As well as climate action, young people across the world are calling for climate education

Youth environmental activists rally outside the IFEMA Convention Centre in Madrid on 13 December 2019 to urge world leaders not to block the COP25 negotiations. The yearly climate conference ended on 15 December without any deep commitments to carbon markets or climate financing from national governments. (Nina Cordero/LatinClima)

Despite the staggering inability of world leaders to come up with any meaningful response to the global climate emergency at the COP25 in Madrid (relocated from Santiago in Chile due to protests), there was one bright spot at the yearly climate summit held last December – the clarity of purpose and leadership shown by the world’s youth climate activists.

As governments failed to reach an agreement on how to implement the global carbon market architecture laid out in the 2015 Paris Agreement, young people from all continents took part in rallies, marches and side events, while some participated in the negotiations in an attempt to convince governments of the urgent need to make drastic reductions to carbon emissions and provide climate finance for the most vulnerable nations.

The youth presence at the COP was buoyed by the success of a year of global climate strikes, led by the Swedish schoolgirl Greta Thunberg. The strikes engaged millions of young people around the world in climate activism and featured the biggest environmental protest in history.

As well as calling for more commitment from world leaders to tackle the climate emergency, one of the top demands of young climate activists was the need to implement and improve climate education in schools.

The United Nations says the world has just 10 years left to prevent the catastrophic impacts of a 1.5°C rise in global temperatures: sea level rise will accelerate as the planet’s ice sheets melt at an ever-quickening rate; floods, droughts, crop losses, storms and wildfires will all lead to significant loss of life, particularly in the world’s poorest nations.

Education, therefore, is a fundamental requirement to understand the issues and solutions to the climate emergency we are all facing. The main goals of climate education include building a sustainable future, inspiring action and nurturing the social and personal skills that will not only enable young people to understand what climate change is but how to change one’s own behaviour and actions to limit its impacts.

By focusing on the classroom, local and national governments are empowering the citizens of tomorrow to take control of their future. In the same way that governments have a duty to teach children how to read and write, they also need to ensure that young people are climate literate before it’s too late, according to eduCCate Global, a climate change teacher training programme accredited by the United Nations Institute for Training and Research.

Letting young people find real solutions

“We believe in the power of education,” said Karina Penna, a 23-year-old biology student from the impoverished northern province of Maranhão. She belongs to the Brazilian youth-led project Engajamundo, and spoke at the only civil society event attended by Brazil’s Environmental Minister Ricardo Salles during the COP. Engajamundo is actively participating in the development of climate education in Brazil and has helped shape EducaClima, a web portal with information on climate change from civil society and Brazilian governmental bodies. “We insist on the implementation of climate education in our curricula,” Penna told attendees. “We need to act. But what scares us is that the power is not on our hands and the decisions are taken behind closed doors. We need more participatory processes.”

For 16-year old Joel Enrique Peña Panichine, an indigenous climate activist from Chile, environmental education should be aligned with critical thinking. “If we’re not conscious that more than 70 per cent of Chile’s greenhouse gas emissions come from thermoelectric plants in the north of the country, we will change very little if we are only taught how to plant trees,” he tells Equal Times.

Panichine – who co-wrote an op-ed calling for the end of the fossil fuel economy with Thunberg and other young climate activists ahead of the World Economic Forum in Davos this month – says that meaningful environmental education should focus on enabling citizens to finding real solutions “to the real problems in our countries”.

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As a Mapuche, an indigenous group that is experiencing indiscriminate violence and human rights abuses as they attempt to defend their ancestral lands from extractive industries, Panichine says that his cosmovision of education is intimately connected to the nature. “We take out of nature only what we need. We have conservation projects to restore land and avoid super exploitation. Our way of life respects, understands and sympathises with nature,” he says.

“Education has to be a key part of the change,” Gautam Narasimhan, a senior advisor for climate change, sustainable energy and environment at UNICEF told Equal Times during the COP. At the climate conference, UNICEF promoted the Intergovernmental Declaration on Children, Youth and Climate Action – signed by Chile, Costa Rica, Fiji, Luxembourg, Monaco, Nigeria, Peru, Sweden, Slovenia and Spain – to accelerate child-inclusive and youth-friendly climate policies.

