Education: A powerful response to climate change

colinBy Colin Bangay, the senior education adviser for the UK government’s Department for International Development in India; the views expressed do not necessarily reflect the UK government’s official policies.

Cop21With a new World Bank report warning climate change could push more than 100 million additional people back into poverty by 2030 it is timely that the new ‘global goals’ (aka; sustainable development goals – SDG’s) put education in the front line for both protecting the livelihoods of future generations while addressing the poverty challenge of today. While climate change presents significant challenges to education – education also provides a powerful means through which to respond.

With the international scientific community 95% certain that human activity is driving global warming (IPCC 2014), SDG 4.7 which states “by 2030 ensure all learners acquire knowledge and skills needed to promote sustainable development…”  is of critical significance. Education is tasked with equipping upcoming generations for the inevitable changes of a +2 ºC world (adaptation) while inculcating a greater understanding of and responsibility for the environmental consequences of human actions (mitigation). To this end DFID has recently released a topic guide on educations role in environmental resilience.

Pastoralist schooling in Uganda. Credit: Marc Hofer/EFA Report UNESCO

Environmental change will effect both the supply and the demand for education. Increasing frequency of extreme weather events will damage infrastructure, disrupt systems and present the planning challenges of climate induced migration. On the demand side, environmental degradation could reduce household incomes – forcing parents to send their children to work rather than school while also increasing malnutrition. There is also evidence that climate change may cause greater exposure to disease leading to more days off school and reduced ability to learn. International evidence suggests all these impacts disproportionately affect girls.

The seminal Stern Report highlights the importance of education in addressing climate change. Its conclusions focus around three broad themes: carbon pricing, technological innovation and behaviour change. Of these, education is central to two: higher education plays a key role in developing and sharing technological advances, and school and community education in behavioural change.

The good news is there is encouraging evidence on education being a cost effective climate intervention from across disciplines. A 2010 World Bank study states: “Educating young women may be one of the best climate change disaster prevention investments in addition to high social rates of return in overall sustainable development…”. Economists, Wheeler and Hammer agree: “Female education (combined with family planning) is cheaper and provides larger impacts on carbon emissions abatement than direct low-carbon energy options”. While Muttarak and Lutz conclude “…public investment … through education can have a positive externality in reducing vulnerability and strengthening adaptive capacity amidst the challenges of a changing climate”.  While Lord Stern makes an important point about education and the future: “Educating those currently at school about climate change will help shape and sustain future policy making, and a broad public and international debate will support today’s policy-makers in taking strong action now.”

There does seem to be a logical sequence to possible educational responses to climate change:

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DFID has good examples of short term responses e.g., in micro solar and infrastructure notably from Bangladesh and Nigeria.

However, to move beyond infrastructure to education for behavioural change means a shift from transmissive to transformative education.  In our drive to raise learning levels we must caution against a fixation on ‘how much’ and not neglect questions of ‘how relevant’ and how does the way learning is imparted impact upon the agency of the learner.

This presents new challenges “… the current evidence suggests that DFID and others will need to engage in dialogue around much more difficult issues. Not whether to fund a curriculum reform effort, but what the content of the curriculum is; not capitation grants to schools but how to build local level accountability; not funding for teacher training, but how to improve the way that training systems work. These are all fundamentally more political discussions and are likely to enter into contested areas with inevitable trade-offs for how evidence is taken up in programming and policy.”

As David Hicks presciently said in 1994: “If all education is about the future then the future needs to be a more explicit concern at all levels of education”. Education’s contribution to sustainable development will not materialise if we remain preoccupied with ‘why’ and ‘what for’ and neglect the ‘how’ and with ‘what resources’.  We need to start from where we are now – as much as where we want to be.

See a previous blog about education and climate change, The tangled web of conflict, climate change and education by the EFA GMR



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