Why we urgently need to teach and learn about climate change

12/12/2019
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At a time when students across the world are skipping school to raise awareness around the climate emergency and protest to ensure concrete action for our planet and their future, UNESCO aims to make education a more central and visible part of the international response to climate change, and to ensure it is effectively applied.

Why is education so central to shape the way we address the challenges climate change poses?

Responding to climate change today encompasses two things:

  • Reducing our emissions and stabilizing the levels of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere (we call this climate change ‘mitigation’);
  • Adjusting to the actual and expected climate (which is referred to as ‘adaptation’).

There is a variety of instruments that are needed to achieve that – political regulations, financial and technological incentives – but this only works if people understand what climate change is and how to act upon it. So we need to change the way individuals think and act to “change minds, not the climate”, and education is crucial to achieve the dramatic transformation that is needed.

Environmental education, education for sustainable development or climate change education: What is the difference?

UNESCO addresses climate change education as part of its Education for Sustainable Development (ESD) approach but labels don’t really matter here: What matters is for people to acquire the knowledge, skills, values and the attitudes they need to build a green, low emission and climate-resilient future. The idea is to provide an education that will empower people to achieve sustainable development in its three dimensions: economical, environmental and societal.

It is high time we redirect our technology, science, finance and ingenuity to transform our economies, ensure equality and promote a sustainable future for all. Within this new economic model, individuals will need green skills to answer the demands of a different job market. To empower the next generations, we need leadership from governments, international organizations, the private sector and civil society.

What can the international community do better in terms of climate change education today?

There is already a strong international mandate for climate change education today, which we can appreciate through the successive adoption of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), the 2030 Sustainable Development Agenda,and the Paris Agreement, which all include education in their provisions. Now this mandate needs to be put into action.

Our recent survey on climate change shows that there is a big gap between the commitments put forward by governments, and their implementation.

One important aspect UNESCO is trying to emphasize is the importance of social-emotional and behavioral learning. In the same recent survey on climate change implementation, we found that most countries still focus on cognitive knowledge – which is important of course, but we need to touch people’s head, heart and hands to help them understand the causes and impact of global warming today. Governments need to further tap into the power of social, emotional and behavioral learning. We need to harness all aspects of learning need to make that change happen.

Our approach to schools and education also needs to drastically change. UNESCO, through its Associated Schools Network (ASPnet) is promoting a “whole school approach” to climate change education and learning. It essentially seeks to incorporate sustainability into all aspects of a school, and to involve the community, to create a learning environment where students and educators breathe and live sustainability.

There is a lot of good work happening already, notably with individual schools and out of schools project. Each year, we reward such initiatives as part of our UNESCO-Japan Prize. There are many positive initiatives at the country-level, too: Italy just made climate change education mandatory in schools, which, once implemented, will have a tremendous impact on everyone throughout the country.

What is COP 25?

COP 25 stands for the 25th Conference of the Parties, it is the highest decision-making body of the UNFCCC Convention. COP 25 is currently under way in Madrid (2-13 December 2019).

So what is at stake this year in Madrid?

The overall theme of this year’s COP is ‘Raising Ambition’, with a focus on financing, and increasing Nationally Determined Contributions or NDCs, which are the commitments made by signatory countries under the Paris Agreement. They are essentially efforts made by each country to reduce national emissions and adapt to the impacts of climate change. Reviewed and submitted every 5 years, many of them will be revised in 2020, so UNESCO is organizing meetings and events at COP25 to encourage parties to include education as a crucial and visible component of their national response to climate change.