environmental SCIENTIST | The value of an environmental science education | November 2020
Serena Murdoch, Henry Webb and Jude Daniel Smith summarise the changes that are needed across the whole education system.
Our education system is no longer fit for purpose. Covid-19 has brought many obvious flaws into the limelight that we have ignored for too long – from the blatant inequality of opportunity to the recent results fiasco. It is clearly time to rebuild our education system, alongside the rest of the economy after the pandemic, for the 21st century. In our experience, as youth activists and students living in the UK, the majority of teaching and learning in the education system is not aligned with the scale of the climate crisis and the changes urgently required to equip our generation to ensure a sustainable world.
Minimal, siloed teaching
Students go through years and sometimes decades of teaching, and all these years have the potential to be a tremendous force for social and environmental change. However, our schools, colleges and universities severely lack comprehensive climate education. We are led to believe that sustainability and the protection of our planet’s existence are niche subjects, not concepts that are fundamental to everything we learn and do. Topics are siloed into separate classes, such as geography or chemistry, and dealt with only at a basic level and only in secondary education. The already minimal amount of knowledge about the climate emergency is restricted to subjects seen as ‘relevant’ to our changing climate. A revamped education system is essential to the implementation of a green recovery following this pandemic, which is a short-term crisis within a much greater one: the beginnings of the climate and ecological breakdowns. These breakdowns will require an economic transition – in terms of scale and speed, unlike any seen before. In just a decade, millions of jobs in oil and gas, aviation and thousands of other sectors will, of necessity, be lost. If mishandled, the result could be disastrous, historic unemployment. However, as some industries fall, others will rise, creating new employment opportunities. This article aims to highlight what those sectors are, how we can grow them sustainably, and ways that education can bridge the gap between our current economy and a new, sustainable one.
A resilient economy
The technology needed for a zero-carbon economy exists, yet relative to what is necessary, we have implemented almost nothing. In 2017, it was estimated that 85 per cent of the jobs students would be doing in 2030 do not exist yet.1 The climate is changing rapidly, and our economies, communities and societies are following suit. The education system must reflect and prepare the workforce for this fast-paced change, but what does a resilient green economy look like? Decarbonisation, resource efficiency, equity and protection of the vulnerable are necessities; the UN Environment Programme defines it as ‘low carbon, resource-efficient and socially inclusive’.2
Innovation and demand have led to sectors becoming more environmentally sustainable. From green roof gardens to vertical farming, global agriculture has started to adapt to urbanisation, desertification, lack of space and issues of unequal distribution. Employment in green building, green design and clean energy has also been on the rise, fuelled by the natural scientists whose research makes these sectors possible. In 2017, it was estimated that there would be 24 million jobs globally in the renewable energy sector by 2030 (an increase from 11 million in 2019).3,4
Mitigation and adaptation efforts relating to the climate and ecological crises will have to be woven through all of our existing sectors, while novel employment areas develop simultaneously. Employment rates improve, albeit marginally, with increased climate policy.5 The transition to a greener, more resilient economy can be eased by retraining the workforce and educating students now, allowing for increased innovation and improvements in technology. We can ensure this is done fairly, closing existing discriminatory development gaps, with the necessary expenditure and investment.
As we start to see the light at the end of the Covid-19 tunnel, further fiscal stimuli will be necessary. Why not prepare for the climate crisis concurrently? Transitioning the people recently unemployed due to the pandemic, who are also the most socially vulnerable, into resilient jobs is an opportunity not to be missed. Regions and states have already started to seize this chance: in July 2020, South Korea announced its Green New Deal (also known as the Korean New Deal) as part of an economic recovery plan. It aims to create 659,000 jobs with an investment of 73.4 trillion won, focusing on green infrastructure, low-carbon energy and greener industry.6
By teaching sustainability and climate resilience across a national syllabus, green jobs will become more equitably distributed and more abundant as carbon literacy increases. Through climate education, all areas of the economy, not just the obvious ones, will be rethought and redesigned to adjust for the climate crisis.
What education needs to provide
Education can easily bridge the gap between the climate emergency and the economy necessary to abate it. However, there are a few barriers to this.
The first of these is the skills gap. Perhaps it does not need to be said, but we need to end training for new jobs in industries that are reliant on fossil fuels. The engineers and scientists, economists and architects – the workforce of the future – will need to be trained to build that future. Every university, college, school and apprenticeship scheme must focus on the skills necessary to overhaul our infrastructure, from transport to food to housing.
The energy industry employs almost 30 million people worldwide in fossil fuels,7 and all of them are going to need new jobs, as are the millions of others in industries dependent on those fuels. All of them will need retraining. While many skills will be transferable, and much of this retraining will be done by new employers, the transition will still place significant pressure on the world’s educational institutions.
Yet there has arguably never been a better time, as universities and colleges adapt to teaching online, for a revolution in education. Pre-recorded content will never be a genuine replacement for in-person teaching, but a hybrid approach could offer more flexibility and allow for the higher capacities necessary. If we are going to retrain an entire workforce in the space of a decade, the conventional delivery of education merits consideration.
Where does this leave primary and secondary education, or sectors that will largely remain the same? These will also ultimately need reformation. Climate education must be integrated into every subject, producing students who understand our impact on the natural world as well as how we can reduce that impact.
