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Students and youth are advocating for a broad vision of climate change education

Despite progress in education systems’ response to the climate change challenge, many students and youth find formal education lacking, and call for more action-oriented and psychosocial learning and a stronger focus on justice issues. A survey of over 2,000 young respondents from 53 countries found that 95% were worried about the effects of climate change and environmental degradation, while 36% highlighted the importance of inclusive and accessible education of good quality as a priority for addressing climate change; but only one quarter of young women and just over one third of young men felt that their education had prepared them to address climate change. 

According to a survey of 16- to 25-year-olds in Canada, 60% believed that the formal education system should focus more on the social-emotional dimensions of climate change. Respondents indicated that they would also prefer more climate change content in classes, mental health support, reassurance, positive and hopeful messaging, and teaching about the urgency of climate risks. 

Youth voices on climate action will be front and center at a high-level breakfast briefing hosted by the GEM Report and partners during this week’s High-Level Political Forum taking place at UN Headquarters in New York during which global progress towards SDG 13 is under review. Angela Busheska, a young engineer from North Macedonia named as one of Forbes 30 under 30 on youth action and holding governments to account for their climate commitments will also be in attendance. Follow the event live from 8.15 AM New York time today on the GEM Report’s LinkedIn page.

Systematic reviews have concluded that the political dimensions of climate change are often missing in formal education. Climate change is primarily taught in science subjects. An analysis of 55 articles written between 2017 and 2020 highlighted that justice-driven climate change education was difficult to implement in formal education due to current structures, curriculum standardization and accountability mechanisms. Climate justice was often taught in non-formal settings, with student and teacher activists learning about justice dimensions from each other and acting as educators for their communities.

Although young activists and advocates in the Global North and the Global South had been undertaking actions for climate justice for years without recognition and media coverage, the Fridays for Future movement, spearheaded by Greta Thunberg in 2018, is often credited with expanding local and national youth engagement and awareness efforts of climate change to a global scale. Discussions with school strikers for climate action show that students are learning from their participation in the strikes, complementing their often insufficient climate change education in schools. In turn, they are also becoming climate change educators. Students are teaching themselves the knowledge that they need to engage with climate change issues outside of classrooms, such as dealing with regulations, negotiating with police, organizing a web presence and developing policy demands by improving their competencies in political engagement. They also teach their teachers how to reducing the school footprint. 

Youth activists have supported climate science as new ambassadors and communicators for scientific consensus and climate adaptation and mitigation. An analysis of 50 youth-led climate initiatives, of which 30 were initiated by youth, found that most were aiming to exert political pressure. The skills focus in these initiatives were advocacy and communications, literacy and leadership related to climate change. 

Students have also highlighted inadequacies in school textbooks. In Berlin, students analysed actions discussed in geography, chemistry and biology textbooks aimed at 11- to 18-year-olds in Australia, France, Germany, the United Kingdom and the United States. High-impact solutions (e.g. living car-free) received little or no mention while low-impact solutions (e.g. recycling) were discussed more extensively. Some of the proposed solutions had not been updated for 25 years, making textbook reform urgent. 

A lack of national and global efforts on climate change has been portrayed as a human rights violation. By the end of 2022, 2,180 climate change cases had been filed, of which 1,522 were in the United States. Litigation by youth has been a sign of increasing political involvement in climate action, although cases tend to be dismissed early. Analysis of 23 cases in 14 countries shows that where a first decision was rendered, only 3 cases were heard on their legal merits: in Colombia (on the government’s failure to reduce deforestation in the Amazon), Germany and Norway. In the US state of Montana, a court ruled in favour of young plaintiffs who alleged that the state violated their right to a clean and healthy environment by allowing fossil fuel development without considering its climate consequences. Youth litigation also has a transnational dimension, where young people from the Global South call out climate injustice for which the Global North is largely responsible. However, these international cases have been dismissed in most contexts. 

At the higher education level, climate activism also focuses on university policies and approaches. Fossil fuel divestment movements at universities and colleges are often led by students. In the United States, students and others have pushed 141 higher education institutions to divest their endowments from industries producing fossil fuels since 2012. Analysis of 220 Canadian universities and colleges found 38 active divestment campaigns, of which 31 were initiated by students, with 6 institutions then committing to varying degrees of divestment (Maina et al., 2020). There are also growing calls by scientists and researchers for universities to facilitat further academic advocacy and activism in climate and ecological emergencies, shifting the focus from primarily publications onto public actions, and providing space for academics to engage in such efforts. 

University students have advocated for climate inclusion within their curriculum, for instance in health and architecture education. Students from 2,817 medical schools in 112 countries reported that climate change is taught in less than 15% of medical schools worldwide. Students led climate action–related activities in another 12% of medical schools. Medical students founded the Planetary Health Report Card to inspire medical schools to engage with the subject. Since 2019, more than 60 medical schools in Canada, Ireland, Malaysia, the United Kingdom and the United States participated in the report card, catalysing the inclusion of integrated curricula in many of these institutions. Climate change has also received attention in architectural education. Over 4,000 architects in 18 countries declared a biodiversity and climate emergency, with over 2,500 architecture students and teachers signing a declaration calling for curriculum change in architectural education. A review of 71 studies on the integration of sustainability education into architecture highlights the need to shift from educator-centred teaching to student-centred learning methods with collaborative, reflective and deep learning strategies.

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