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

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.

How to talk to students right now about the most important crisis of our time

Charlotte Jones on why we need to pay attention to the emotional significance climate change has for students, as many young people experiencing legitimate and increasing anxiety as they grapple with climate change. Cristy Clark on the existential threat posed by climate change and why the only ethical thing educators can do is to acknowledge this reality and empower students to play a role in solving the climate crisis.

With the recent release of the Australia State of the Environment report and the IPCC 6th Assessment report, there is mounting evidence that climate change is already having drastic impacts on the planet and will fundamentally change our way of life in the future.  

Bringing the crisis into the classroom

Charlotte Jones: Young people are aware of these facts of climate change and are expressing overwhelming concern. Furthermore, young people, like us all, are already living with the dire impacts of climate change such as extreme weather events including 2019/20 Black Summer Fires.

In response, many young people are taking actions – changing consumer choices, striking from school (more recently through online strikes), talking with MPs and taking litigation action.  

At the same time there have been growing demands from students, parents and academics, to bring climate change more prominently into education curricula. This presents important opportunities to address existential issues of our time and to prepare young people for climate changed futures.   

However, as we bring climate change into the curricula, we need to pay attention to the emotional significance this has for students, with many young people experiencing legitimate and increasing anxiety as they grapple with climate change.

So, what can we learn from young people’s experiences as we bring climate change further into the classroom?

Our research involved talking with young people (18-24 years) about their educational experiences of climate change when they were at school. We asked them to describe, reflect upon and interpret their educational encounters with climate change, and their emotional responses to climate change during schooling, including any ongoing significances of these in their early adulthood. Three key themes emerged.

1. Stripped of power

For many students learning about climate change left them overwhelmed by information and by experiences of limited agency and power. Climate change knowledge was fragmented and divided by disciplinary boundaries. Students were not supported to navigate the boundaries between school and life and were left feeling helpless before this unfolding emergency. The home/school dichotomy was reflective of the public/private dichotomy of emotion, with emotions about the climate crisis, for many, discouraged in formal education spaces by their teachers and peers. While some students sought to maintain this distance, others were paralysed by it. 

2. Stranded by the generational gap

Learning about climate change alerted many students to their positions in a system of unequal power. At the time of learning about climate change they couldn’t vote and had limited ability to change their consumer choices or their mode of transport – and yet they learnt that these very actions are powerful tools to respond to climate change. Adults by contrast can undertake these actions and are positioned in our society as protectors and guides. However, for many of these participants learning about climate change sparked feelings of betrayal, as adults failed to fulfil these promised roles. Their security in adults, for many, was lost during these learning experiences as they grappled with a lack of intergenerational climate justice.

3. Daunted by the future 

For many, the jarring reality of climate change conflicted with ideals of a stable and secure future. Students felt ill-equipped to cope with the future climatic instability they had just learnt about. Anxiety about instability, and grief for lived and anticipated loss, were deeply felt by many (often in private) and changed how students perceived their personal and global futures. Hope, however, was experienced in various ways – hope in action, in technology, in religion, in humanity – and was experienced in entanglement with other emotions. 

Bearing witness to emotions 

These experiences present a snapshot of the formative experiences of climate change education and offer key learning for educators as we bring climate change into school curricula. These stories make clear the need for fostering safe and facilitative spaces for young people to respond to learning about climate change through their full range of cognitive, bodily and emotive registers. Young people are beginning to be louder in initiating these spaces and are demanding places for these conversations. Educators, parents, politicians and others need to be active in responding to this need and in creating and fostering spaces alongside young people that give social permission to experience and express emotions about climate change. 

Acknowledge and empower

Cristy Clark: There are several important things to remember when talking to university students about the environment. The first is that they are already hyper-aware of their intimate relationship with the environment, and of the ways that climate change is affecting their lives and their futures. The second is that this is an issue that most of them feel very passionate about. Finally, the environment is relevant to every subject we teach.

I teach law, and the environment forms the background to all of the subjects that we engage with. In Property Law, this means that students learn about the role of our property law system in commodifying land and entrenching an extractive approach to the environment, while also learning about First Law and the relational approach to land embedded in the obligations to Country that it recognises. It doesn’t take much for students to note the imperative to decolonise our property law system in the face of the destructive ecological and social impacts of our settler-colonial framework. They have grown up witnessing these impacts and are already open to alternative approaches.

Similarly, I have never seen my human rights law students more passionate than when they worked on the right to a healthy environment. They spoke about living through the horror of the Black Summer Bushfires, as thick acrid smoke filled the air and Canberra became, for a time, the most polluted city on earth. Students were also quick to grasp the link between human rights and the environment – its foundational role in realising the rights to health, life, water and livelihood; and the specific relationship that it shares with the right to culture for Indigenous peoples. 

Finally, when studying emerging jurisprudence around so-called ‘rights of nature’, students moved quickly from scepticism to acceptance, as they learned about the wide range of jurisdictions around the world recognising the rights of natural entities, such as rivers. Once again, they were quick to intuitively grasp our interdependence with the environment – that we are part of nature and cannot afford to continue to treat it as a resource that exists solely for our benefit. In this context, the tensions and potential synergies of these developments with First Law raised complex questions around ontologies (the ways we categorise things and the relationships between them) and epistemologies (theories of knowledge), but the students were more than up to the challenge and keen to grapple with these issues.

The environment affects every aspect of our lives and every subject we study, and students are intimately aware of the pressures that it is under and the existential threat posed by climate change. In the face of these realities, the only ethical thing we can do is to acknowledge this reality and empower our students to play a role in solving the climate crisis – whether through law reform, human rights litigation, or in any other profession such as education, science, and health. The very last thing they want is to be expected to passively sit by while those in charge continue to squander their futures.

Charlotte Jones is a social scientist and current PhD Candidate in the School of Geography, Planning, and Spatial Sciences at the University of Tasmania. Her research focusses on the emotional significances for young people, and how this shapes their relationships and orientations towards personal and planetary futures.

Cristy Clark is an Associate Professor of Law in the Faculty of Business, Government and Law at the University of Canberra, Australia. Her research focuses on legal geography, the commons, and the intersection of human rights, neoliberalism, activism and the environment.