Climate, environment and education: Facts, fallacies and the future

Education has a critical role to play in shaping our collective future. What can the global education community contribute?

March 09, 2020 by Colin Bangay, Department for International Development (DFID)
4 minute read
Grade 5 students wait for their shift to start at Kivukoni Primary School, Mpanda MC, Katavi, Tanzania.
Grade 5 students wait for their shift to start at Kivukoni Primary School, Mpanda MC, Katavi, Tanzania.
GPE/Kelley Lynch

Evidence on climate change and environmental degradation challenges conventional views of the future - pushing climate and environment to the forefront of the global political agenda. This blog argues that educations impact should not be under-estimated – for example a ranking of initiatives to reduce carbon emissions puts girl’s secondary education at number six; above more widely trumpeted technological solutions.

Education has a critical role to play in shaping our collective global future. It’s time the global education community wakes up to the contribution it can make. In considering how education can help, let’s review some facts, fallacies, and ways forward.


Climate change will disproportionately impact the less industrially developed countries (LIDCs) that depend on rain fed agriculture and have limited physical and financial mitigation. Impacts are already being felt on both the supply and demand sides of education.

supply and demand graphic

It isn’t just about climate science. There is a strong interplay between climate change and environmental degradation. The nature of the drivers differs between industrially developed countries (IDCs)and LIDCs – but the outcomes are cumulative. Increased severe weather events and incremental environmental damage will impact agricultural production, communicable diseases, migration streams, poverty, conflict and gender.

The interconnectedness of climate change and environmental degradation

LIDC IDC graphic

The issue is not just one of science; IDCs are historically most responsible for C02 emissions. Emerging economies such as India and lead C02 emitter China are emulating the same high carbon pathway to growth IDCs have taken. Climate change is also an issue of inter-generational justice.


Many may think that Target SDG 4.7 - ensure all learners acquire the knowledge and skills needed to promote sustainable development - only applies to developing countries:

The SDGs apply to ALL countries. Climate and environmental degradation are global challenges; they require a global but differentiated response reflecting different consumption patterns and impacts.

For all countries there is a real opportunity to harness the twin drivers of the SDGs and Paris agreement commitments; though there is plenty of room for improvement. An analysis of 173 national climate plans revealed education is generally positioned as “awareness raising” and “training” with the young predominantly portrayed as passive recipients of learning - rarely as stakeholders and agents of change.

Further, despite the evidence showing girls being more vulnerable to climate and environment impacts, national policies fail to capture either the risks to, or inclusion/empowerment of girls in response. Finally, there was little evidence of any moral responsibility or support for LIDCs in the plans of IDCs.

The figure below gives some general thoughts on where we are now and where there are gains to be made in education delivery.



Climate change is a challenge to education – education also provides a powerful means through which to respond. The Stern Report identifies 3 areas where education has a key role:

  1. technological innovation and transfer (higher education / TVET/ agricultural extension)
  2. behavioral change and agency (school, non-formal and community education)
  3. reproductive choice and maternal health (secondary education – especially for girls).
Climate change and education
After: Stephen Bailey

Strong performance in science and awareness of global environmental problems tend to go hand in hand, and both are associated with a sense of responsibility supporting sustainable environmental management. Conversely, weak performance in science is associated with lower awareness of environmental problems. Failure in scientific education will mean less widespread and less informed public debate on issues such as climate change and wider environmental problems.” (UNESCO GMR 2009)

Education reflects society - both must change to address the climate crisis

There is a fundamental paradox at the heart of the current development model; the high carbon economic growth that has driven much poverty reduction in the last century is not a sustainable model for the future.

There is a strong correlation between a country’s human development index and its draw on resources; the higher the HDI, the higher its ecological footprint.

There is growing debate that the climate emergency warrants a fundamental re-think of our carbon dependent development model.

Kate Raworth’s stimulating read, ‘Doughnut Economics’ provides a useful conceptualization of our challenge – the inner circle encapsulates the ‘realm of development’ in LIDCs and the outer rim the challenge for high consuming IDCs.

Donut economic model

The challenges differ; but they won't be met without collective and global yet differentiated action. Education that treats the young as both stakeholders and change agents will be instrumental in shaping the debate and driving the behavior change that will be necessary if we are to avoid climate catastrophe.

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