Education is essential to addressing climate change, but the rise in heatwaves, drought, cyclones and flooding is driving a global education crisis
A number of schools across southeast England closed their doors to pupils after their taps ran dry this summer. South East Water, which is responsible for their water supply, cited ‘severe conditions’ (minimal spring rainfall) and ‘record levels of demand for drinking water’ as reasons for the outage. However, the UK’s Climate Change Committee – which warned of the growing risk of national water shortages just a few months prior – says that the country is ‘strikingly unprepared’ for the intensifying impacts of climate change.
Elsewhere in the world, these impacts are already being keenly felt by young people. Climate change places a disproportionately high burden on children and young adults, says UNICEF, creating an increasingly challenging environment for their development. An estimated 850 million children – one-third of the global total – are exposed to four or more stresses (including heatwaves, air pollution, cyclones, flooding and water scarcity), exacerbating what the humanitarian organisation is calling a ‘global education crisis’.
According to a paper published by the UK’s Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office, climate hazards disrupt the education of an estimated 40 million children a year. In South Asia alone, 18,000 schools shut in 2017 due to damage or destruction during the region’s deadly floods. Even when children stay in school, they face issues such as extreme classroom temperatures, limited access to drinking water and damage to school buildings and local infrastructure, all of which affect their ability to learn. Data from the Young Lives longitudinal study, led by researchers at the University of Oxford, reveal that Vietnamese children affected by flooding do significantly worse in maths and vocabulary tests, and are less likely to be enrolled in school.
The evidence also shows that an interrupted education further compounds existing issues of poverty, conflict and gender inequality, leaving affected children even more vulnerable to climate change. At the same time, education has been recognised as an important – but often undervalued – part of creating the solutions needed to mitigate and adapt to climate change.
Experts say there needs to be a big shift in how we value education in relation to climate change, starting with the integration of the latest climate science into national curricula (examples of this can be seen in the USA states of Connecticut and New Jersey, which have mandated climate change studies in schools). Many of the skills learned will also be needed for the transition to a net-zero economy, where there’s a growing need to recruit new workers for new roles. Most importantly, we need global investment in resilient infrastructure and digital learning to improve educational outcomes, which UNICEF claims could ‘considerably reduce overall climate risk for 275 million children’.