Improving Climate Change Education: Widening the Angle

Reading Time: 9 min read

by Dr Mairette Newman
Education Specialist: VUSSC

The theme of the 2022 International Day of Education – “Changing Course, Transforming Education” – reminds the education community that safeguarding the planet is one of several interconnected global challenges we must address if we are to secure a sustainable future.

Like the Covid-19 pandemic, climate change is a global crisis; it threatens lives and livelihoods and disproportionally impacts poor countries and vulnerable communities. But unlike the pandemic for which we now have vaccines and drugs to curb spread and severity, climate change adaptation and mitigation strategies have fallen short, and the crisis is intensifying.

Multilateral organisations and international agencies regard climate change education as having a strong role to play, not only in terms of building knowledge and changing attitudes and behaviour, but also in terms of its ripple effect.  However, concerns are mounting that climate change education is not a priority in either policy or practice. To advance climate change education, education sectors across the globe need to widen the angle by integrating climate change education within and across all curricula, embedding indigenous knowledge in curriculum, investing in teacher professional learning focussed on the content and pedagogy of climate change and championing inter-sectoral collaboration and policy coherence.

Integrating climate change education in all curricula

Recent data (UNESCO, 2021) reveal that climate change content in national curricula is sparse; of the 100 curriculum frameworks surveyed, 47 did not mention climate change education and the treatment among the 53 who did refer to it, was superficial. Like the traditional three R’s and the newer concepts of digital and media literacies, climate literacy is essential.  If all students are to be climate literate, climate change education needs to be understood and treated as core; it needs to be integrated into all subject areas and across all grade levels from kindergarten through secondary and post-secondary schooling. Climate change education that is integrated across learning areas encourages students to explore how inequalities such as race, gender or disability, are connected to climate and ultimately leads to an understanding of climate justice. Sadly, in contexts where large segments of the population are illiterate, out of school or facing other educational challenges, the quest for climate literacy and issues around climate justice are treated as secondary.

Widening the angle means that climate change education is also integrated into public education, professional learning, career preparation and life-long learning programmes. Because climate change permeates multiple sectors and resources, it is particularly important to foster climate literacy among public servants, policy makers and elected officials who are often called on to respond to or take action on climate change related issues.

Another important step related to curriculum integration is embedding indigenous knowledge and perspectives into the climate change curriculum. Indigenous knowledge is crucial to ensuring that our response to climate change makes use of the traditional and cultural expertise on offer; it promotes knowledge exchange and furthers the integration agenda.

Providing more extensive teacher professional learning opportunities

Integration and climate literacy depend on teacher and educator expertise and this in turn requires proper training, time and resources.  Amongst the teachers surveyed by UNESCO in 2021, only 55 per cent reported that they had received training on climate change. Positioning climate literacy as core and integrated across all curricula demands that teachers learn new concepts and pedagogies; it requires them to adopt an interdisciplinary approach and determine how best to integrate climate concepts into what is often an already overloaded curriculum.  The way forward must include investment in initial and continuing teacher education that grounds them in an action-oriented approach to the curriculum such that the focus is on engendering skills that lead to learners’ active civic engagement around climate such as empathy, communication, problem-solving, and critical thinking skills.

Championing intersectoral collaboration and policy coherence

Widening the angle means understanding climate education as a shared responsibility, exchanging information, and coordinating action. The education sector is ideally positioned to lead the way in modelling a collaborative approach and leveraging what Christine Kwauk (2020) refers to as “multi-solving opportunities”. The Ministers of Education and Environment coming together at COP 26 was a step in the right direction, but the circle needs to be widened to include collaboration with other sectors such as Health, Tourism, and Agriculture and to ensure alignment and cohesion across sector policies, plans and strategies. There is a need too, to bring together stakeholders both from government and civil society and tap into the synergy generated by combining top-down policies and grass roots action.

COL promotes ‘learning for sustainable development’ that must lead to economic growth, social inclusion and environmental conservation.  It is fitting that on this International Day of Education, it hosted the second meeting of the high-level panel on climate change and education and laid out concrete actions to advance climate action.

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