Climate change and its effects aren’t some future possibilities waiting to happen unless we take action today. No. The effect of climate change is already occurring. Today. Right now. Around the world, people have been displaced, fell ill, or died because of the globe’s changing climate. These effects are uneven: Some countries and classes of people are more affected by global warming than others. Still, the United Nations estimates that catastrophic consequences from climate change are only a decade away. That’s the year 2029. [Editor’s note: The IPCC report is from 2018 and gave a 12-year prediction, so it should read 2030, not 2029.]
What is the role of education policy in an era of detrimental climate change?
My guest today is Marcia McKenzie, a professor in the Department of Educational Foundations at the University of Saskatchewan and director of the Sustainability Education Research Institute. She recently has been awarded a grant to research UN policy programs in relation to climate change education and in June will release a report for the United Nations that reviews country progress on climate change education and education for sustainable development.
In our conversation, we talk about what countries are doing or not doing in terms of education and sustainability, and we reflect on some of the existential questions that climate change brings to the fore.
Citation: McKenzie, Marcia, interview with Will Brehm, FreshEd, 154, podcast audio, May 13, 2019. https://www.freshedpodcast.com/mckenzie/
Will Brehm 2:24
So, Marcia Mckenzie, welcome to FreshEd.
Marcia McKenzie 2:26
Thank you very much. Great to be talking with you.
Will Brehm 2:27
So, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change -which is a UN body, the IPCC I think, is the acronym- says that there is a decade left to make significant changes to avoid catastrophic consequences from climate change itself. So what role do you think education plays in mitigating some of these catastrophic consequences from climate change that the IPCC says might happen in 10 years? I mean, that is 2030.
Marcia McKenzie 3:00
Yeah. Well, I don’t know if you’re familiar with David Suzuki, a Canadian environmentalist who created his foundation decades ago, and he says now if he knew how long it was going to take us to take action, he would have got into education much earlier. So, yeah, and when we see that the problems with climate change, it’s not because we don’t have the scientific understanding of what’s happening. It’s not that we don’t have the technical ability to move to other energy forms and address climate change and mitigate still the worst of its impacts, but we don’t. We’re not taking the action that’s needed because we lack the will, you know, socially and culturally and politically. So, I think that is the role of education in terms of as the UNFCCC, which was the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, which was signed back in 1992. With all the different member parties that meets every year at the COP [Conference of the Parties] meetings. And there is a commitment to education, training and public awareness that’s in that agreement that member parties to UNFCCC have signed on to but, because we don’t have a lot of research on it, you know, any data, we don’t even really have a good understanding of what makes good climate change education, we haven’t been doing as much as we can be or could be. And yet, there’s this recognition and even in that, that 2018 IPCC report, the recognition that we really need to be doing a better job of education in order to have people pushing for the change we need, right?
Will Brehm 4:47
So basically, you’re saying that everyone recognizes education is like, deeply important, but we: one, we don’t know exactly what all these different countries are doing. And two: we don’t know what actually makes good education, for, or about climate change to mitigate some of these solutions. So, I mean, and we have 10 years before…that seems like a pretty big challenge. What do we do first? Is the first step to just sort of get an understanding of what’s happening around the world and all countries that are signatory to that convention?
Marcia McKenzie 5:21
Well, I think both can be done in conjunction. So there is quite a bit of good work and understanding in other disciplinary fields, say on the sociology of climate change denial, Kari Norgaard’s work, for example, where she talks about not just the, you know, what you might think of as denial in terms of saying, “No, climate change is not caused by humans”, or we don’t even agree it’s happening, but more of the subtle forms of denial that you and I and, you know, most listeners are probably engaged in where, yes, you know, climate change is happening, you know, that it’s being caused mostly by human activity. And yet because of the realities of does this mean the planets not going to be habitable for humans within a generation or two? And we don’t know how to take action, you know, people turn away from that. Right? So, she calls it implicatory denial where you are implicated in it, you don’t know what to do, you kind of live this double life.
Will Brehm 6:20
I understand that climate change happens but I’m still going to eat red meat, and fly to conferences, and buy a big SUV.
Marcia McKenzie 6:27
Exactly! And there’s other literature as well in anthropology, climate change, communication around the importance of framing such emotional issues in terms of cultural frames and priorities that are important for different groups, whether it’s a business community, a Christian religious community, or indigenous community. Candis Callison, who’s an anthropologist and Media Studies person has written about that as well in a really powerful way. So, I think we need to be bringing those insights that have been developing over the past decade or so in other fields more into education, and into both policy and practice. Because what we see right now a lot of what’s being done as climate change education, whether it’s in formal education, K-12, or higher education, or in science communication, for example, that governments may be doing and so on, is still there much just based on educating people on the science of climate change.
Will Brehm 7:29
Like it exists. Yeah.
Marcia McKenzie 7:30
And here’s how it works with the assumption that therefore people are going to be empowered to take action. But we know from longer histories of research and environmental education, as well as other fields that have looked at things like Holocaust education, when things are so emotional, so difficult that you really need to take those aspects on and wrap it into how we do education and not just teaching the science but actually look at ways to engage people in, “Yes, this is difficult and there is grief involved and there is loss” and how do you kind of wade through that, and engaging it so that we actually look at it rather than look away.
