Solving the climate and education crises together

The education sector is on the frontline of resilience efforts to climate change. Better planning and preparedness could enhance this role, while minimizing the disruption that disasters have on education.

July 18, 2022 by Sarah Beardmore, GPE Secretariat, and Camilla Pankhurst, UK Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office
5 minutes read
 Students take an exam outside at Mpanda Girls' Secondary School, Mpanda District, Katavi Region, Tanzania. Credit: GPE/Kelley Lynch
Students take an exam outside at Mpanda Girls' Secondary School, Mpanda District, Katavi Region, Tanzania.
Credit: GPE/Kelley Lynch

“For low income countries in the global south, climate change comes like a thief in the night.” Minister of Education for Malawi, Agnes Makonda Ridley, addressed the participants gathered at Wilton Park for a conference on climate-smart education systems that GPE and the UK Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO) co-convened last month.

Malawi has already been hit by two cyclones this year. Each time, school infrastructure is destroyed, valuable textbooks are washed away, teachers lose everything they own and students face the total devastation of their communities and farmlands. These once exceptional events now happen 5 times more often worldwide than 40 years ago.

With the increasing extremes caused by climate change, Malawi is not unique in its vulnerability. With each weather-related disaster, scarce education resources are once again re-allocated from investments that could improve the quality of education to the task of rebuilding. Climate change is placing achievement of SDG 4 even more out of reach.

The paradox is that education is the most important socio-economic driver of climate resilience and sustainability. Education changed everything for Selina Nkoile, who joined the Wilton Park conference from her Maasai community in northern Kenya. When the first girls’ school opened in her community, she was 12 years old and already betrothed for marriage.

External investment into her community enabled the school to be built, meant her marriage was canceled and she, unlike other girls before her, was able to complete school. She went on to establish permacultural initiatives that have grown food forests and educated her Maasai community about native plants both medicinal and nutritive, on which her village can depend when the rains don’t come.

Girls’ education is widely recognized as a driver of community resilience; 200,000 climate disaster–related deaths could be averted in the following two decades through improved risk awareness if every child received a full secondary school education by 2030.

The Project Drawdown report found that girls’ education in combination with reproductive choice and rights is an instrumental factor in reducing carbon emissions. So, it turns out, education is also good climate policy.

The challenge and opportunity ahead are clear. And while we have a long way to go before we can reap the dividends of a climate-smart generation of youth, the small group of experts, government officials, academics, civil society organizations, youth and UN agencies gathered at Wilton Park concluded that we do already have some of the knowledge, tools and strategies needed.

  • Disaster risk reduction and resilience

We need more systematic application of crisis-sensitive planning in the education sector, including multi-hazard risk assessments and school safety measures. Measures such as the Comprehensive School Safety Guidelines can help national emergency response efforts from ministry level down to sub-regional, district, community and school levels.

The education sector is on the frontline of resilience efforts – many schools already act as cyclone shelters, communication hubs and community response and coordination centers. Teachers and education support personnel often act as emergency responders and provide emergency supplies and meals when a disaster strikes. Better planning and preparedness could enhance this role, while minimizing the disruption disasters have on education.

  • Infrastructure

Schools and other educational infrastructure are some of the most numerous public works buildings, with huge potential to become centers of excellence for green energy, disaster response and sustainable practices.

Too often schools are built in locations that put them at risk of known environmental hazards. Building materials and techniques are not fit for purpose, causing harm to children and the planet and leading to expensive maintenance and rebuilding when crises strike.

But the expertise needed to build low cost, climate resilient and green schools even in cash-strapped countries exists; governments just need to know how to access it.

  • Curriculum, pedagogy and assessment

Currently curricula and teachers are overloaded and not serving the needs of most children in low and middle-income countries.

There is limited evidence that connects knowledge transfer to behavior change, and a lack of examples of context-relevant climate curricula for countries on the frontline of the climate crisis. That needs to change. It’s essential that formal and non-formal education provides girls and boys with the knowledge, transferable skills and experiences they need to navigate changing climates.

  • Cross-sectoral coordination and financing

The education sector is absent from many countries’ Nationally Determined Contributions and climate adaptation plans. Wilton Park demonstrated the huge potential to be gained from bringing education into the climate dialogue and suggested practical ways to achieve this.

Cross-sectoral working should be promoted and there are a lot of lessons to be learned from the mobilization of multi-sector emergency responses to address the COVID-19 pandemic.

Financing is key, and one of the most exciting outcomes from Wilton Park was the identification of the major climate funds as a possible source of funding for efforts to tackle climate change in and through education.

What’s next

The event at Wilton Park was just a step along the way to making education systems climate smart. GPE and FCDO brought this group together to forge connections and identify priorities, but concerted action is now needed across the climate and education sectors to both protect education from climate change and realize the potential of educated populations worldwide.

The remainder of 2022 will be critical for success, with the Transforming Education Summit and COP27 providing opportunities to put climate on the education agenda and vice versa. As UK Minister Ford said to participants at Wilton Park, “the fate of our children and our planet are one and the same” – so let us seize this opportunity to secure a better future for all.

GPE will continue to produce blogs on the linkages between education and climate change, to share good practice, highlight opportunities for cross-sectoral efforts, and showcase partner countries strategies to respond to climate change in and through education. Subscribe to our email alert “Education and sustainable development” to receive all future blogs on this topic in your inbox.

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