The future is now: leveraging the power of climate change education

Climate Change Education provides one of the most important channels to address inequities and empower children and youth globally as proactive drivers of change.

November 08, 2021 by Robert Jenkins, UNICEF, and Bethlehem Girma, UNICEF New York Headquarters
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4 minutes read
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A young girl holding a sign with a call to climate action message. Credit: UNICEF/UN0364364/Aliaga Ticona
A young girl holding a sign with a call to climate action message.
Credit: UNICEF/UN0364364/Aliaga Ticona

The climate crisis is a child rights crisis, jeopardizing the rights of children to health, water, nutrition, education, safety, and clean air.

Children in low socio-economic and marginalized communities across the globe are hardest hit by the impact of climate change, despite their countries being among the lowest contributors to the cause. This is due in part to their lack of access to the economic, social, and political structures to ensure that their views, interests, and needs are recognized, represented, and addressed.

Climate Change Education (CCE) provides one of the most important channels to address these inequities and empower children and youth globally as proactive drivers of change.

Why climate action must focus on education

When we enable children and young people as agents of change, there is an unparalleled opportunity to address the climate crisis both in the present (with the children, their peers, and households) and in the long term (as the children become decision-makers).

Children have immense potential to help narrow the divergent and sometimes polarized views over climate change amongst adults and can push communities towards collective action.

Providing children with scientific, participatory, and rights-based CCE from an early age allows them to play a meaningful role in climate action including the just transition to a low carbon economy.

For example, it is estimated that educating 16 percent of high school students in high- and middle-income countries on CCE can reduce CO2 emissions by approximately 19 gigatons by 2050.

The effects of climate change are not gender-neutral: women and girls face disproportionate impacts in almost every aspect of their lives. Yet education (including CCE), can help lessen the vulnerability of girls while contributing to reducing the impact of climate change.

Providing CCE to girls can be a sustainable and efficient mechanism for improving communities' adaptive and resilience capacities. One study found that the death toll due to weather events could be 60 percent lower by 2050 if 70 percent of women achieved lower-secondary education.

Climate change education in practice

By investing in climate education, we can equip children with the skills to strengthen their adaptive and risk management capacity. The latest report from UNICEF shows that the overall climate risk of about 275 million children can be substantially reduced if there is an investment in education outcomes.

Climate education also helps children develop green skills from an early age so that they benefit from the climate-smart economy going forward.

However, CCE should go beyond the inclusion of climate topics in curricula and textbooks. It should enhance knowledge (including indigenous knowledge) and skills about the causes and effects of climate change and its intersection with social, economic, ethical, political, and governance frameworks.

CCE should be taught in an applied way including socio-emotional aspects that involve children as proactive thinkers and creators of ideas and, where possible, leverage digital platforms and the arts. In addition to the conventional curriculum, non-formal and informal settings also present excellent opportunities to build applied knowledge and skills.

These approaches are reflected in UNICEF’s support work around the world.

  • To facilitate collective understanding and action on climate change, UNICEF is piloting the Learning for Climate Action platform. This platform facilitates self-directed learning for children and opportunities to build skills related to climate change. This platform is another pillar of the work of UNICEF to strengthen country-level action on climate change.
  • In Mongolia, adolescents ‘Air Pollution Youth Mappers’ are engaging in data collection, documenting the adverse effects of urban air pollution, producing community maps of air pollution, and sharing this information with peers, teachers, and parents.
  • In Armenia, UNICEF organized a platform which brings together children and youth, including those with disabilities, with education policy-makers to discuss priorities for a new curriculum in the areas of climate, environment, and Disaster Risk Reduction.
  • In Mexico, UNICEF supported the development of educational materials on climate change which will be used to deliver climate education in the new curriculum.

UNICEF is committed to creating opportunities for children to learn and engage in climate action. Our CCE programming focuses on four main pillars that include partnerships to:

  • Improve climate knowledge and green skills for children and youth;
  • Empower children and youth to drive mitigation and adaptation efforts in schools and communities;
  • Climate proof education systems including the integration of CCE into policy and curricula; and,
  • Empower children and youth to connect, network and influence climate discussions and policy making.

Around the world, children and youth are stepping up to demand immediate action on climate change.

We know that climate education can provide children and youth with the knowledge, green skills, and leadership needed to end the climate crisis and its related injustices - but we must act now.

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