Part of the solution: Lifelong learning and climate action

The United Nations COP26 climate conference is an opportunity not only to galvanize political leadership but also to reflect on the role of education and the contribution of lifelong learning to climate action, writes Paul Stanistreet

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The future isn’t what it used to be. Whereas once we imagined a future of chrome-plated, high-tech convenience, limitless space exploration and driverless vehicles scudding across the commuter-crammed skies of cities, it is now difficult to imagine any kind of long-term future human civilization as we know it. Our habits of production and consumption, our ways of living, without any sense of planetary limitations, and our fetishization of economic growth are incompatible with human survival. Humanity faces unparalleled global challenges, with the future of the climate at their heart, and the warnings, from the United Nations and others – and the consequences of further inaction – are dire.

The need for international cooperation is pretty much unprecedented; greater, I would say, than it has been at any point since the United Nations was created to promote and facilitate it. The COP26 climate change conference, held this week and next in Glasgow, is an opportunity for leaders from across the globe to discuss ways of combatting the effects of climate change and, crucially, of minimizing further warming. Yet it comes at a moment when the spirit of global cooperation has been in retreat. As UN Secretary‑General António Guterres noted last month, vaccine nationalism in the richer parts of the world is putting global recovery at risk. The pandemic has not been the cause of nationalism, of course – as in many other cases, COVID-19 has highlighted an area in which we need to do better – but it has demonstrated how the leaders of the developed world can struggle to act in a genuinely cooperative, multilateral way, even when it is in their interests to do so.

This is the challenge we face. Choosing not to be part of the problem is difficult, politically and economically, even when we know it is what we must do. But we can no longer afford to take the path of least resistance, however politically convenient. At the same time, we should not pretend that any of this is straightforward, or that the challenges we face can be easily or quickly solved. It may seem obvious where we need to get to, but establishing a roadmap and new targets that everyone can get behind and that will work in practice is difficult and complex work, and the chances of failure are quite high.

The situation is further complicated by other global trends such as political authoritarianism and isolationism, populism and disillusion with democratic politics, and the rise of big tech, which militate against successful multilateral cooperation and delivery against promises made. Even if a roadmap can be agreed at COP26, we cannot assume that world leaders will deliver it or that populations will find it politically acceptable or be willing to make the sacrifices climate action demands. Even if a good outcome is achieved, the hard yards of implementation are the ones that count.

This is where education comes in. While it would be silly to suppose that education can do much by itself if world leaders are not willing to make the commitments required, it is just as clear that the world will not change unless education does, and that education, and lifelong learning, in particular, has a critical role to play in delivering the step change we need. Education’s role includes raising awareness of the need for climate action and promoting behaviour change, but it also goes well beyond this, and in important ways, which are often neglected or ignored.

Education needs to do more than simply inform people of the danger of climate change and encourage them to fly less, eat less meat and recycle more. It needs to give people the intellectual and civic resources they need to press for change, locally, nationally and globally, to galvanize political will and hold politicians’ feet to the fire when they fail to act. Meaningful, lasting change is rarely imposed from above. It must be built from the ground up. If we want to change trajectory and find another way to live with and as part of the planet, people must be empowered to lead and shape change, to become activists.

We need to revive the civic dimension of education, and adult education in particular. This is why the new Global Report on Adult Learning and Education (GRALE 5), which will urge a rebalancing of the three main fields of learning (basic skills, vocational and active citizenship), is so significant. We need to act on this if we are serious about addressing global trends such as the climate emergency. Restoring the link between adult education and active citizenship is critical but, as the Futures of Education report, which will be published later this month, is expected to argue, the challenges of the coming decades demand a wider reframing of education in terms of sustaining the commons and building solidarity around shared priorities.

Second, our thinking about citizenship education needs to transcend national concerns. We have to cultivate a global citizenship that fosters compassion, inclusion and justice across borders. Our aspiration to resolve common problems requires that we recognize ourselves as part of a wider, interdependent planetary family, with shared obligations and interests. These are essential values in adapting to the reality of the climate crisis and in building a world that is secure and sustainable, but they cannot grow in a desert. Educators can help create a climate conducive to multilateral cooperation by developing the knowledge, values and attitudes implicit in global citizenship and encouraging the children, young people and adults they teach to see local issues in wider, complex global terms. People need to be enabled to make the connections between their own knowledge and experience of the world, and the problems it faces, and must feel empowered to effect change. Global citizenship education should be a feature of all education systems, at every level of education.

Third, it is vital that we do more than simply criticize the status quo and develop a positive vision and values system for the future that can support the kind of cooperation and commitment to sustainability that is required. Our humanistic vision for education must be reframed or reimagined in a way that acknowledges the place of human beings as part of the wider planetary community and the existence of boundaries that humans should not cross. Indigenous knowledges have a critical role to play in this. They represent an opportunity to rethink ‘dominant discourses of development, globalisation and sustainability’ through their cultural practices, environmental knowledge and ecologies. As the Common Worlds Research Collective contribution to the Futures of Education initiative notes, we need to move ‘from learning about the world in order to act upon it, to learning to become with the world around us’. We need an alternative to the individualistic, humancentric perspective of the West, and the utilitarian, economistic vision of education that supports it, one that prioritizes not economic growth but environmental and social justice. We are in a transitional moment, and the kind of society that emerges from it will depend to a large extent on our capacity to reframe our place in the world and empower people to shape it afresh.

The system isn’t glitching, it is broken, probably beyond repair. We are approaching the tipping point. The good news about climate change is that it is not too late. But we need to change, and education has a critical role to play in making this happen. We are drinking in the last-chance saloon and, while it is not yet closing time, the bartender is looking at his watch.

Paul Stanistreet is Head of Knowledge Management and Communications at UIL

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