Our climate is changing. So should our higher education

Before a plane takes off, the flight attendants take some time to give instructions to the passengers on how they should behave in case of an emergency. When considering the climate, we recognise that we are living in a time of emergency and yet most of the educational systems around the globe, especially higher education systems, make no reference to climate change.

We live in a world where crises arise all the time. Fossil fuel wars, drought, floods, extreme weather, pandemics; the list goes on and on. These are crises that our current and future citizens are not prepared for and will not be able to face if we do not rethink the future of higher education in a ‘green’ way.

So what is defined as climate education? Climate education is any formal or non-formal learning activity designed to develop the competencies required to critically assess and address the causes of the climate crisis and build resilience around its impacts.

It aims to foster a whole systems perspective on the climate crisis and related social justice issues, thereby empowering individuals and communities to take action and challenge existing systems to create transformative change that will lead to a just and sustainable future for people and for the planet.

An interdisciplinary approach

Climate change is a complex and multifaceted issue. In short, it is a cross-disciplinary issue and it needs a cross-disciplinary approach. From developing innovative solutions to implementing policies, there is an interaction between the natural and social sciences. Hence, in order to successfully integrate climate education within universities, it is necessary to change our overall perception of higher education.

Right now, universities worldwide are segmented by discipline. In most cases, there are no interdisciplinary curricula, which is a highly problematic situation given that concepts such as sustainability cannot be approached through separate subject areas. Students must be equipped with the ability to draw connections between the different facets of the crisis.

The curricula of all subjects should provide examples of the current impact the climate crisis has on economies and people, especially those people and places which are most affected.

In our society, universities have a huge responsibility towards their students since they shape their career paths to a large extent. Every student interested in a career related to fighting the climate crisis should be able to acquire the knowledge they will need in their field of work.

Therefore educational institutions should ensure all graduates gain the required competencies and resilience to address the climate emergency in the context of their chosen academic and professional fields, their lifestyles and their civic engagement.

Social and ethical issues

But universities do much more than preparing future workers. They greatly influence students’ awareness of humans’ place on the planet. From this point of view, all students must learn not only about the scientific aspects of the climate crisis but also the social and ethical ones.

It is a basic prerequisite for the transition to sustainability that citizens develop ecological awareness and are able to distinguish the social and moral dimensions of the climate crisis. As seen with the COVID-19 pandemic, widespread disregard for others has cost thousands of lives and millions of euros. The introduction of project-based climate education is crucial to ensure the societal change that is necessary to fight the climate emergency.

Of course, we cannot talk about all of the above without considering mental health. Climate anxiety and mental health issues are often an obstacle to work or studies, while negatively impacting the quality of university life. Fostering students’ and teachers’ mental health is key to ensuring their well-being and ability to be contributing members of society.

Climate education can take place not only in classrooms and lecture theatres but across the university. As Plato said, “even the walls of a city are educating citizens”. If educational institutions are to teach the basics in terms of knowledge about and the skills related to the ongoing climate and biodiversity crisis, it follows that they should lead by example and be a driving force of innovation in the fight against it.

By transforming educational facilities by having sustainability in mind from the offset, significant future costs can be avoided as society is increasingly forced to adapt to the crisis.

Transforming Education Summit

Since I started climate education activism with Fridays For Future, a lot has happened. Many political decisions have been made, but only a few of these have been implemented. Given that climate education has been on the agenda for more than 10 years, it seems that our education systems are very resistant to change.

I believe young people have a critical role to play in climate politics, simply because we are the bigger stakeholder group. Recently we managed to bring the issue of climate education to COP26 (the 2021 United Nations Climate Change Conference), to the UNESCO World Higher Education Conference and to Stockholm+50.

This week sees the most significant political event for education in recent years: the United Nations Transforming Education Summit. Young people have fought hard for the inclusion of climate education and, hopefully, this will be visible in the results of the summit.

Our generation will need to write a critical page in the history of Sapiens because climate change affects our ability to survive on the planet; ours and that of other species. This page must be written as a success story, and the tool which is best placed to achieve this is education.

We have hope that humanity can change, avert the worst climate disasters and build a better future. We need to recognise that the climate is changing and that our educational systems cannot remain the same.

Eva Papanikolaki is an activist, the co-coordinator of Fridays for Future Greece and an advocate for climate education. Being active with YOUNGO and Fridays For Future Climate Education International, she is passionate about youth advocacy and she has represented these groups at international conferences. She is studying economics at the Athens University of Economics and Business (AUEB) while being, at the same time, a scholar of international relations at the American College of Greece (Deree). Academically, she is engaged with environmental economics as an assistant researcher at AUEB ReSEES Lab (Research Laboratory on Socio-Economic and Environmental Sustainability). At AUEB, she coordinates the UN Sustainable Development Solutions Network (SDSN) Hub. This year she is also one of the organisers of the Local Conference of Youth and the Youth Delegation Programme in Greece. Finally, she is the founder of a green start-up company ‘EcoPolis’, which promotes sustainability in municipalities.