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Education Isn’t Considered a Key Tool for Reducing Climate Risks, but It Should Be

two kids hold up a poster showing oceans and an island
Kids in Millburn, New Jersey come together to depict climate change through art. Photo: Radhika Iyengar

Every night after my day’s work, I search “climate education” in Google News and the same with Apple News. The same five articles open up, as if nothing has moved an inch. Then the World Cup happened and everyone on my Facebook and Twitter feeds discussed matches on a daily basis — but in my nightly search, the same five articles on climate education kept coming up.

The world is changing on a daily basis. Many teachers and organizations are making a difference on a daily basis. But we don’t make headlines or news.

Slowly and quietly a revolution is brewing up. At last year’s COP26 in Glasgow, ministers of education and environment came together for the first time to stand up for climate education. One of their eight commitments included “the integration of sustainability and climate change in formal education systems, including as core curriculum components, in guidelines, teacher training, examination standards and at multiple levels through institutions.” It was loud and clear at COP26. This was followed by UNESCO’s Transforming Education Summit in New York. At this summit we got to hear from the education ministers from Ghana, Greece, Malawi and Belize. Their honest plea for financing education and prioritizing basic literacy touched many hearts. The Faculty House at Columbia University hosted many deliberations over transforming education. In our faces were the portraits by young people from all over the world in the form of Turn It Around Flashcards, designed by young artists and writers for education policymakers, politicians, and teachers to challenge them to think and act in new ways. A card from Mexico read:

From Nature you can learn to feel the pulse of life in your being, in your body. You can remember and learn how to come into the sacred dance of creation that is happening all around you, you can learn to play your own instrument in the great orchestra of life. You may learn about sacred timing, when to listen, when there is a need to be silent, when there is a need to plant and when to harvest. You may learn that all is in relation, that things are more than the sum of their parts. That is how good music is created, in relation. You will learn to listen to subtle messages, you will learn how to play in time. This is not on the curriculum. Eliza Colin Hodges, 25

It was hard to ignore the cards and do business as usual at Columbia University. So we continued our struggles and ended up at COP27, where UNESCO’s Greening Education Partnership was formally launched. More than 100 organizations are a part of this movement. The partnership calls for greening schools, learning, capacity and readiness, and communities.  Do not take this call lightly. Join the movement.

Meanwhile, Apple and Google News show that Spain requires all undergraduate students to complete a mandatory course on climate education. New Jersey’s First Lady and her crew have put up resources, a budget for teacher training resources, and an office of climate education to integrate climate ideas into the New Jersey State Student Learning Standards. In New York state we have #Teach10hoursforClimate campaign by the National Wildlife Federation and Bard College. The demand is 10 hours because currently teachers teach only 2 hours on average about climate change.

This on-the-side climate education movement continues. However my Apple and Google News does not give me this information. This news is not mainstream. Mainstream continues to be soccer (not that I don’t like Messi), even greening the economy, reducing carbon emissions, thinking about water conservation, greening transportation. Where is education as a key strategy towards reducing climate risk? In the White House’s Roadmap to Nature-Based Solutions, preparing the workforce for “engineering, law, finance, ecology, accounting, economics, community planning and maintenance for nature-based solutions” is listed, but K-12 climate education is completely missing as a key strategy towards climate risk mitigation. Does this imply that educating the youth of the next generation is not even seen as one of the key strategies towards climate action? Time will tell.

This is not a one-country phenomenon. Christina Kwauk, formerly of the Brookings Institute, confirms this global phenomenon. Her research suggests that only 24% of countries’ commitments under the Paris Agreement specifically mention the education of children and youth (down from 26% in the 2019 analysis). Meanwhile, only 21% mention climate change education; none are calling for compulsory climate change education as a climate strategy. This is a dangerous phenomenon. If we don’t prepare our young generation and our communities to understand the climate risks that we are facing today, then simply put, there is no tomorrow for us.

We are running two decades behind. The time is now to include climate education as a key climate risk mitigation strategy — along with energy, transformation, land use and water — and to make climate education a mandatory part of the national curriculum.

I am hopeful for 2023. In February, the Center for Sustainable Development at the Columbia Climate School and the Sustainable Development Solutions Network USA will be hosting a US Summit On Transformative Education 2023. This convening of experts will bridge the existing gap of education on the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals to make it a part of the formal curriculum. It will also engage in consultations and discussions with policy makers on integrating the goals for both formal and informal educators. This community aims to curate and create relevant educational resources, develop policy briefs and engage policymakers on the need for greater investment in quality education, and identify ways to train and support educators across the United States. We have already got an overwhelming response, and many education enthusiasts will be sharing their thoughts at the summit.

Will 2023 be the year where this side education movement can compete with the World Cup and the Messis of the world? Meanwhile I hope the world noticed Messi’s armband. What it said is of consequence to all of us: Education for All.




Radhika Iyengar is director of the education sector at Columbia Climate School’s Center for Sustainable Development.

Views and opinions expressed here are those of the authors, and do not necessarily reflect the official position of the Columbia Climate School, Earth Institute or Columbia University.

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Spike Lewis
Spike Lewis
1 year ago

Enjoyed the article. Thanks.

Maybe you should widen your Google News search to include “climate curriculum.” Not only does it work well for me, it lead me to this article.