Beyond koalas, UN organisations work to put climate change education on the agenda

By Marcia McKenzie and Stephanie Wescott

How UN organisations work to put climate change education on the agenda

Climate literacy is the biggest educational challenge of our time. Even as the Australian government’s recent action signals productive steps toward climate action, there is still much work to be done in addressing climate change and climate literacy can help with this. 

What is climate literacy? It’s an understanding of how climate change works, but also includes feeling motivated and able to participate in meaningful change for the planet. Where climate literacy is established, political will for action will follow.

We can achieve this through education – as we rapidly approach catastrophic ecological thresholds and tipping points, education is increasingly being considered a key component in our response to climate change. Young people are acutely aware of—and are taking action against—the unfolding climate crisis, with research capturing their experience and its emotional toll.

Intergovernmental bodies, such as the United Nations (UN), play an important role in progressing social causes through education, and action on climate change education is an ongoing focus for UN organisations. This includes the development of UN policy programs with a focus on climate change education, which impact national education policies globally. 

The work of these UN organisations is impacted by a lack of resourcing and isolated organisational structures. Observing the ways that UN organisations work together to advance their common agendas is of crucial importance to understanding how they meet their climate action goals. 

The UN & climate action

There are an increasing number of UN international organisations (IOs) developing programs in relation to climate change education (CCE): 

These UN policy programs aim to guide policy decision-making by UN member states until 2030. 

These initiatives are promising, given the urgent need for escalated action on climate change globally, and considering the impact previous UN policy programs have had on national and regional education systems, as well as other development goals. However, there is concern about the influences on policy programs and their effects on program quality. 

A lack of transparent decision-making weakens the work of the UN and impacts the quality and effects of work intended to address climate change. The UN’s policy programs are also up against other political forces that challenge their ability to fulfil their goals.

In light of these factors, it is important to consider the impact that those who work for and within policy programs (policy actors) do across networks and through relationship-building in order to deliver the UN’s work.

How UN networks advance the climate agenda

Environmental concerns have not always been seen as a core policy agenda in the education sector, just as education has not previously been significant on the environmental policy agenda.

The UN IOs introduced above bridge this gap with their dual focus on environment and education. However, both UNESCO-ESD and the UNFCCC-ACE are small, under-resourced subunits, doing important and far-reaching work with minimal resourcing.

The lack of focus on climate change education creates incentive for UN organisations to seek support across programs and networks. These relationships help to increase the profile of the climate work being done, and strengthen each policy program.

UNESCO’s ESD and UNFCCC’s ACE coordinate activities that bring together government and non-government representatives to do climate policy work. Our study finds that there are several points of connection between ESD and ACE, including writing joint reports, and meeting formally and informally to make connections.

The joint writing of policy documents, such as the Action for Climate Empowerment: Guidelines for accelerating solutions through education, training and public awareness and Integrating ACE into Nationally Determined Contributions: A Short Guide for Countries provided opportunities to work together on similar aims.

Meetings are also a key aspect of the shared work of UN organisations. Both ACE and ESD host regular high level events, attended by national governments and other intergovernmental staff, as well as staff who work across these UN IOs. Meetings often provide opportunities for cross-organisational work to unite in the interest of shared climate agendas. 

These co-network policy arrangements help UN organisations to overcome their limitations (such as limited resources) and link up with another organisation that does have the mandate and resources for an outcome they both would like to achieve (e.g. producing/publishing climate change education reports).

This tells us that the work involved in achieving the aims of climate change-oriented UN programs relies on networks of shared interest, and relationships bridging across organisations.

What does this tell us about the UN’s work on climate change education?

Climate change is a matter of critical importance to present and future generations around the globe. Our research indicates that advancing climate change education is not limited to siloed organisations or policy writers; it is a responsibility that is shared across multiple organisations and groups.

It also tells us that two of the UN’s international organisations tasked with addressing climate change, ACE and ESD, do not necessarily have the mandates or resources that are required to deliver the work required in advancing climate change education.

By better understanding the interactions across these policy programs, this research helps our understanding of how organisations might work together, outside and across their scope and jurisdictions, in order to gather adequate resources to promote and fulfil climate agendas. 

Marcia McKenzie is Professor in Global Studies and International Education in the Melbourne Graduate School of Education, University of Melbourne. Her research includes both theoretical and applied components at the intersections of comparative and international education, global education policy research, and climate and sustainability education, including in relation to policy mobility, place and land, affect, and other areas of social and geographic study. This research will be the focus of Marcia’s forthcoming papers at the 2022 AARE conference in Adelaide. 

Stephanie Wescott is a Postdoctoral Research Fellow in the Melbourne Graduate School of Education, University of Melbourne. Her postdoctoral research studies the network relationships between UN policy programs and climate change education.

Republish this article for free, online or in print, under Creative Commons licence.

One thought on “Beyond koalas, UN organisations work to put climate change education on the agenda

  1. Regrettably, experience shows that political will for action doesn’t follow climate literacy. Providing more understanding of how global warming happens, and the way this will adversely effect the population can instead stall action. We need social and political understanding to facilitate action, not just a knowledge of climate science.

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