Why climate needs to be a part of higher education

At a minimum, we must set a goal of ecological literacy for all our students at the tertiary level. Photo: Markus Spiske/Unsplash

In order to equip the future generations with the skills to deal with climate change, the Sustainable Development Goal 4 (SDG 4) has a target – Target 4.7 – that requires that, by 2030, all learners will acquire the knowledge and skills through education for sustainable development and sustainable lifestyle, human rights, gender equality, promotion of a culture of peace and non-violence, global citizenship, and appreciation of cultural diversity and of culture’s contribution to sustainable development. Indicators to check the progress of Target 4.7 are the extent to which global citizenship education and education for sustainable development are mainstreamed in (a) national education policies; (b) curricula; (c) teacher education; and (d) student assessment. So, we have an excellent target and related indicators to measure the progress.

However, what is the reality in the mainstream model of education? Since the 1972 Stockholm environmental conference, promotion of environmental education began to be mainstreamed into educational curricula, led globally by Unesco. Then came Chapter 36 of the Agenda 21 on Education, adopted at the Earth Summit in 1992, and finally SDG 4. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) reports call for action in striking a balance between lowering energy and resource intensity and promoting decarbonisation. But they overlook and underestimate the role of education in climate change, linking it narrowly to behavioural change through education and community approaches, including local and Indigenous knowledge. It is unsurprising that hardly any educator participated in writing the IPCC reports.

However, this oversight reveals a much deeper issue, which is a de facto endorsement of business-as-usual in education, as a solution to environmental change. The assumption is that a wider access to quality education would automatically translate into higher environmental awareness and behavioural change, and most international development efforts have consistently prioritised Western education models that focus on economic growth and social equity over environmental issues. So, the education-related works of the World Bank, Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) and Unesco explicitly promote human capital theory, to realise the infinite growth paradigm. While their official statements align with SDG 4, they are targeted for promoting economic growth, as if there is no conflict between continued growth and environmental sustainability. Such angelisation of GDP growth is short-sighted, at the expense of limited environmental resources. This is evident from serious ecological crises all over the world.

But sustainable growth – the physical expansion of economies – is an oxymoron, because the former cannot continue ad infinitum in a bounded global ecological system. This oversight is the reason that education and research on SDG 4.7 (sustainable lifestyles and global citizenship) remains a neglected area. Unesco’s Institute of Statistics has focused its efforts on developing metrics for SDG 4.1- 4.6, while leaving SDG 4.7 unaddressed; this omission is evident in the SDG 4 Data Book: Global Education Indicators 2018. Any discussion on SDG 4.7 is almost always linked to improvements in individual cognitive skills, suggesting that SDG 4 goals can be achieved under the current education paradigm.

But research by environmental psychologists shows that higher cognitive skills and knowledge do not necessarily prompt citizens into environment-friendly action. Rather, culture, including the concept of self (independent or interdependent self), affects how people are guided towards action. Western countries with dominant “independent” selfhood have higher carbon dioxide emissions and ecological footprints than in cultures with “interdependent” selfhood. Looking at the increasing disconnect between climate science and climate policies at international and national levels, it is clear that the Earth does not need mere “educated” consumers of knowledge; rather, it needs more “environmentally-educated” consumers.

This reality calls for a fundamental reconceptualisation of education itself, along the line of famous American ecologist Aldo Leopold, that we need not just higher “volume” of education, but a change in its “content.” This will bring into sharp relief, together with knowledge and skills (curriculum), access and equity (structure), a more fundamental revaluation of self and others (our being), i.e. culture and our relationship with “nature.” We must fundamentally change the way we think of economic growth as the road to sustainable development, because the latter does not always require growth for improving the quality of life. While many developing countries still need environment-friendly growth for development, developed countries must focus on qualitative development, as they have achieved enough quantitative growth through mass and junk productions. So, understanding interactions, particularly negative loops, among different SDGs and different dimensions of sustainable development – economic, social and environmental – is instrumental in rethinking whether and under what conditions education can contribute to limiting climate change. This calls for a scathing critique of independent self-based Western model of education, with predominant focus on imparting knowledge and skills in numeracy. Do these skills fostering reflection over our “being” among students result in wisdom and self-realisation? Perhaps not.

In the end, let me recall the wisdom of Spanish philosopher Ortega Gasset, who criticised the modern trend in university education of micro and macro specialisations, which create “learned ignorants” who lose sight of the forest for the trees and leaves. We must maintain a balance between breadth and depth in disciplines across university departments. At a minimum, we must set a goal of ecological literacy for all our students at the tertiary level. No student should graduate from universities without a comprehension of the basic principles of ecology and ecological economics, carrying capacity, energetics, end-use analysis, how to live a good life, limits of technology, appropriate scale, sustainable agriculture and forestry, steady-state economics, and environmental ethics. As Leopold very cogently asked, “If education does not teach us these things, then what is education for?”

Originally this article was published on October 12, 2022 at The Daily Star. The author Dr. Mizan R Khan is the Deputy Director of International Centre for Climate Change & Development (ICCCAD), and Programme Director of LDC Universities’ Consortium on Climate Change (LUCCC).
Email: mizan.khan@icccad.org