Opinion: Climate activists are natural education advocates — here's why

A student and her teacher conduct an experiment on the effects of acid rain on plants. Photo by: Pippa Ranger / DFID / CC BY-NC-ND

This year’s Climate Week, which took place last month, brought together thousands of people from all over the world in a series of digital events and witnessed several powerful statements about the need for urgent action to combat climate change — the core of Sustainable Development Goal 13.

But missing from the conversation was the role that another goal, SDG 4 — quality, inclusive, and equitable education for all — can play in climate action.

Thanks to years of effective campaigning and advocacy, familiarity with what is required to tackle climate change has become almost commonplace across the world, as demonstrated by a recent GlobeScan poll that showed rising concern about the issue.

Yet the role that education could play in climate action is much less understood or even examined. The connection between reversing climate change and education is implicit in the SDGs but has yet to be made at a wider, mainstream level.

Currently, only one-third of national curriculum frameworks around the world address climate change.

This must change. Climate activists should be working with education experts much more closely because education is a critical tool in addressing the threat and lasting impacts of climate change.

Education helps people understand the root causes and impacts of climate change, shifting their behavior and attitudes toward more sustainable lifestyles. Better educated generations will have the knowledge, competencies, and skills necessary to adapt and innovate to save our planet, transform economies, and improve overall health and security.

Here’s why:

Education can save lives and limit the toll of climate change on communities. If universal upper secondary education were realized by 2030, 200,000 disaster-related deaths would be prevented in the following 20 years. Alternatively, if progress toward achieving education for all is halted, disaster-related deaths would increase by 20% per decade.

Girls’ education is one of the most effective tools we have to fight climate change. If 70% of all women ages 20-39 had a lower secondary education, deaths from natural disasters and climate change would be reduced by 60% by 2050.

Providing environmental education to children has a ripple effect on other generations, with knowledge transferred to their families. In the U.S., intergenerational learning has proved to be influential on parental adoption of environmental concerns, ultimately changing harmful behavior. However, recent polling showed that 86% of U.S. teachers think climate change should be taught in classrooms, yet only 42% actually teach it.

Opinion: Girls’ education as a solution to climate change is about more than fertility

What we currently understand about girls’ education as a climate solution may be a sliver of what is actually possible. Here are two reasons — not related to fertility — that we should be investing in girls’ education for climate action.

A better educated labor force is essential to ensuring the technological transformation required to combat climate change. Education provides the basic, technical, and managerial skills necessary to innovate and develop green industries, transforming economies and food systems and reducing environmental destruction. In doing so, it has been estimated that green growth could produce up to 60 million additional jobs globally.

Education expands sustainable farming practices. Farmers who furthered their education in field schools reduced their environmental impact by 39% on average, while increasing their yield by 13% and net revenue by 19%.

Better educated citizens will make politicians more accountable in their pledge to fight climate change. A study of nearly 30 countries found that 37% of people with secondary education and 46% of those with tertiary education were concerned for the environment, compared with 25% of those without secondary education.

With so many positive connections between education and the fight against climate change, climate activists and education experts must work together to prepare the next generation and make long-lasting change.

There are many possible concrete actions, but one should be to include the study of climate change in schools. Currently, only one-third of national curriculum frameworks around the world address climate change.

Public education, which was already vastly underfunded in large parts of the world, is now on the chopping block because of the extra pressures created by COVID-19, just when we need to invest for the future of our planet and our children.

As Nelson Mandela famously said, “Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.” Now is the time to fully use the power of education to enact climate action.

The views in this opinion piece do not necessarily reflect Devex's editorial views.

About the author

  • Justin w. van Fleet

    Justin w. van Fleet, Ph.D., is president at Theirworld and executive director at the Global Business Coalition for Education.