By Helen Bond, Professor of Curriculum & Instruction, Howard University, and SDSN USA Co-Chair 

Responding to the climate crisis requires knowledge as well as a shift in values and mindset. Education and culture are key to making this shift, as emphasized in the recent Group of 20 (G20) New Delhi Leaders’ Declaration, but are often underappreciated as climate change mitigation strategies. Climate change education has become a powerful driver in mobilizing individuals to translate their knowledge into action, especially for young people. As classrooms and curriculum become key tools available to leaders looking to combat climate change, efforts need to be made to ensure that climate education is inclusive and centers justice.

By 2030, the planet will be home to 1.9 billion young people between the ages of 10 and 24, and close to 90% will live in developing countries. Africa’s population is among the youngest globally, with 40% of the population aged 15 years and younger in 2022. This generation of youth, especially those living in developing countries, are particularly vulnerable to the worst impacts of climate change. But through climate education and training, they have the opportunity to be a valuable part of the solution. 

In recent years, case studies have shown promising examples of how climate change education, along with other factors, can help change behavior. In one instance, a course on global climate change at San Jose State University in California, US, resulted in an increase of pro-environmental behavior among graduates that was sustained up to five years. In Cameroon, due to a lack of information on climate change available to students, one high school student created an afterschool curriculum for secondary schools that covers all aspects of environmental education, including climate change and sustainability. The program trains other students to teach and engages students in hands-on projects like tree planting. Students in New Jersey, the first US state to require teaching climate change across content areas, have climate education embedded in their learning throughout their schooling, from K-12. However, poorer districts in the state may face lack of resources and funding causing unequal implementation. Scaling up education efforts like these could significantly advance progress in climate change mitigation but will require increased training for teachers and a greater focus in reaching marginalized communities. 

Despite the emphasis on education as a key driver of sustainable development, school teachers report a lack of skills, resources, and confidence in helping students learn about climate change and sustainable development. A global study of teachers found that one in four teachers did not feel competent in teaching lessons that focused on sustainable development and global citizenship education. While teachers’ feelings of readiness in these areas were low, their motivation to learn was high. Approximately 90% of teachers felt it was important to empower young people with the competencies and mindsets needed to live more sustainably. 

Climate change education is essential, and to ensure it leaves no one behind, it must be inclusive to vulnerable communities and address the social inequalities that lie at the root of the climate crisis. For example, in one urban high school, teachers developed lessons on environmental science and climate through a social justice lens. Through the justice-centered curriculum, students were able to see themselves represented in science and be agents of change. Lessons included topics such as the impact of systemic racism on the biodiversity of plants and animals in different cities, pollution, and climate change. Students were able to apply what they learned to their local communities. The Next Generation Science Standards, used by K-12 educators in the US, supports the inclusion of equity as a crosscutting concept in science and encourages robust engagement of climate change education by both primary and secondary teachers.   

Climate education is an often overlooked, but essential, part of climate mitigation. Climate change education that centers justice can help facilitate resiliency among youth by increasing knowledge and building trust and agency. More time, attention, and investments are needed to train teachers to help youth develop adaptation strategies so they can combat the rising impacts of climate change in their communities. Without this critical education, communities risk maladaptation, which is further compounded in marginalized and poor communities. As global leaders meet at the UN Climate Change Conference (UNFCCC COP 28) in Dubai, United Arab Emirates (UAE), this month to drive climate action and implementation, simultaneous efforts need to be made locally to advance climate education with justice and inclusivity at the center.