Education is Central to Addressing Climate Change
by Dr Alison Green, National Director (UK), Scientists Warning
Our planet is precariously perched, lurching towards a crisis of unimaginable proportions. Already, we have witnessed the extinction of countless species of plants and wildlife. Climate change is compromising harvests and leading to more severe and more frequent extreme weather events, as the world has witnessed recently in Australia and in east Africa. We urgently need co-ordinated action and visionary leadership, and a programme of education centered on planetary stewardship, to build alternative and better futures for us all.
The Global Climate emergency
Globally, CO2 emissions continue to rise unchecked. Figure 1 illustrates the magnitude of the problem.
A key point in understanding how to bring CO2 emissions down and to maintain all greenhouse gas emissions within safe limits is to first understand how this out-of-control situation has arisen. Education is central to this endeavour.
Systemic Change is needed
The present economic system, founded on neoclassical economics, is fueling the crisis. Growth economics, high carbon lifestyles and the relentless pursuit of wealth are inextricably associated with the climate crisis. But is our economic system the cause of the crisis, or a symptom of a more fundamental problem?
Easy access to fossil fuels enabled the industrial revolution and currently help to perpetuate unbounded economic growth. Because carbon has been so closely coupled with Gross Domestic Product (GDP), as prosperity has risen, so too have carbon emissions. Missing has been an appreciation of the need to achieve a global, carbon balance and to live safely within planetary boundaries. Unlike plants, humans cannot achieve homeostasis via respiration and photosynthesis, and so carbon has been emitted at ever higher and faster rates as GDP has risen, and that carbon largely remains in the atmosphere.
Of course, GDP has not increased in an equitable way, and there is a massive disparity between the Global North and the Global South. What is required is a balancing mechanism, which is outlined in The Living Systems Economy (www.livingsystemseconomy.org). In practice, that balancing mechanism could be operationalised as a Global Carbon Reward. This would function as a parallel economy, designed to reward for abating or sequestering carbon. To be viable, the mechanism must operate in a manner that is fair across nations.
Why we must change the relationship between Education and the Economy
In many societies, education has become a mechanism that enables and supports ongoing economic growth. But what of learning that does not directly support economic growth? How do we value this? These issues raise a vital question: What is education for?
While it is true that education is largely viewed as a societal good, and as a means for an individual to grow (intellectually, personally, spiritually and socially, and more), the increasing monetisation of education calls this into question. Increasingly, higher education institutions are under pressure to compete for the best students and are measured against metrics. In the UK, these metrics include measures of student recruitment, retention, and progression, qualification completion rates, and employment rates post-graduation.
Prospective students are given access ahead of course entry to an array of measures to help inform course choice. Research on the ‘graduate premium’ shows clearly just how much more (or less) a student can expect to earn if s/he decides to study Course X at Institution A, rather than Course Y at Institution B. The tacit assumption, which is not unreasonable, is that students ultimately care about their earning prospects. A consequence of these metrics is that courses with lower employ-ability or a lower graduate premium can become less popular, leading in turn to their demise. The decline in Arts and Humanities courses globally was commented on in the global press. In this way, the needs of the economy drive education, a situation that must be changed.
Some have spoken of the climate crisis and have said that “we have forgotten who we are.” By this is meant that we have lost or forgotten our connection with Nature. Research and education have in large part created the problems we now face. It is ironic that universities have supported the research that describes the horrific ‘hot house earth’ (https://www.pnas.org/content/115/33/8252) trajectory that we are on, yet universities have by and large been silent on the climate emergency.
We must now transform education to in turn transform the ways in which we live. We must place planetary stewardship, equality, welfare and well-being and the principle of living within planetary boundaries at the heart of education. Universities must reflect on their role in society and adopt measures of success that value citizenship, well-being, personal growth and planetary stewardship. To achieve this, bodies that regulate education must in turn change, as must the funding model for education. To make this happen, prospective students, current students, academics and university staff must rise up and say, ‘Enough’.