Students in Cambodia experience climate change firsthand. For the second time in four years, school hours had to be reduced across the country, due to record heat waves in the dry season. Now those students are becoming part of the effort to find solutions, a vanguard for the existential threat of our time.

Climate change has the potential to push 100 million people back into poverty over the next 15 years. This makes it a major threat to our economies and societies, as increasing temperatures and natural disasters impact people’s health, security and food systems.

Much has been said about the vast sums of money needed to address climate change and the trillions of dollars that will be required to climate-proof infrastructure, make agriculture and health systems more resilient, and to invest in low carbon technologies.

But developing countries face another major hurdle in their fight against climate change: financing can only be put to good use if countries have the knowledge and skills required to assess climate threats, develop innovative solutions and implement them. Without such critical knowledge and the requisite skills, the world will be severely hampered in the battle against climate change.

From engineers to health workers, from urban planners to architects and agronomists, a new generation of professionals will form the core of the fight against climate change. They will be as crucial as financing to making our societies more resilient and seizing the opportunities of the green economy.

A forward-looking curriculum

In Cambodia, a fast-growing but climate-vulnerable country, the push for better climate and environmental education is already underway, as part of a broader effort to promote science and technology.

Cambodia, with support from the European Union, Sweden and the United Nations Development Programme, has integrated climate change into a new and expanded earth science curriculum for higher secondary schools to be introduced by 2020, with an enrolment of over half a million students.

Students from grades 10 to 12 will learn about factors that drive climate change and the vulnerability profile of the country. They will also learn about key approaches and technologies, to adapt to the impacts of climate change and to reduce emissions of greenhouse gases.

In addition, the Ministries of Environment and Education, working together, have introduced an eco-school concept, as a way to engage youth and education officials in environmental and climate change issues. In 15 pilot schools supported by the Cambodia Climate Change Alliance (CCCA), students benefited from additional teaching on climate change, and worked jointly with teachers on resilience projects such as tree planting and climate-smart agriculture.

This type of approach, combining formal teaching and practical engagement of youth, is important for effective climate change response.

A climate-vulnerability map of South-East Asia.
A climate-vulnerability map of South-East Asia.
Image: Phnom Penh Post

Two-thirds of the Cambodian population is under 20, and this generation has huge potential to shape the development journey of the country. With adequate education and engagement, they could create demand for more resilient, low-carbon solutions, and shape investment decisions from both the private and public sector. This movement is already underway in countries across the world. In Sweden, for example, students like Greta Thunberg are taking a leading role in pushing for more ambitious climate action, through activism including climate strikes.

Creating opportunity from catastrophe

In Cambodia, the benefits of education and awareness efforts are already apparent. Recent studies show that 85% of respondents have a basic understanding about the causes of climate change, and 98% can identify some of its impacts. However, serious gaps remain in knowledge of potential responses, with 37% of those asked unable to identify any mitigation or adaptation option.

In addition to creating demand for climate action, climate education also raises awareness of job opportunities in a climate-smart economy. Sixty-five million new jobs could be created by 2030 in the transition to a climate-smart economy. This transition will generate shifts in job demand across sectors, but also requires new skills for existing jobs.

Anticipating these changes and providing high-quality education for this new marketplace is a major challenge. With support from the government, six universities in Cambodia have begun to incorporate climate change in relevant curriculums and taken measures to boost climate-related research through scholarships and partnerships with international academic institutions.

All these measures point in the right direction and indicate a political will to leverage the potential of the next generation for the transition to a more resilient, low-carbon economy.

Decisive action over the next few years will be crucial in order to ensure that the 1.2 billion young people who will enter the labour market in developing economies by 2030 – 3 million of them in Cambodia – will be equipped to contribute to and benefit from the job opportunities of a climate-smart economy.