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Ethical Implications of Climate Change for Education

Carnegie Ethics Online Monthly Column

April 9, 2019

CREDIT: Leandro De Carvalho from Pixabay

According to a UNICEF press release on August 31, 2018, children are among the most vulnerable as extreme weather events continue around the world. In his statement, Ted Chaiban, UNICEF director of programmes says, "As the world experiences a steady rise in climate-driven extreme weather events, it is children's lives and futures that will be the most disrupted. Therefore, it's vital that Governments and the international community take concrete steps to safeguard children's future and their rights. The worst impacts of climate change are not inevitable, but the time for action is now."

Education offers the means for individuals to obtain knowledge and pursue career pathways, providing the opportunity for an upward social mobility trajectory. Although access to education is a fundamental human right, there have always barriers for many. Traditionally, access to a good-quality education depends on where you live, level of income, and attainability of resources. Now, there is another barrier on the horizon, which if not brought into the conversation and addressed, can create profound impacts on our youth's educational pursuits: climate change. While this will affect those already disadvantaged the most severely, even when education is accessible we are beginning to see the impacts of climate change having negative effects on academic learning and achievement, gender disparities, and future economic growth.

A recent study conducted by the Harvard Kennedy School in 2018 on Heat and Learning, assessed 10 million American high school students who took the PSAT exam multiple times between 2001-14. The study concluded with three findings: the first is that as school days get hotter, this inhibits the cognitive skill development of young students in the United States. If schools do not have air conditioning to offset this effect, each 1°F increase in school-year temperature reduces the amount learned that year by one percent. The second finding suggests that heat reduces academic achievement by decreasing productivity of instructional time. The last finding suggests that air conditioning in schools can help to significantly decrease the impacts of cumulative heat exposure and increase academic achievement. The study also suggests that heat exposure can reduce the rate of learning and skill formation, thus potentially reducing the rate of economic growth. It points out the disparity among racial achievement in the U.S. and argues that heat effects account for up to 13 percent of the U.S. racial gap because many Black and Latino students live in hotter climates.

In 2016, the National Socio-Environmental Synthesis Center and the Department of Geography, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, conducted a similar study on the impacts of climate change on learning in Ethiopia. It concluded that climate variability does have an impact on a child's education and cognitive development in Ethiopia. Milder temperatures during all seasons and greater rainfall during the summer agricultural season are associated with a high probability of a child completing any education. On the other side, the more droughts students experience in their earlier years makes them have a 16 percent lower odds of having completed any schooling.

Consistent interference in school time and educational pursuits are having more long-lasting effects world-wide. According to a 2013 article published by the World Bank, the Middle East and North Africa region is getting drier and hotter. In June of 2009, drought-parched ground was unable to absorb rain and created flash floods in Yemen destroying schools, making roads impassable, and preventing children from traveling to school.

A 2017 Zimbabwe Human Development Report stated that extreme weather events are having a direct impact on educational attainment due to harsh weather conditions and food scarcity. Lack of adequate infrastructure and sanitary conditions can bring about malaria diarrheal diseases, which leads to increased absences and students withdrawing from school altogether. A secondary effect that the report talks about is how households may choose to cope with these challenges by supplementing income earning activities, migration, and child marriages. In 2015, 3 percent of girls who withdrew from primary school reported marriage as a reason. At the secondary level, 20.5 percent of girls reported dropping out of school because of marriage. We are seeing climate-related evidence of education and gender disparities in other regions of the world as well. A UNESCO report in 2010 cited examples of Pakistan and Uganda where more girls are taken out of school than boys due to climate-related situations.

In 2017, after hurricane Maria, schools and universities in Puerto Rico were closed for an average of 30 days due to the devastation. According to the Tampa Bay Times, Puerto Rico's Secretary of Education Julia Keleher mentioned that schools suffered $142 million in damages, as estimated by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). In another article in USA Today, Secretary Keleher also stated that of the 140,000 islanders who left since the storm, 14,000, or 10 percent, were public school students.

Another example is the Philippines. According to EcoWatch, sea levels in the Philippines are rising at two times the global average. Take for example Typhoon Haiyan, which, in November of 2013, killed 6,300 citizens, displaced more than 4 million, and cost over $2 billion in damages. According to the Global Climate Risk Index of 2019, the Philippines was ranked among the top five of countries most affected by climate risk. Rising sea levels profoundly impact educational prospects. As the risk of environmental disasters continue to worsen, rural farming communities are at a loss. Their crops do not yield the same source of income hence their cost of living has increased, causing crop uncertainty and food insecurity. According to a report from UNICEF, children affected by climate change may encounter difficulties continuing their education after migrating from rural to urban areas by being forced to work to make up for the relocation expenses. Young women and children from these communities disrupt their educational pursuits to seek temporary jobs in urban areas to be able to provide for their families. Because of displacement, lack of access to education, and poverty, women and children are more susceptible to human trafficking and exploitation in urban areas. Humaniam, an international NGO dedicated to stopping violence against children, stated that there were an estimated 60,000-100,000 children linked to commercial sex exploitation in the Philippines in 2017. The compounding effects of these trends suggest that severe economic consequences will emerge in the future.

Education is a crucial component when discussing climate change solutions. In order to address these issues, governments and NGOs must act and empower their citizens to work together to come up with creative solutions. Take for example the solution for Malabo Primary School, or "the floating school" in the Zambian town of Mongu, which was conceived by five secondary students in the region. The school would close down during the annual flooding season for several months. The students lobbied the government and UNICEF with their idea of upgrading the school and creating docks so the students' studies were not disrupted. This has resulted in an increase of enrollment.

While working to minimize the effects of climate change, we must also continue to strategize around protecting our students and providing them with the tools to succeed for the jobs of tomorrow. We must invest in better, sustainable infrastructures and provide access to solar power, air-conditioning, and renewable resources. Ensuring that our students have access to food and clean water is essential. In some parts of the world, schools are places where students can obtain a full meal. By guaranteeing healthy options, students are more likely to stay in school and enrollments will rise in areas where, due to droughts or lack of harvesting options, students are pulled out of the classroom to work. This is vital as the number of females dropping out of their academic careers to support their families in times of need is much greater than that of males. If we want to achieve gender equality, women's education worldwide must become a priority. Access to education must be provided at low to no cost to guarantee that our students are being provided with the tools to be able to succeed moving forward. As jobs continue to become automated, governments and educational institutions should identify ways to provide technological courses that can help students become better equipped for the jobs of tomorrow. Innovative ideas should be explored to prevent barriers for students to obtain an education.

Tech companies should also be brought into the conversation as they can develop educational resources that can adapt to weather conditions. Some ideas to consider may involve developing mobile classrooms for migrant students, and making sure schools have internet and state-of-the art libraries where students can have a one-stop-shop when studying, especially in areas where students have to travel long distances, to help minimize their commutes. If we do not begin to include students' educational pursuits into the conversation around climate change, we will risk creating an even greater gap for future generations between those who can obtain jobs, and pursue their academic goals and those who cannot. Education is often tied with privilege and who has access. Let us not continue to widen the gap because of physical barriers that are affecting children and underrepresented populations in our fast-changing climate.

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