This leads to the second issue: most people do not understand the reality of climate and ecological breakdown, or the scale of what is needed to stop it. This gap in the perceived threat we are facing is a fundamental flaw of the education system: it is no longer enough to consider climate change only briefly in optional subjects. Students must learn about the real impacts climate breakdown is having on communities right now. They must be taught about the 100 companies responsible for more than two-thirds of world emissions,8 and the disproportionate historical contributions of North American and European economies to this global problem.
A green new deal, one grounded in the principles of climate justice and that leaves no one behind, is possible, and it needs to start with education.
Some solutions to environmental issues
Just 4 per cent of students ‘feel that they know a lot about climate change’ and 75 per cent of teachers ‘feel they haven’t received adequate training to educate students about climate change’ in the UK.9 If students are not being taught about this global crisis, how can they be expected to fill the future green workforce? Teach the Future is a campaign led by students to repurpose the UK education system around the climate and ecological breakdown. They believe that to do this, increased vocational training, teacher training and a revamped national syllabus is necessary. For example, as a form of green recovery, government investment in retrofitting schools would spread employment across the nations, save carbon emissions and prepare schools and students for climate change.
Another example of environmental education playing a part in the creation of green jobs comes in the form of gender equality. In Guyana, the Mangrove Restoration Project (GMRP) aims to cultivate mangroves to increase resilience to storm surges, rising sea levels and flooding. Part of the program is training for women on subjects such as climate change and the role of mangroves, along with propagation and project management for their restoration. The project planted 460,000 mangrove seedlings between 2010 and 2013 and created a sustainable income for more than 50 women in the region.10 This is an example of increased equality, green employment and ecological resilience leading to decreased vulnerability.
Climate education can (and hopefully will) be used as the most efficient tool for breaking down social inequalities resulting from or worsened by the ecological crisis. The right education can create sustainable industries and greener jobs to strengthen economies around the world weakened by Covid-19, while also providing more and more solutions for the most critical emergency humanity has ever faced.
Serena Murdoch is a 17-year-old student climate activist from England. She is a volunteer for the Teach the Future campaign and is on the board of the charity Action for Conservation. She works for the Esmée Fairbairn Foundation to include young people in grant-making decisions.
Henry Webb is a 19-year-old climate activist living in Norwich. He studies Geography and International Development at the University of East Anglia and volunteers for several environmental groups, including Teach the Future.
Jude Daniel Smith is a 15-year-old student climate activist living in Sheffield. He works as a campaign coordinator for the Teach the Future campaign, engaging with key politicians, examination boards and accreditation bodies, and multiacademy trusts.
- Institute for the Future and Dell Technologies (2017) The Next Era of Human–Machine Partnerships: Emerging Technologies’ Impact on Society & Work in 2030. Available at: https://www.delltechnologies.com/content/dam/delltechnologies/assets/perspectives/2030/pdf/SR1940_IFTFforDellTechnologies_Human-Machine_070517_readerhigh-res.pdf (Accessed: 21 October 2020).
- United Nations Environment Programme (2020) Green Economy. Available at: https://www.unenvironment.org/regions/asia-and-pacific/regional-initiatives/supporting-resource-efficiency/green-economy (Accessed: 21 October 2020).
- International Renewable Energy Agency (2017) Renewable Energy and Jobs: Annual Review 2017. Available at: https://www.irena.org/-/media/Files/IRENA/Agency/Publication/2017/May/IRENA_RE_Jobs_Annual_Review_2017.pdf (Accessed: 21 October 2020).
- International Renewable Energy Agency (2019) Renewable Energy and Jobs: Annual Review 2019. Available at: https://www.irena.org/-/media/Files/IRENA/Agency/Publication/2019/Jun/IRENA_RE_Jobs_2019-report.pdf (Accessed: 21 October 2020).
- Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (2011) Towards Green Growth: A Summary for Policy Makers. Available at: https://www.oecd.org/greengrowth/48012345.pdf (Accessed: 21 October 2020).
- Government of the Republic of Korea (2020) The Korean New Deal: National Strategy for a Great Transformation. Available at: https://english.moef.go.kr/pc/selectTbPressCenterDtl.do?boardCd=N0001&seq=4948 (Accessed: 21 October 2020).
- Czako, V. (2020) Employment in the Energy Sector: Status Report 2020. Available at: https://ec.europa.eu/jrc/en/science-update/employment-energy-sector (Accessed: 21 October 2020).
- CDP (2017) The Carbon Majors Database: CDP Carbon Majors Report 2017. Available at: https://www.cdp.net/en/articles/media/new-report-shows-just-100-companies-are-source-of-over-70-of-emissions (Accessed: 21 October 2020).
- UKSCN, Oxfam, NUS and SOS (2019) Climate Change Education. Available at: https://sustainability.nus.org.uk/resources/ukscn-oxfam-nus-sos-uk-teachers-and-climate-change-survey (Accessed: 21 October 2020).
- Aguilar, L., Granat, M. and Owren, C. (2015) Roots for the Future: The Landscape and Way Forward on Gender and Climate Change. Available at: https://portals.iucn.org/library/sites/library/files/documents/2015-039.pdf (Accessed: 21 October 2020).
Banner image: Teach the Future volunteers gather outside the UK Parliament ahead of their parliamentary reception in February 2020. (© Teach the Future)