In the decades since the launch of the global environmental movement after the first Earth Day, more than 3 billion young people have graduated from high school having learned little or nothing about one of the greatest issues that will shape their lives and their livelihoods for decades to come – climate change. Given both the sharply rising risks and enormous opportunities to forge a different and prosperous future, building a climate-literate population is one of the biggest missed opportunities in the climate restoration game plan.
It is not as if world leaders have failed to recognize the pivotal role that environmental education could have played for the past 30 years. The countries that forged the original UN climate change treaty in 1992 at the Rio Earth Summit enshrined climate education as an essential part of a national response to a global emergency. But not much has happened and most countries, international institutions and environmental organizations have eschewed the critical role that climate education plays in solving climate change and in creating jobs.
But finally, things are changing. In a recent paper in the PNAS, scientists picked climate education as one of half a dozen societal transformations needed to stabilize the earth’s atmosphere by 2050 in line with the aims of the landmark Paris Agreement of 2015. In September of 2020, the United Kingdom’s citizens’ climate assembly proposed many important specific measures to deal with global warming but their number one overarching policy was a call for education and information for all on climate change.
Seventy-seven percent of 10,000 people polled in rich and poor countries put education as the number one action needed to tackle climate change. So, there is a consensus building.
The upcoming United Nations climate conference, co-hosted by the United Kingdom and Italy in Glasgow in November 2021, is the next big chance to turn the page and repair a near 30-year broken promise to our youth and our economies. It is time that governments recognize their failures and support quality, compulsory climate education as a core, integrated subject in school curricula worldwide allied to teaching civic engagement skills. If this generation of leaders can finally make it a reality, the ripple effect could be profound. Climate education and literacy will unlock efforts towards sustainable consumerism and the creation of environmentally friendly goods and services while providing a building block towards supporting entrepreneurship and ensuring purposeful employment opportunities.
We believe that the Italian government’s groundbreaking decision to provide compulsory climate education coupled with civic education in its schools, and a growing number of governments which have joined them, provides a fresh vision others should urgently adopt. The UN climate conference in Glasgow must also agree on the specific pathways and means to assist poorer nations to join in this vital, ambitious, initiative.
This vision is increasingly shared by a growing global alliance of over 350 trades unions, teachers’ associations, environmental and youth groups, representing over 400 million people, under a new campaign coordinated by EARTHDAY.ORG and other leading institutions. It calls for governments to not only put compulsory climate education in their national Paris Agreement climate action plans, known as Nationally Determined Contributions, but to also assess their implementation and link what is learned in school with real-life civic engagement skill-building. It should be given the same importance as any core subject like mathematics, science, history, or a language. Given what we know about planet’s health, climate education is now imperative. Without it, no country can play a role in the growing global green economy.
The cornerstone and key indicator of progress for every country on earth is education, and progress – which also includes economic independence and prosperity – must now be measured in the ability to tackle the existential threat of climate change while creating a green-jobs-ready workforce, a green consumer movement, and an active and engaged citizenry. Yes, nations everywhere need to dramatically step up across all areas of the Paris Agreement, from renewable energy and restoring forests to greener cities, financial flows into climate-friendly projects and a just transition for workers. But just as vitally, we need to equip future generations with the knowledge, skills, and enthusiasm to survive and indeed thrive in the decades to come. And that begins in school.
Sharan Burrow is general secretary of the International Trade Union Confederation, which has 300 million members. Kathleen Rogers is president of EARTHDAY.ORG, which engages around 1 billion people annually.