Framing the challenge: Education and the climate-environment emergency

Education and climate are both in crisis. But while faith in the role of education to mitigate climate change is strong, the evidence on how education will effect change is generally weak. It’s time to adopt differentiated education responses that recognize environmental justice issues.

November 02, 2022 by Colin Bangay, Foreign Commonwealth and Development Office
5 minutes read
Girls wade through floodwaters on the way to school in Sunamganj, Bangladesh. May 23, 2022.
Girls wade through floodwaters on the way to school in Sunamganj, Bangladesh. May 23, 2022.
Credit: UNICEF/UN0642143/

Recent findings on irreversible tipping points (see the 6th IPCC report and this Science article) confirm that human damage to the environment is worse than expected and could soon outstrip our ability to adapt. These effects are already resulting in additional costs, both to education financing and on children’s learning.

From the Stern review to the Dasgupta report, much has been made of the role of education in addressing environmental challenges. In a recent study, politicians and business leaders identified education in the top five policy areas able to achieve economic and climate goals.

Education also features as article 6 in the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, the international treaty guiding action on climate. Despite all this, the education community is only beginning to grapple with how education can contribute at a scale and speed commensurate with the climate emergency.

Naming and framing

As a starting point, it is helpful to secure common agreement on problem framing and associated terminology. The shorthand of ‘climate change’ has been adopted by many, but climate is just one component in a broader set of interconnected environmental processes on which we rely and which our education must help us understand (see figure below).

Climate, environment, nature and development
Climate, environment, nature and development

Climate change is a global phenomenon, with industrially developed countries (IDC) responsible for the bulk of carbon emissions. Cruelly, the least industrially developed countries (LIDCs) will suffer the bulk of impacts, about which they will be able to do little other than prepare.

For climate change specifically, we need differentiated education responses that recognize environmental justice issues and existing levels of per capita consumption.

Quibbling about naming may seem pedantic. However, a well-intentioned focus on how education can address climate change alone risks a silo approach and could impede the holistic problem framing required to prepare learners to address the wider climate and environmental crisis.

We need education systems that convey the danger of exceeding the natural world’s ability to meet our material demands and that also recognize and protect the natural systems on which humanity relies – carbon, nitrogen and water cycles, pollination etc.

This will require a greater recognition of environmental inter-connectivity and moving beyond ‘knowing’ to ‘doing’ – particularly at the local level.

In the naming debate, Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 4.7, ‘Education for Sustainable Development’ (ESD), provides a good start. Yes, there are issues about the measurement of sustainability!

However, ESD has major benefits: it is goal focused, it provides a holistic framing, and all SDG signatories - IDC and LDICs alike - are obligated to delivering it.

How can education contribute?

While faith in the role of education is strong, the evidence on how education will effect change is generally weak. In a recent article, I sketched out the various pathways touted for how education can contribute to sustainable development:

Education’s possible contributions to sustainability

Focus Elements Education level
Education for understanding and behavior change
  • Strengthen scientific literacy
  • Affect behavior change regarding non-sustainable practices
  • School and community education on preparedness for climate/environment-related hazards and disaster risk reduction (DRR)
Primary- and secondary-level education.
DRR and community education.
Education for social change and political action
  • Knowledge builds a political constituency for socially just and environmentally sustainable societies shaping local and international debate and action.
School education—particularly secondary (extracurricular).
Community education.
Education and population
  • Economic benefits—slowed population growth potentially enables raised per capita social spending.
  • Slowed population growth potentially reduces pressure on natural resources.
  • Girls’ secondary education potentially delivers intergenerational benefits that improve mother and child health.
Secondary and tertiary education in combination with voluntary reproductive choice (especially for girls).
Education, disaster risk reduction, reduction of gender-based violence
  • Girls’ education reduces risk and supports empowerment
  • DRR, student agency, school to community interaction
All levels.
Education and skilling for sustainable “green economies”
  • Technological transfer, e.g., research collaboration
  • TVET
  • Agricultural extension
  • Meteorological sciences
e.g., Higher education. Technical education.
Extension education.
Education infrastructure
  • Climate-smart public infrastructure—reducing carbon emissions and building resilience to AEC
  • Climate-proofed classrooms— improved site selection, ventilation, light, ambient temperature and acoustics support learning.
All levels.

In reviewing available evidence – three things stand out:

  1. The body of available evidence is dominated by case studies of small initiatives in IDCs.
  2. There is a scarcity of examples of wholescale systemic change.
  3. Education is ‘homogenized’ with limited consideration of the specific contributions of differing levels of education.

Secondary education – A case in point

The value of investing in primary education as a learning foundation is undeniable. However, we cannot afford to neglect secondary. There is strong evidence around the power of secondary education particularly for girls in a whole raft of ESD fields (see figure below).

Young adulthood is a time for developing informed opinions and often enthusiastic activism. Young, informed adults can become a powerful voting bloc. In light of this, the relatively low levels of secondary provision in LIDCs, particularly in sub-Saharan Africa, are a major concern.

Source: Bangay, C. 2022


Back in 2010, I co-authored a paper that postulated a logical a sequencing of education responses to climate and environment. Since writing, the greater incidence of extreme weather events has driven a greater attention to disaster preparedness.

There have also been major advancements in the use of geographic information systems, for example to identify flood risk and in the importance of carbon smart and learning friendly school building design.

If education is going to attract funding from non-traditional funders, such as international climate funds, disaster preparedness and infrastructure offer tangible areas for support.

In reviewing my paper now, my only major change would be to reduce the emphasis on curriculum. This is often the starting point for educationists.

Clearly setting down what is to be known is important, however knowing is no longer enough – it is doing that will make the difference.

In my experience it is what is measured by assessments that has the strongest influence on what happens in the classroom.

If we want a move from passive ‘learning’ to ‘doing,’ then we need an associated shift in assessment systems from a focus on ‘factual recall’ and towards ‘problem solving’.

All these themes from finance through infrastructure to assessment will be covered in the upcoming series of blogs.

Source: Bangay, C. 2022

This year will see the key international meetings of both COP 27 (Climate) and COP 15 (Biodiversity). It would be great to see education featuring more prominently in both, perhaps even acting as a bridge to bring them closer together.


Read other blogs in this series

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