Educating to Fight Climate Change

Special Focus : Learning Societies in the 21st Century
Learning and Behavioural Sciences February 14, 2019

Climate change is here. It is no longer looming on the horizon, it is no longer imminent, it is already happening. The inertia of the climate system implies that climate change will continue for a period after mitigation actions are implemented.

In 1980, the United Nations established the IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) to collect and synthetize the knowledge available at a given moment and across all disciplines, on climate science, the impacts of climate change (on the environment and human societies) and potential measures of attenuation and adaptation. The IPCC publishes regular reports, which become the basis for worldwide action at all levels (economic, social, and political).

Quoting Valérie Masson-Delmotte, Co-Chair of the IPCC’s Working Group I:

“Each degree matters, each year matters, and each decision matters: not acting today is adding to the burden of the next generations.”

World nations are already aware that the climate-change issue cannot wait. The Paris Agreement,[1] concluded during COP21 and ratified in November 2016 by 195 Parties, aims at limiting the global temperature increase to a 2°C world by 2050. Politicians and other decision-makers play a key role in the concretization of this agreement. However, unprecedent changes to our ways of life are required. Such great changes to our economic, energy and food-production systems will be a hard row to hoe and ensuring climate justice is paramount. If we want these goals to be achieved in due time, citizens must be informed and capable of understanding what is happening, in order to support and push decision-makers to act well and act swiftly.

We need education to fight climate change

Climate change education is also in line with 4 (education) and 13 (climate action) of the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs[2]), adopted by the United Nations in 2015. However, the vast majority of education systems are currently ill-prepared. UNESCO’s 2016 Global Monitoring Report on Education[3] shows that, in a wide range of countries:

  • 51% of the countries have integrated education for sustainable development into their education policies;
  • 33% in their school programs;
  • 7% in teacher training.

The striking difference between these numbers shows that, even in countries where there is a strong political will for education reforms, operational implementation is very rare. A considerable educational effort is still to be made, from primary to secondary school.

For the generation attending K-12 schools and universities today, it will not only be about understanding climate science and climate change. Their future will be about reinventing human societies and imagining and building carbon-free ways of life. They must be prepared to take on the challenge of doing things differently from how they were taught to and perceive the word in all its environmental, cultural and social dimensions, fostering worldwide solidarity beyond borders, and caring and hoping for the generations to come.

It is a big challenge that they are set to tackle.

Climate education must be taught differently

The climate and the Earth systems are complex and dynamic and thus require multiple unfamiliar concepts to be understood: extreme diversity of time and space scales, multifactorial causes; nonlinearities and abrupt transitions, couplings and feedbacks, modeling and projections in the future, and finally an optimization of choices and risks, which depends on the society’s vision of the future. Climate education is thus inherently transdisciplinary, involving “hard sciences”, engineering and technology, but also social sciences. Teachers have to be provided with resources and professional development in order to master the essential principles of such complex topics and avoid teaching climate sciences to students as “scientific dogmas.”

Not only is it important that new generations really grasp the meaning of climate change, but it is also (if not more!) important that they develop critical-thinking skills and the capacity to have out-of-the-box ideas: they will need both to adapt to and invent a new world.

Transforming science education is a major project that started two decades ago under the name of inquiry-based pedagogy. This approach aims for a teaching of sciences that is attractive to students, involving them in activities that require observation, experimentation, hypotheses making, argumentation and reasoning. The considerable development of these actions has been shaping a new generation capable of a deeper understanding of the world and informed decision making. This successful model is considered to provide a strong and original foundation for any international project focused on climate-change education and directly addressing the objectives of Article 12 of the Paris Agreement.

The Office for Climate Education

In 2016, the foundation La main à la pâte, with a number of scientific, NGO, and private partner organizations worldwide, created the Office for Climate Education (OCE). The Office combines an Executive Secretariat, with a small team in Paris, and a global network of many partners in various regions across the world, including climatologists from research laboratories, members of science Academies, educators, teachers’ associations, NGOs and IPCC representatives. The OCE project follows the principles of pedagogic inquiry in science education and is set to accompany IPCC reports with the publication of educational resources and the training that may help teachers and education systems in both developed and developing countries to rapidly become capable actors of climate-change education. Two further basic principles are to be followed: climate education should lead to individual empowerment (of students, families, communities) resulting in concrete actions and behavior changes, and climate justice must be a ubiquitous concept underlying all mitigation and adaptation solutions to be implemented.

Climate change is a global issue, of concern for the whole mankind. It must be dealt with at all levels, from nations working together to individual teachers, local communities, families, schools and students.

The OCE hopes to stimulate these exchanges and participate in them. Quoting the words of climatologist Veer Ramanathan:[4]

The Office for Climate Education wants to help teachers and develop among students, in as many places of the world as possible, “a critical mind educated by science and a hopeful heart believing in a positive future.”



Works cited:

[1] The Paris Agreement:…

[2] The United Nations convention:

[3] The UNESCO’s 2016 Global Monitoring Report on Education:

[4] Ramanathan, V., Han, Hahrie and Matlock, T. (2016). Educating children to bend the curve: For a stable climate, sustainable nature and sustainable humanity. In Battro, A.M. et al. (eds). Children and Sustainable Development. Ecological Education in a Globalized World. Cham, Switzerland: Springer International Publishing.