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Re-inventing education in the era of climate change

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By Sanghamitra Chattopadhyay Mukherjee

· 9 min read

What do allergies, Belgian beers and Golf season have in common? How about king crabs, diarrhoea and orchids? However surprising it may be, there is a common thread across all these topics – climate change. A warming planet not only has the most obvious effect – it prolongs summers and we experience more heatwaves – but it also has an impact on many other aspects of life: it makes allergies worse as pollen season expands, causes diarrhoea to become more common in infants, and encourages an invasion of king crabs in Antarctica’s continental shelf, disrupting its delicate natural ecosystem. To the dismay of the orchid enthusiasts among us, orchids may become scarce too, while some famous golf greens are already considered unplayable due to intense storms and drought conditions brought on by a changing climate. Still wondering how Belgian beers fit in here? No, we won’t be drinking more beer to cool off in the hot summers! Rather, a good Belgian ale happens to require specific “cool” conditions for spontaneous fermentation, or for microorganisms to do their work. A warming climate threatens this process meaning fewer beers for us all.

Now imagine the efforts of paediatricians, breweries and botanists, when they all try to address these issues separately without understanding the root cause of them all. Imagine the time and resources that are wasted in these unfruitful pursuits while a warming climate remains unresolved. And now imagine how effective our efforts would be if we only had to prevent and manage further warming, rather than treating each issue disparately as and when they come up as we tend to do.

By now, most of us will agree that we must address climate change urgently and move to a more sustainable future, but at this point in time, I believe that it's no longer just about the destination; more importantly, it's about the pace and longevity of our progress. For 50 years, society and policymakers have known about climate change and environmental degradation, and yet, by the IPCC’s estimates, the sum total of policies in place today will take us to a world hotter by 2.7C and perhaps even a catastrophic 3.6C above pre-industrial levels by 2100. Back in 1972, the Stockholm Conference on the Human Environment recognised that the crises in security, health, development and the environment were intimately linked, and that a concerted effort was needed by all of society, all of government, and all nations. Today, however, time and again, the UN’s efforts at joined-up decision making between and within governments fail. People and planet continue to be plundered, while narrow interests are promoted for the benefit of a few. A temperature rise of 1.1C has already caused unprecedented summer temperatures of 40 degrees Celsius or more in Europe this year, leaving thousands dead or disabled. Consider then what 2.7C might do. The current rate of global warming already makes extreme weather events 10 times more likely than under normal climatic conditions, so we certainly have no time to lose.

While fewer beers do not create an immediate existential threat for us, impacts like these indicate how widespread and often disastrous the consequences of a single climatic phenomenon can be. In essence, a warming climate is a threat multiplier, meaning that it further escalates ecosocial, political and economic tensions in already fragile and conflict-ridden settings. It reinforces the systemic biases that already exist in society. For instance, where women depend more on and yet have less access to natural resources, they are the first and the hardest hit when climate change reduces the availability of food, water or fuel. This puts added pressure on young girls, who often drop out of school to help their mothers manage the increased burden. As climate change drives migration and conflict, women and girls face increased vulnerabilities to all forms of gender-based violence, including sexual violence, human trafficking and child marriage, creating a vicious cycle of vulnerability to future disasters. Long histories of colonisation, violence and systematic discrimination have created deep inequalities like these that disadvantage some from the outset. Inequities of poverty, caste systems, racism and sexism also intersect with each other, denying people who are already marginalised their human rights and equal opportunities. These impacts further extend across generations. Understanding these intersections and intersectionalities and acting on them will make our fight against climate change much more effective and long-lasting.

During my PhD, when I was studying about the very specific topic of renewable energy technology adoption, I realised that every “good” solution to climate change, generally some kind of “green” technology, also has many invisible layers, and I felt that not highlighting these issues enough are a big gap in our education system. When it comes to climate mitigation strategies, new technologies are obviously very welcome. But few are aware of the fact that essential components in “clean” technologies such as electric cars are very much linked to environmental damage and human rights abuses as well. While we applaud Western drivers for switching to a Tesla, people living in remote islands in Indonesia are struggling to find clean and safe water due to contamination from mining activities in their neighbourhoods, South American communities are experiencing a water crisis, and indigenous people in the Nordic Arctic fear that a race to renewable energy may mean indiscriminate exploitation of pristine Arctic resources, damaging and even eradicating local livelihoods, cultures and languages in the process. We definitely need to acknowledge that we are currently dealing with a crisis and use innovative technology to deal with it, but we must go a step further and be also equipped to see how different communities are battling various, interconnected issues all at once, so that we are better able to stand in solidarity with one another, question power structures, and speak out and act against the root causes of inequalities, so that we can create a future that truly leaves no one behind. Using an intersectional lens means that we can also recognise the historical contexts surrounding fossil fuel use and prevent history from repeating itself.

