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A Global View of Education and Climate Change

How Professor Fernando Reimers keeps the transition to a green economy at the forefront of his work
Fernando Reimers
Photo: Elio Pajares

Professor Fernando Reimers can see the interconnectivity of it all. So many things impact how students learn, he says, and the unique circumstances that climate change presents in his work are simply another challenge educators will face amid an ever-changing landscape.

Reimers is HGSE’s Ford Foundation Professor of the Practice of International Education and director of Harvard’s Global Education Innovation Initiative. Ultimately, his interest is in finding the best ways to teach children how to thrive in the 21st century, to help them gain the skills to contribute to more inclusive and sustainable communities. That century has and will continue to be impacted by the effects of climate change. As weather patterns change and natural disasters disrupt learning around the world, schools will need to adapt.

Despite the daunting challenges climate change presents to this and future generations, Reimers speaks with optimism about how humanity can meet the moment and create change.

“I think it’s very, very important to be hopeful in the face of existential challenges,” he says, offering an anecdote he shares with his students about the power of writing and what humans have learned over the course of the last 35,000 years. “If you take a long view in thinking about the history of humanity, you understand how necessary hope has been to inspire the human effort and collaboration which have helped us come so far as a species.”

Below, Reimers talks about his education and climate work, teaching students beyond doom and gloom, and lessons climate educators can learn from the pandemic.

What does climate change’s impact look like in the work you do?

The big framing conversation is: What is an education worth having in the 21st century for a student? What is it that students need to learn at every level of the education system that will prepare them well to understand the challenges they’re going to live through? To be motivated to do something and have the skills to address those challenges? Those challenges most certainly include climate, but they do not exclusively include climate.

A challenge that’s very salient and just as urgent as climate is the sustainability of democracy. By every count, democracy is in decline in the United States and in many democratic countries around the world. And it is in decline because people don’t have the skills to sustain it. Universities are currently doing a pretty dismal job — they can’t seem to be equipping students with the skills to talk across political divides, to compromise and reach agreements. Far too many students do not seem to understand what difference it makes to vote, let alone engaging civically for the improvement of our communities and institutions.

And so climate is one thing. Democracy, poverty, and inequality are others. The big disruption to the world of work that AI is going to bring about are some of the other changes in the larger context that educational institutions should respond to. These are some of the existential challenges that should frame a conversation about the goals of educational institutions.

"There is an educational imperative to help students understand climate change as one of the many challenges that humanity will experience, but to do it in a way that gives people hope and cultivates agency."

How can educators better teach climate change literacy?

A climate literacy curriculum should help students understand the process of climate change and how it impacts humans. Students should be able to access the evolving scientific consensus on climate change, as reflected for example in the reports of the International Panel on Climate Change. But they should be able to have this understanding in a way that doesn’t develop a sense of doom and gloom, a sense of hopelessness. In a review of research on the effectiveness of climate change curricula, available in my book Education and Climate Change, I found that many of them contributed to undermine students’ sense of efficacy in facing this challenge. Too many of our youth experience unproductive and debilitating anxiety about climate change.

There is an educational imperative to help students understand climate change as one of the many challenges that humanity will experience, but to do it in a way that gives people hope and cultivates the agency and the knowledge to understand what is a green economy, and to be contributors to a transition to a more sustainable way of living.

What are the larger issues at play with climate change and education?

We know that climate change is going to vanish around 20 million jobs worldwide connected to the oil industry. But it is going to generate three times more new jobs in industries related to climate. What is the implication, for example, for tertiary institutions? People need to know where those jobs are, universities need to have both undergraduate degrees, graduate degrees, diplomas, certificates, that prepare people for those jobs. There are already many universities around the world planning new fields of study and the development of transversal skills in the curriculum associated with climate change. We need to learn from those ongoing efforts and accelerate them.

You’ve worked with Times Higher Education and recently finished a study focused on how universities approach sustainability and climate change. What was the main takeaway?

