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Climate Education: Empowering Change

Climate education is more than just understanding the impacts of the climate crisis. It is about empowering individuals to take action and become agents of change. If you're interested in delving deeper into the origin, scope, and distinguishing features of meaningful climate education, then you're in the right place.

What is climate education

According to UNESCO, climate education is ‘education that helps people understand and address the impacts of the climate crisis, empowering them with the knowledge, skills, values and attitudes needed to serve as agents of change’.

The IPCC identifies a range of educational approaches to adapt to and mitigate climate change. These include creating awareness and integrating climate change education into school curricula, promoting gender equity in education, employing various forms of adult and non-formal education such as extension services, sharing indigenous and local knowledge, engaging in participatory action research and social learning, utilising knowledge-sharing platforms, and disseminating information on hazards and vulnerability. These practices can be manifested at both individual and collective level.

Individual actions encompass choices related to personal consumption, lifestyle, and behaviour, such as population control, adopting low-carbon diets, utilising renewable energy sources, and practising minimalism. Collectively, citizens exert influence through democratic processes at different levels of governance, including local, regional, national, and international contexts, as well as by advocating for responsible corporate behaviour.

In the pursuit of sustainable lifestyles, Reimers highlights the need to go beyond mere scientific understanding, technological innovation, or ethical frameworks. It requires a holistic comprehension of social systems and the development of ethical reasoning. This integration encompasses critical thinking about the current impacts of climate change, moral imagination, personal motivation, and effective competency for driving change.

An example of integrating the understanding of complex social systems with ethical reasoning is engaging students in projects that enable them to comprehend the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). These goals, comprising seventeen interconnected objectives, offer a normative framework to guide the development of inclusive and sustainable communities, cities, and other jurisdictions and hence could make for valuable reference points when planning and executing climate education initiatives.

International Commitments and Initiatives for Climate Education

Within the context of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, 95% of the 194 countries reporting to the convention have incorporated climate change education in their recent reports. However, it is concerning that approximately half of the countries examined in a UNESCO report from 2021 did not include any mention of climate change in their national curriculum frameworks. It is therefore evident that, while there is undoubtedly a growing momentum and recognition of the importance of climate education, a significant gap persists between theoretical discourse and political will and its subsequent implementation.

In accordance with Article 6 of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change and Article 12 of the Paris Agreement, which emphasise the pivotal role of education, UNESCO, as the lead agency for Education for Sustainable Development (ESD), launched the global framework ESD for 2030 at the UNESCO World Conference on ESD in May 2021. This significant event witnessed the commitment of over 70 education ministers, vice-ministers, and 2,800 stakeholders to integrate ESD, including climate action, as a fundamental component of the curriculum. The Milan Youth4Climate Manifesto and the Glasgow Work programme on Action for Climate Empowerment further reinforced this dedication during COP26 in Glasgow, where climate change education occupied a central role for the first time. This positive momentum was subsequently reinforced by the launch of the Greening Education Partnership at the 2022 UN Transforming Education Summit, with the ultimate objective of equipping every learner to be ‘climate-ready’.

But what does ‘climate-ready’ actually mean?

Beyond just the facts - The essence of meaningful holistic climate education

According to Wals, education must be approached with caution when used as a tool to manipulate human behaviour towards a specific direction, as this contradicts the essence of true education. This notion is particularly relevant in the context of climate education, where current sustainability and climate change communication often resort to shaming and prescribing certain behaviours, rather than fostering understanding and critical thinking.

It is essential to recognise that the complexity of the planetary sustainability crisis often tempts instrumental approaches, where urgency for immediate action overshadows the need for comprehensive understanding. However, as environmental sociologists claim, we now understand that simple causal models, assuming a linear relationship between knowledge, awareness, and behaviour, oversimplify the intricate dynamics of human behaviour in the context of the environment.

Mere provision of information, raising awareness, and changing attitudes are insufficient to induce meaningful behavioural change. Environmental behaviours are highly complex and context-dependent, demanding a more holistic approach.

Contrary to instrumentalist approaches, the emancipatory approach emphasises the importance of capacity building and critical thinking. Education should enable individuals to understand societal dynamics, ask critical questions, and determine their own course of action. Instead of prescribing specific behaviours or reactions, education should focus on cultivating students' ability to think critically and autonomously, fostering adaptability in the face of evolving circumstances.

