In a few days’ time, Scotland will play host to COP26. The eyes of the world will be on Glasgow, and the conference has been discussed in terms of being a last chance opportunity to create the change needed for human life on this planet to be sustainable. What is meant by sustainable development needs to be defined clearly, and the best definition I’ve come across goes back to the UNWCED in 1987. It stated that sustainable development was:

“development that meets the needs of the present generation without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” 

United Nations World Commission on Environment and Development (WCED)
OECD iLibrary

This has the beauty of simplicity, and also broadens the definition beyond purely environmental issues. It is also about the economy, political structures, education, culture and society. Whilst I am no expert on climate science, I am comfortable to talk about the role that education has to play in creating a sustainable future. In fact, I would argue that the single most important intervention we can make in the battle for a sustainable future is actually in education. Here’s why.

The Problem of ‘Peak Human’

Peak human is the moment when population growth plateaus. Population growth globally actually hit a high point in the 1960s and has been slowing ever since, but we have yet to reach peak human. There are two key issues here:

  1. The date at which we reach peak human – for this to be sooner is more desirable.
  2. The level at which we reach peak human – we want this to be lower. 

Projections on the date and level vary, as shown by this graph from the UN Population Division. 

The high variant shows the global population at over 15 billion people in 2100 and still climbing. The low variant shows peak human coming around the mid-point of the 21st century at around 9 billion and then a gradual decline following. Needless to say, the former projection will exhaust all resources no matter what we do, whereas the latter makes it much more likely that we can find solutions to the problems we currently face. The most recent projection published in the Lancet suggests that the peak will come in 2064 at 9.7bn which is more optimistic than we might previously have thought.

What will make the difference? Educating girls around the world. Where girls have access to secondary (and ideally tertiary) education they are less likely to be forced to marry early and have multiple pregnancies throughout their life. This leads to a natural reduction in population growth and makes the challenge of feeding, housing, and providing energy for the world much more feasible. In this respect, education – and SDG 4 – are of critical importance.

The New York Times Climate Hub – Educate on Climate Programme

I’ve been working with the New York Times, Summerhouse Media and Kite Insight on the Educate on Climate programme at COP26. The NYT has created a Climate Hub which is a brilliant venue (Es Devlin’s ‘Conference of the Trees, the featured image of this post, has to be seen to be believed). We’ve spent the past few months thinking about which issues to tackle. The NYT are looking at various strands so education is just a part of this, but on November 5th we have a programme which tries to explore as many core education issues as possible. Online tickets are still available and are free, with content being recorded and available to view later on. 

So what are looking at? Here are the debates that we’ve got lined up:

  • Forming Partnerships With Schools in the Global South
  • Creating a Research-Informed Manifesto for Environmental Sustainability in Education
  • How Schools Can Prepare Their Students for a Changing Climate
  • The U.N.’s Decade of Education for Sustainable Development: Is It Working?
  • From Climate Change to Change-Making: Firing Up Youth Activism
  • Future-Proofing Pupils: Preparing Students for Work in a Changing World
  • Teaching Critical Thinking in an Age of Misinformation
  • Reboot the Future: How Do We Move Faster, Together?
  • Climate Tech Will Be Bigger Than the Internet Revolution
  • Explore: Urban Nature Teacher CPD

The steer given to all speakers is that the audience should have practical takeaways from their session. The dynamic we are looking to create is a platform where students and educators can really put policy makers and those in power on the ropes. 

It’s impossible to be comprehensive when exploring the ways in which education can be the solution, and we were left with so many good ideas that we couldn’t fit into the time we had. We’ll think of how we can use these ideas to carry on the conversation long after the UN has packed up and left Glasgow.

What Do We Want to Achieve at COP26?

In the many meetings and discussions I’ve been involved in over the past year, it’s clear that we’re way past the point of raising awareness. What we need to do now is tackle two key things: attitude and behaviour. 

Many young people are left struggling with what to know and think about the crisis we are facing. ‘Climate anxiety’ is a term that has come into public discourse, and I think it’s unhelpful. A recent study led by Bath University found that 56% of young people believe that “humanity is doomed”. The narrative that underpins this makes it less likely that our students will feel motivated to tackle a problem if they are led to believe that it is futile. Self-fulling prophecies are not what we need or want.

Instead, what we need to do is persuade students that a) the problems we face do have solutions and b) that they have agency to make a positive contribution. It is not too late, it is not insurmountable, and it is something that every one of us can influence. That should then lead to a change in behaviour. It is not only about the behaviour of all school age pupils, but the positive impact that their action can have on older generations. Making everyday decisions, even at a very basic level, will affect change. 

I’ve written about this before, but Generation Z clearly cares about this issue more than any other. The Greta Effect has led many students to believe it is better to miss school and campaign for change than stay in a class and learn more about the issues. That is either a damning indictment of education on sustainable development (ESD), or evidence that it has energised young people and created a global call to action. The jury is still out on that, but we’ll be discussing it at the Climate Hub. 

What we definitely want post-COP is a paradigm shift, with change ranging from macro level policy to micro level behaviour, so that humankind has a future beyond this century. There have been many mass extinction events in earth’s history. Our species will either be the first to be the architect of their own demise, or the first to escape this fate. I hope that COP26 is looked back on as a significant turning point, for the better. 

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