Amongst the seven points of the declaration, point four specifically addresses the need to establish climate change and environmental education “equipping children and young people with the knowledge and skills required to protect themselves and contribute to a safe and sustainable future”.

In Narasimhan’s view, children should be given the tools they need to help manage the risks they will face as a result of climate change. To that end, UNICEF is promoting a safe schools programme anda manual on climate change and environmental education to ensure that children in the areas most vulnerable to extreme climate events know what to do when disaster inevitably strikes. “We need to ensure that children are part of developing risk management plans, that the schools they study in are safe and climate resilient,” he argued.

Last November, Italy became the first country to make climate change lessons compulsory in schools and earlier this month, New Zealand announced major new educational resources on climate change for all schools. But is this enough? “Certainly not,” says Narasimhan. Nevertheless, good experiences at a local level have produced some interesting results.

For example, schoolchildren in Nepal have been actively involved in emergency drills and every school has introduced a basic earthquake safety programme. The Emergency Response Plan includes the training of teachers, parents and the local community, as well as students. Meanwhile, in Bolivia, young people worked with their government to hold a youth congress in 2018 around climate change and water.

“There are some really good examples, both in terms of activism and the power of education to shift the attitudes. We just need to make sure that children are included when climate policies are being framed,” says Narasimhan, especially as children will face the brunt of climate change and, according to new research, rising temperatures will even see more young people die of violence and suicide.

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Building environmental consciousness amongst children

“We cannot talk about sustainable development without addressing environmental education,” argues Chadian youth activist Joël Yodoyman who in 2012 created the NGO Espaces Verts du Sahel (Green Spaces of the Sahel) to raise awareness about environmental protection in schools across Chad, a country on the frontline of climate change.

“I founded this organisation with the idea of building consciousness among children and through them convey the message about the need to protect the environment,” Yodoyman tells Equal Times. His NGO currently hosts ‘ecological clubs’ in 54 schools across the country. The hubs allow young people to become experts in different fields, ranging from combating desertification to fostering sustainable development. These experts then serve as multipliers by mentoring other students.

The results have been positive: Yodoyman says that not only have young people become more interested in saving the environment, but so have their parents, teachers and even local authorities. “It’s a very unstable region that is becoming ripe terrain for terrorist actions. Children need to understand the environmental problem and through education we can expose the challenges that we live with,” he says.

Over in Kenya, 24-year-old environmental activist Elizabeth Wanjiru Wathuti says that the earlier children are sensitised to the environment, the better: “Behaviour is an attitude and it begins to change when one is still young.”

Wathuti is the founder of the Green Generation Initiative, which encourages schoolchildren to plant trees. Inspired by the work of the Nobel Peace Prize-winning Kenyan environmentalist Wangari Maathai, Wathuti’s initiative has helped over 20,000 schoolchildren plant 30,000 seedlings across schools in Kenya. “I planted my first tree at the age of seven and this is what made me become part of nature and nature become part of me,” she explains. Like Yodoyman, she was at the COP in Madrid to showcase her experiences and join forces with the Fridays for Future movement.

For her, climate strike means “fighting on behalf of the many people in my country who are suffering from the impact of climate crisis. There are many people dying of mudslides, floods, and hunger caused by the climate crisis and these people are not given a chance to speak up for themselves.”

Her aim is to ensure that every schoolchild in Kenya is empowered to “love nature, plant and adopt a tree each in the school compound” and has the opportunity to be exposed to environmental education and practical activities so that they can learn by doing. The young Kenyan started the initiative with her own money but was enabled to continue when she received the Wangari Maathai Scholarship Award in 2016. Wathuti was also recently shortlisted as an African finalist for the 2019 UN Young Champions of the Earth prize.

She is now promoting the idea of planting ‘food forests’ in the schools to address food insecurity. “We want to ensure that these children have nutritious food to eat, so now we are planting a mix of species of fruit trees,” she says. “If we don’t help children to have passion and connection to nature at young age, we are going to lose them. This is probably what is happening to the world: people have disconnected with nature.”

This story was produced as part of the COP25 Reporting Fellowship for Latin American Climate Journalists.

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