Yes, the forthcoming issue of Daedalus, the journal of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, includes an article I wrote titled “Educating Students for Climate Action: Distraction or Higher Education Capital?” in which I examine how climate change education is evolving in universities and discuss which approaches are most promising.

I have also chaired, for the last few years, a panel that reviews university innovation in Asia on climate education, as part of a larger effort of the Times Higher Education to spotlight higher education innovation.

What I have learned from that work, and discuss in the paper is that the universities that most effectively address climate change education embed this as one element in their strategy, and then make sure that there are synergies across four activities that they can carry out: research, education of their own students, extension — which includes outreach and education but in many cases it includes working with city governments or state governments helping them develop a green economy transition strategy — and then management of their own operations and infrastructure.

The climate change innovation awards and the impact rankings of the Times Higher Education make visible universities around the world where you see the power of having a vision, a coherent vision that aligns what the university does in all of those four domains. There are many more universities that do a little bit in some of those categories, but work that is piecemeal and affecting a rather small number of students is different as strategically planned work that encompasses the entire institution.

You were also part of a Harvard task force to create a Climate Change Education plan for Harvard and for the Ed School. What did the task force do?

The task force was created by President Larry Bacow. It included faculty from all schools at Harvard. We each worked with our colleagues in our schools identifying opportunities to advance climate education in our schools and for the university as a whole.

In my conversations with our colleagues at HGSE and with the other members of the task force we aimed to do two things: develop a plan for our own school and one for the university, identifying low-hanging fruit, things that could be done without tremendous additional resources over the next 1–3 years, and then more ambitious goals that would require raising some money.

In my conversations with 18 colleagues here at the Ed School to prepare this plan I realized that there is genuine interest among our faculty on this topic, and there is a real appetite to do something. That plan is guiding some of the work of the newly created Salata Institute.

"The way that you make progress tackling big and complex problems is to break them into smaller pieces, and to begin somewhere. And when you solve those problems there, that expands your zone of action and of understanding."

You’ve mentioned that one way to tackle large and complex challenges like climate change is to focus on things at a much smaller scale to make it more manageable and more effective.

That’s exactly right, the way that you make progress tackling big and complex problems is to break them into smaller pieces, and to begin somewhere. And when you solve those problems there, that expands your zone of action and of understanding. Then you move to other parts of the challenge, and so on. I discuss this approach in a recent article: a transition to a green economy addressing these is essential to our mission, not an additional project. As a result of integrating this priority in the institutional strategy, then each person should know what they can personally do within their sphere of influence, within the things they normally do, to make a contribution to advancing this goal. 

That’s how education reform gets implemented — getting to the point where each person understands what their role is to contribute to the larger goal without having to be a hero. Understanding the efforts to contribute to strategic goals not as extra work, not as something that requires work to be done in the evenings, the weekends; but as a different way to tackle what we already do.

How have you followed this approach as you have begun to work on climate change education?

The way I began to tackle this issue was not with new research priorities, it was first embedding into my policy class a focus on the relationship between policy and climate education. Inviting my students to work with governments and other education institutions examining how policy could support a transition to a green economy. The first time I did that I had only four teams of students, the next time I had more. We then published this work, to widen the reach of this work. This simple approach of working with our students to examine how the subjects we study in our classes relate to climate change is within the reach of many different faculties in this university.

What lessons from our response to the pandemic could help address climate change?

The full story of the education impact of the pandemic, and of our responses to it, is still developing. It’s not all been discovered yet. But there are clearly some parallels as well as some differences. With the pandemic, we didn’t really have a choice about an unplanned event disrupting education and upending our lives. Climate change is largely caused by human actions, and our responses will mediate how it impacts our lives. That’s basically what the efforts of many people working on climate change have been about for the last 20 or so years, to get humans to understand that we need to live differently. We need to consume differently. We need to share the financial burden of these adjustments across countries differently if we’re going to reduce the speed at which global warming is taking place. But getting a species of 8 billion members to change their ways of life is most definitely a complicated task. I’m not sure we’ve ever done it in anything else. That is the challenge, and education is absolutely indispensable to addressing it. 


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