In the decades since the launch of the global environmental movement after the first Earth Day, more than 3 billion young people have graduated from high school having learned little or nothing about one of the greatest issues that will shape their lives and their livelihoods for decades to come – climate change.
Given both the sharply rising risks and enormous opportunities to forge a different and prosperous future, building a climate-literate population is one of the biggest missed opportunities in the climate restoration game plan.
It’s not as if world leaders have failed to recognize the pivotal role that environmental education could have played for the past 30 years. The countries that forged the original UN climate change treaty in 1992 at the Rio Earth Summit enshrined climate education as an essential part of a national response to a global emergency. But not much has happened and most countries, international institutions and environmental organizations have eschewed the critical role that climate education plays in solving climate change and in creating jobs.
But finally, things are changing. In a recent paper in the PNAS, scientists picked climate education as one of half a dozen societal transformations needed to stabilize the earth’s atmosphere by 2050, in line with the aims of the landmark Paris Agreement of 2015. In September 2020, the United Kingdom’s citizens’ climate assembly proposed many important specific measures to deal with global warming but their No. 1 overarching policy was a call for education and information for all on climate change.
Seventy-seven percent of 10,000 people polled in rich and poor countries put education as the No. 1 action needed to tackle climate change. So, there is a consensus building.
The United Nations climate conference (COP26), co-hosted by the United Kingdom and Italy in Glasgow in November 2021, is the next big chance to turn the page and repair a near 30-year broken promise to our youth and our economies. It is time that governments recognize their failures and support quality, compulsory climate education as a core, integrated subject in school curricula worldwide allied to teaching civic engagement skills.
If this generation of leaders can finally make it a reality, the ripple effect could be profound. Climate education and literacy will unlock efforts toward sustainable consumerism and the creation of environmentally friendly goods and services while providing a building block toward supporting entrepreneurship and ensuring purposeful employment opportunities.
Sharan Burrow is general secretary of the International Trade Union Confederation. Kathleen Rogers is president of Earthday.org.