empower students with the science and facts behind climate change challenges and solutions, address climate anxiety and maintain hope, and give young people the practical skills to adapt to a world impacted by climate change. It also has the potential to change attitudes and increase young people’s personal responsibility to the environment and encourage more sustainable behaviours. Recently, UNESCO undertook a curriculum review, mapping what each country’s CCE curriculum looks like, but its relative infancy means more research is needed to understand the effectiveness of each approach. 

Education Development Trust is conducting a piece of public research to explore the scope of climate education globally and what it looks like in different settings. Early findings suggest that learners do not always ‘click’ with content because it is contextually irrelevant. Climate education also has a tendency to focus on one or other of climate science and behaviour change, when the likely solution is a more blended approach (more research is needed here, too). Equally, a one-curriculum-fits-all approach is causing challenges in poorer contexts with proposed lessons mismatched to available resources and teacher capacity. The sheer breadth of the topic, too, – which can encompass scientific explanations, building transferable ‘green skills’ and developing ‘pro-environmental’ attitudes leads to confusion around what CCE is and what it aims to achieve. There is no doubt a key role for CCE in schools, but curriculums must consider capacity, the wider education system and context, as well as sensitivity around where to lay responsibility (including financial) for climate change mitigation.  

  1. Students and schools as champions of change 

From our work in sub–Saharan Africa and wider research, we know that many of the coping mechanisms adopted by families in times of climatic shocks are detrimental to livelihoods, education and learning attainment. Long treks for water, additional caring responsibilities and child marriage are just some of the negative indirect impacts, with marginalised groups, including girls, often the worst affected due to existing societal inequalities. Strategies are required to ensure continued schooling and young people themselves are increasingly held up as important agents of change. 

In Kenya’s arid regions which are particularly vulnerable to extreme weather events of high temperatures, droughts and floods, Education Development Trust is conducting a unique study exploring the opportunities and barriers for young people to be champions and key drivers of climate literacy and meaningful action in their communities. The research is looking at where children get knowledge on climate change and is gathering perspectives from parents, head teachers, teachers and the immediate community, as well as the children themselves. 

The overarching goal is to develop a framework that helps the local community integrate young people to strengthen its knowledge base for decision making and actions to better adapt to the impact of climate change. It is expected that this could instigate transformational changes in knowledge interactions that incorporates young people and girls, as well as climate change leadership that will inform education climate proofing, resilient livelihoods at the local level.   

Early findings from this study suggest that learners, out-of-school youth, and community members have a limited understanding of climate change with the majority of both in-school and out-of-school youth attributing climate change to community practices such as charcoal burning and others attributing it to long-held superstitions. 

Our research to date

Over the last few years, we have supported governments, donors and partners to connect the dots between climate change and education. We also have explored the nexus between education, climate change and gender, identifying gender as a key driver of vulnerability to climate change and examining the extent to which educated women and girls can become agents of change within the crisis. Connections between girls’ education and climate change were also explored in the context of crisis and conflict in the INEE Mind the Gap report which our consultants authored with INEE and others.  

Within our alternative pathways approach to girls’ transitions post-primary school in Kenya, we are also seeing how TVET, a popular accredited vocational training course, can connect students to sustainable livelihoods. 

Meanwhile, reflecting inwards on the environmental impact of our programmes, we have worked with NORAD (Norwegian Agency for Development Cooperation) to see how we can make education projects and procurement more climate friendly; and our FCDO Girls’ Education Programme (GEC) programme in Kenya and TARGET programme in Ethiopia calculates its environmental impact on a monthly basis, with consideration for flights, cars, electricity and office electricity usage. Globally, Education Development Trust has a Carbon Reduction Plan with targets for reducing our emissions as an organisation. 

Looking ahead

Throughout the rest 2022 and into next year, we will be continuing to investigate best practices in climate change education and the power of young people in responding to the climate crisis. As we explore unknown territory, we are keen to hear from others working in this space to share knowledge, challenges and findings.

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