Besides, it is crucial to acknowledge that what may initially appear as sustainable behaviour can later be deemed unsustainable (Wals, 2007). Therefore, the prescription of specific behaviours or reactions to particular 'triggers' may inadvertently lead to adverse consequences in the long term. To illustrate the point, let’s take a closer look at the shift in perceptions regarding the sustainability of paper cups compared to plastic single-use caps. While paper cups were once considered a more sustainable alternative, the current consensus favours stainless steel reusable cups as the most environmentally friendly option. If individuals have been exclusively taught that only paper cups are sustainable, they may be hindered in adapting to evolving circumstances and embracing new, genuinely sustainable alternatives. Therefore, teaching specific behaviours based on current knowledge may limit individuals' openness to embracing new, more sustainable alternatives that may arise.

Moreover, Gusc highlights the importance of teaching students to 'face challenges independently', a concept that aligns with Wals' view of Education for Sustainable Development (ESD). Wals argues that ESD should develop learners' competencies to navigate uncertainty, undefined situations, and conflicting norms, values, interests, and realities. Living with uncertainty necessitates a 'precautionary reflexivity' that enables individuals to avoid inaction, paralysis, and apathy often stemming from a "wait and see" attitude. In line with this perspective, supporters of emancipatory learning contend that ESD plays a crucial role in nurturing learners' dynamic qualities, enabling them to critique, construct, and act autonomously.

Such principles are embodied in the emerging concept of social learning. Social learning emphasises the value of diversity, reflexivity, social cohesion, and collaborative action. It recognizes that pluralism and heterogeneity offer greater potential for creative solutions to complex issues compared to singularism and homogeneity. Consequently, it is argued that meaningful climate education should help learners appreciate and engage with different mindsets, as social interaction allows for the exploration of alternative viewpoints and the co-creation of knowledge. By fostering a sense of competence and belonging within a community of learners, shared experiences contribute to individual and collective growth.

Overall, mindful climate education seeks to move beyond prescriptive approaches, placing emphasis on critical thinking and autonomy of the learner. In other words, it favours the bold and analytical environmentalist over the 'perfect’ one. It acknowledges the multifaceted nature of environmental challenges and the need for nuanced responses. By nurturing learners' capacity to navigate uncertainty, understand societal dynamics, and appreciate diverse perspectives, mindful climate education fosters the development of creative solutions and cultivates citizens who are more reflexive, resilient, and engaged in shaping a sustainable world.

The characteristics of climate education

Drawing upon the valuable contributions of the emancipatory approach and social learning, as well as incorporating Monroe's themes of effective climate change education, we can glean that assessing climate education initiatives hinges on the following dimensions:

  1. their capacity to foster critical and autonomous thinking, enabling students to adopt a holistic perspective on climate change that integrates scientific knowledge with meaningful action;

  2. their effectiveness in equipping learners with the necessary skills to navigate and respond to uncertainty inherent in the climate crisis;

  3. their emphasis on establishing personal relevance and significance of climate change information, ensuring its meaningfulness to learners;

  4. the extent to which their activities or educational interventions are thoughtfully designed to actively engage learners and facilitate productive exchanges of diverse mindsets.

As we strive to tackle the urgent global challenges posed by climate change, both local learning and broader systemic mindset shifts are crucial. However, let's not limit our understanding of "education" to traditional classroom settings. Whether it's a book or observing someone on the street, every experience has the potential to increase our understanding of and ability to address the impacts of climate change. Yet, not all learning experiences are created equally holistically. To ensure that our climate education is truly comprehensive and impactful, let's bear in mind the four essential criteria mentioned above when evaluating our educational experiences.

Article Resources:


  • IPCC, 2014, p.27]

  • Reimers, Education and Climate Change Fernando M Reimers Editor The Role of Universities (1 edn, Springer 2021), 2

  • ]Youth demands for quality climate change education, UNESCO 2022

  • Wals, 'Learning our Way to Sustainability' [2011] Journal of Education for Sustainable Development 178

  • Hannigan, J.A. 1995. Environmental Sociology: A Social Constructionist Perspective. London: Routledge

  • Mayer, M. and J. Tschapka (eds). 2008. Engaging Youth for Sustainable Development: Learning and Teaching Sustainable Development in Lower Secondary Schools. Strassbourg: Council of Europe

  • Wals, A.E.J. 2007a. ‘Learning in a Changing World and Changing in a Learning World: Reflexively Fumbling towards Sustainability’, Southern African Journal of Environ-mental Education, 24 (1): 35–45

  • Gusc, Heijes, '“Oh This Learning, What a Thing It Is!”—Putting Sustainability First in Teaching Techniques and in Content' [2018] 10(2803) Sustainable, 7

  • Posch, P. 1991. ‘Environment and School Initiatives’ in Kelly-Laine and P. Posch (eds), Environment, Schools and Active Learning. OECD, Paris

  • Monroe, Plate et al, 'Identifying effective climate change education strategies: a systematic review of the research' [2017] Environmental Education Research 9


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