In a world of intensifying climate crises, why hasn’t education made its move?
For some 11,700 years, Earth and humanity thrived in a long period of climate and environmental stability, known as the Holocene. Where nature and mankind once co-existed in a functional if precarious balance, this balance could soon be lost for good. In the past two centuries, developments in human activity have tipped natural cycles out of balance. So rapid and far-reaching have the consequences of human-induced environmental degradation been, that some scientists have suggested we are now living in a new geological epoch, the Anthropocene: a new period of climate instability characterised by human activity. If anything is certain, it is that the world is rapidly changing, and human societies need to change quickly enough to prepare people for the decades to come. Changes do not simply mean adapting to inevitable geological conditions that will impact life as we know it; it is preparing people to understand why and how climate change is occurring, and how societies can move towards sustainable development to ensure equitable and long-term growth for all life on earth, for generations to come. Education is vital to bringing about this change.
Education has an important role and responsibility in teaching what sustainability means, and equipping people with the necessary knowledge and competencies to thrive in future sustainable industries. Schools are uniquely positioned to influence change by educating generations of young (or even mature) students, imparting the necessary attitudes and skills for them to thrive in a green economy. A mandatory, holistic, science-based sustainability education curriculum in schools is essential for equipping people with the knowledge and skills to not just understand the climate crisis, but to enact fair and much-needed changes to pivot societies onto the path of green growth in this critical decade of action.
Yet, while it is not uncommon to see climate education and green industry solutions integrated into curricula in established tertiary institutions around the world, a robust and mandatory climate education curriculum at the K-12 level is only just gaining traction. As one of the world’s consistently top-performing school systems, Singapore has only just announced integrating sustainability education into its public school K-12 curriculum with the introduction of the Eco-Stewardship Programme; and while many teachers around the world may agree on the necessity for a robust climate education curriculum, most feel ill-equipped to even teach the subject. Faster and more far-reaching changes are required in schools to address the rising climate alarm that will only persist and intensify in the coming decades.
Even as debates continue on how this can be done, the world of work is already changing rapidly to reflect these imperatives. The rise of green economics, for example, as seen in the World Bank’s Global Programme on Sustainability, represents just the beginning of more inclusive and accurate valuations of the essential biological services nature provides to human communities. Advances in green technology with renewable energy and electric vehicles are revolutionising (and even revitalising) old industries. They will require new leadership, and workers with relevant STEM skills and other 21st century competencies to sustain these new industries as they become mainstream. Transformations in farming practices are gaining traction, with innovations in perennial farming and urban farming, addressing contemporary problems of food security in conjunction with preserving biodiversity and natural spaces.
There is great and untapped potential for education to connect these burgeoning green industries to core school curricula. Addressing a commonly cited criticism that education does not prepare students for the realities of the working world, closer school ties with green industries would also act as a gateway for reconsidering and reforming curricula to be impactful and relevant for a sustainable future. If we are to fairly equip people for this decade of action and century of change, it all begins with robust mandatory climate education.
Hillary Loh is an Executive at The HEAD Foundation, working on education projects and research.
The HEAD Foundation Commentary is a platform to provide timely and, where appropriate, policy-relevant commentary of topical issues and contemporary developments. The views expressed by the authors are solely their own and do not reflect opinions of The HEAD Foundation.