I believe that education will have a lot to do with turning things around. Our current narrow and siloed ways of gathering and imparting knowledge translates into the workplace and into policymaking spheres and creates real barriers where a more interconnected way of thinking and an understanding of relations are key to addressing the world’s biggest challenges. When we don’t resolve climate change or look at solving it with no regard for gender equality, biodiversity or the welfare of indigenous communities, we create further issues that are incredibly difficult to solve alone. Instead, an interdisciplinary approach to learning and problem solving allows us to join the dots early on and synthesise knowledge in multiple areas, making us more holistic problem solvers and better critical thinkers. What’s more, I believe that this mindset shift urges us to acknowledge the complexity of the human condition and allows us to consider a range of innovative ways to think about and resolve the pressing issues of our time. Who would’ve thought of educating girls as a potent climate action strategy, but it really is!

I dare say we would be better placed to deal with these huge and complex issues if we choose to further expand our technical and emotional vocabulary through new forms of learning, in particular when we promote more participatory, multidisciplinary, transdisciplinary, intercultural and intergenerational dialogue and thinking, where we forgo the singular infatuation with “knowing it all” or “mastering” a single domain and instead, leave more room for interconnectivity between domains, intersubjectivity between people, as well as reflection, rest, and recovery, encouraging self-awareness in the process along with confidence in our place and purpose in this world, so that we are better able to contribute to improving the world according to our best capacities.

A cross-disciplinary education system that helps us express ourselves adequately according to our lived experiences, consolidate the experiences faced by different groups, and co-create solutions through an interdisciplinary lens, serves to illuminate the connections between global issues and all fights for justice and liberation. Imagine, for a moment, an economist who truly understood the ecological limits of our planet, and therefore stopped perpetrating the myth of infinite growth and supported alternative models of human well-being instead. Imagine that engineers who are traditionally obsessed with least-cost, high-efficiency pathways are co-trained in the environmental and social sciences, are thus knowledgeable about the impact of resource extraction on local habitats and indigenous communities, and thereby empowered to make better decisions on where scarce resources for new technologies come from. Imagine anthropologists were also trained in the natural sciences, and were able to track the impact of a changing climate on languages and cultures, providing a wealth of knowledge and expertise in their preservation such that future generations did not lose out on the wisdom of their ancestors.

If we are to change the world and tackle the ongoing crises of climate change, war and increasing inequalities, we need a system reset, starting with a reset in how we educate our young people. There is clearly an appetite for learning about the climate crisis using tools that are used in non-formal education systems, but change must also come at the formal institutional level where academic curricula are made more inclusive, diverse, open and relevant, especially when it comes to climate resilience. Building such curricula must be a collaborative project between students and teachers interested and engaged in creating a more liveable future. Where climate change is a threat to human well-being and planetary health, there is little room for hierarchy across disciplines; each is necessary in its own right for grasping the bigger picture. At a time in history when we have almost missed out on a brief and rapidly closing window of opportunity to secure a sustainable future for all, we must harness all kinds of strengths to better understand the issues at hand and find solutions that work for all.

After having advocated for compulsory climate education in Ireland and Europe for the past few years, I awoke to some positive news recently. University students in Barcelona have voted to take a mandatory climate crisis module from 2024, the world’s first example of students taking the climate crisis seriously and university management in turn bowing to their pressure. This is not just another course on sustainable development either; instead, it combines the social and ecological aspects of the crisis, which are closely interrelated. I believe that to finance such movements in educational institutions is to finance the survival of people, planet and nature. If we are to take one action now, let us all push for climate and interdisciplinary education in our own institutions by putting pressure on university management and curricula developers. If any among us are teachers, let us use our power and position to bring interdisciplinary climate education to students and train ourselves in this area. At the same time, we can visit the European Commission's Education for Climate Coalition online platform to learn more about innovative education solutions for environmental sustainability and join the European community of students and educators to share best practices in sustainability studies.

I not only hope that we can change the world through the transformative power of education, but I also believe that we can. Let’s turn this crisis around by supporting and creating an education system that broadens our perspectives and teaches us to look out for, explore and leverage relations and interconnections. In that sense, education can be a powerful impact multiplier in the face of the myriad socio-technological and ecological threats we have to contend with today.

Illuminem Voices is a democratic space presenting the thoughts and opinions of leading Sustainability & Energy writers, their opinions do not necessarily represent those of illuminem.

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About the author

Sanghamitra Mukherjee is a recent PhD graduate from University College Dublin having recently completed a thesis on new renewable energy technology adoption for the Irish case study.

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