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Davos Agenda

3 ways to improve how climate change is taught in schools

Young people must be nurtured by quality climate education so they can lead action on the climate crisis.

Young people must be nurtured by quality climate education so they can lead action on the climate crisis. Image: Getty Images/iStock

Anurit Kanti
Global Shaper, Gurugram Hub, World Economic Forum
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Davos Agenda

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  • Climate education has yet to see the holistic transformation necessary to drive climate action.
  • It must go beyond the tokenistic approach to being deeply embedded in education curricula, delivery and accreditation.
  • Climate stakeholders must demonstrate to young people that all education and career paths can contribute to effective climate action.

In May 2021, the UNESCO-led Berlin Declaration for Sustainable Development sought to make sustainability/climate education a core component of all education systems by 2025.

In the official declaration, it is noteworthy to see that the declaration mentions terms such as “individual behavioral change”, “systemic changes”, “redesign of societies”, and “multi-sectoral and multidisciplinary collaboration” in reference to creating a society that is driven and equipped for accelerating sustainable development and climate action.

While this is a good start, a 2021 study by Educational International revealed more room for improvement on the ground beyond the 15 countries that currently meet the criteria for various Quality Climate Change Education Indicators as part of their Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs).

Very few countries meet the criteria for Quality Climate Change Education Indicators.
Very few countries meet the criteria for Quality Climate Change Education Indicators. Image: Educational International

While there is certainly resounding support, intent, policies and government mandates for climate education, with 76% of countries referencing it in their NDCs, progress is sub-optimal.

There are some great examples of effective climate education, such as in Cambodia, and Argentina, some corporate-led climate curriculums, foundations dedicated to climate education and community projects like the one by the Global Shapers Kathmandu Hub; such initiatives must be widely emulated and scaled up. However, most national climate education programmes are tokenistic in their approach, where efforts are limited to introducing a subject like “climate studies” or “environmental studies” or referencing climate change in science subjects. This box-ticking approach only aims to fulfil a mandate rather than meaningfully align with the UNESCO declaration’s objectives.

Effective climate education, therefore, implies a complete overhaul of the entire education system, from (1) “greening” the curriculum holistically, (2) integrating sustainability/climate into pedagogy and accreditation through experiential learning, and (3) allowing youth to realize their agency as climate action stakeholders, no matter what path they take ahead academically or professionally.

1. A greener education on all fronts

A transformational, rather than transactional, approach for effective climate education implies going beyond the mere introduction of a subject or a curriculum for climate education, instead ensuring every lesson taught is flavoured with sustainability-focused thinking, referencing climate change extensively in textbooks and reading material.

For example, science books can increasingly teach scientific theories with examples of sustainability/climate-related technology or phenomena. At the same time, stories and literature for language subjects can not only passingly reference climate change but perhaps be set in a world threatened or impacted by it. Even the social elements of sustainability and climate change – such as climate resilience, climate justice, gender equality (an accelerator for sustainable development and climate action), poverty, health, etc. – can be addressed in humanities and social studies. This would ensure a more holistic, “whole-institution approach” for effective climate education. Moreover, every class can innovatively integrate climate change to embed eco-consciousness in young people for the “behavioral change” required. For this, educating teachers is also vital.

2. Transforming delivery mode, pedagogy and accreditation

Beyond flavouring the entire curriculum green, educators need to incorporate sustainability/climate/nature-themed methods in education delivery, pedagogical practices and accreditation to make climate education more about experiential learning than just cramming in knowledge and facts on climate change. This may imply:

  • Virtual classes to teach resource conservation and the ecological footprint of travel and running schools (which by no means implies completely eliminating more effective in-person education).
  • Projects and assignments around climate change (such as writing essays on climate action, creating dioramas of climate change-related elements, climate advocacy through fine/performing arts, etc.).
  • Outdoor classes in natural settings (to not only imbibe an appreciation of the aesthetic and health values of being in greener environments but also give a live experience of the impacts of climate change in case it is too hot or cold outside).
  • Field trips to venues that enhance climate education effectiveness (e.g. a renewable energy plant/farm, a landfill or the premises of a company that makes sustainable technology).

Through experiential learning driven by a more hands-on, practical approach to teaching, young people can get a more accurate sense of the climate crisis and be more motivated to become climate action torchbearers.

Even accreditation and grading can become more climate-themed, with certain classes and subjects having a grade contingent upon actual action (such as tree plantations, recycling or other activities), so there is formal weighting on concrete efforts.

3. Showing that every path can be leveraged for climate action

Very often, youth get overwhelmed with climate anxiety because they perceive the climate crisis as something they have no control over, cannot do anything about, or don’t know what practical steps they can take towards becoming climate action agents. To negate this eco-anxiety and boost the overall effectiveness of climate education, getting successful stakeholders of climate action from across the spectrum (be it different sectors, industries, professions, functions, or disciplines) to engage with young people on how any discipline, profession or path they choose can make them influential climate stakeholders can be game-changing.

An environmental lawyer could talk about the importance of law in contributing towards environmental or climate justice or towards climate policy-making to accelerate climate action. At the same time, a doctor could engage on the health impacts of climate change. A journalist could speak about being climate action advocates and the importance of awareness of such issues through their work, while a climate entrepreneur or government representative could talk about their unique role in the larger climate action narrative. Simply put, young people can learn from diverse climate stakeholders that any choice they make regarding their discipline in higher education or eventual career path can be leveraged towards climate action.

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What’s the World Economic Forum doing about climate change?

While the above three ways can help increase the effectiveness of climate education, they require a multidisciplinary, multistakeholder approach, starting at the grassroots.

Giving the youth the knowledge, tools, context, inspiration and, most importantly, a sense of agency about how everyone has a role to play in battling climate change, no matter where they work or what they have studied, is crucial for collectively pursuing a sustainable, inclusive and climate-resilient future.

While certain gaps still exist, well-rounded climate education is perfectly feasible. By making youth active stakeholders and even leaders in our global climate efforts, as many organizations envision, we can strike while the iron is hot – before our planet gets even hotter.

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Davos AgendaEducationClimate and Nature
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