Will Brehm 8:15
It’s quite existential realizing we could be the last generation of human species and how then do you teach about it? I mean, it is totally emotional, it is totally devastating in a way and I mean, that connection to the Holocaust. I never made that connection, but I can see where educators might learn a lot from Holocaust education and other sort of genocide, conflict issues that people have to work through.
Marcia McKenzie 8:43
And I guess the second part you’re asking about in terms of looking at what different countries are doing. I think that is really key. And I’m hopeful. I don’t know if that is naive, maybe but because education is a commitment that member parties have signed on to in committing to it with the joining the UNFCCC framework. If we can develop better data and on what countries are doing and then use that to sort of leverage change. So, if you can say, “In Canada, we’re doing this in, you know, Sweden, they’re doing that, and you can kind of compare and contrast. So, who’s got it in their formal education system? And how are they doing it? Right. So, it’s going back to the first point, it’s not just is it there, but how is it being done? What’s the quality as well as the quantity and developing that data, which I mean, we have the capability to do that and a new study will be released later this year in a few months just developed that we did with UNESCO and the UNFCCC and it was an analysis of all the country submissions to the UNFCCC from 194 member countries to look at how they’re already talking about how they’re engaging in climate change education in those submissions, so that we can, by pulling that out of the submissions and looking at it together, then we can sort of set some here’s a baseline of where we’re at or where we’re at with our reporting, and where could we be next year or the year after through the COP process?
Will Brehm 10:25
Right. And so that is -it sounds like what you’re describing is using some sort of evidence, global evidence, comparable evidence from all different countries involved in the UN. But really, it being used as a political project to sort of force particular change. I mean, that is what it sounds like. It almost reminds me of PISA, you know using the sort of same test all over the world and, it has become very, very political and there’s plenty of research about that.
Marcia McKenzie 10:56
Yeah. And it’s kind of -because I consider myself a critical researcher, critical policy researcher and you know, a lot of the work done on large-scale assessment and testing is quite, you know, there’s a lot of skepticism and concern, and how do you compare across different countries and socio-economic considerations, and all these very complicated and fraught. And so, it’s kind of ironic, I guess, to be in the situation of thinking, well, here’s an issue where we’re running out of time, if there’s any chance that data can help us, then let’s mobilize that.
Will Brehm 11:32
Right. Any tool we can find, let’s use it.
Marcia McKenzie 11:34
Will Brehm 11:35
So, what would worry you? In this sort of political project and getting this data, are there worries? Because, from a critical scholar, you look at other examples like PISA and sure, there’s plenty to be critical about PISA and I’ve had people on the show talk very critically about it. So, from your thinking through this climate change education or education about climate change and sustainability, what are the worries that you might have?
Marcia McKenzie 12:04
So yeah, I guess one of my concerns potentially with amassing that kind of global data is the way that these type of things can be used almost like branding on a product, you’d buy in the supermarket where it says it’s green, and then it’s sort of like guilt free shopping or whatever. But often there’s, we call it greenwashing because it’s not necessarily a sustainable product, or it’s much more complicated and things going on behind the scenes. So, I mean, that is a concern anytime you’re using data like this to kind of give gold stars or silver stars or you know, who’s doing it right. And where they kind of get off the hook, like, Okay, you got it there you say on paper that you’re doing it, therefore, that’s good enough. And what’s represented in a policy document doesn’t necessarily reflect what’s happening on the ground either. So, there are definite limitations to that type of assessment. I mean, anything that there is so far around education and sustainability more probably, at a global level of data collection is self-reported data. So, say that’s collected through UNESCO. Right now, there is some and that’s it’s being used in some of the indicators related to education and sustainability currently.
Will Brehm 13:19
So, there’s a validity issue?
Marcia McKenzie 13:21
There’s a validity issue. So yeah, I mean, at least something that’s not you know, it’s good to also have things that are not self-reported, as well as the self-reported options. But then, even better, would be finer grained analysis, like, comparative case studies at a global level that can help us also inform our understandings of what makes quality climate change education that is able to kind of empower and lead to changed action and that’s culturally appropriate in different settings.
Will Brehm 13:53
What sort of examples can you point to like currently that we know about of, you know, quote, unquote, good policy into action. You know, things happening on the ground in schools or in a country?
Marcia McKenzie 14:07
Well, in the research, and I should say I direct the Sustainability and Education Policy Network, which is a partnership of international researchers and organizations. And so, we’ve been doing research in Canada the last number of years -comparative research there- and also doing some other global projects. But looking at the Canadian example, you know, BC is somewhere that stands out for its action around climate change and other sustainability issues in both K-12, and formal education as well as more broadly. And so, there’s a number of things that lead into or I think, support that activity. I mean, one just culturally, it’s on the west coast. It’s got more of a cultural prioritization. That’s led to different things like provincial mandates for carbon action plans within schools and then we’ve got, say the City of Vancouver, it has a green mandate with the municipal politics. So, all these things kind of coalesce together so that you see stronger policy and curriculum at say the Ministry of Education level, which would be where the curriculum is developed for the province as well as different school division levels, as well as at the post-secondary institutions -like UBC is well known for its sustainability work. So yeah, and there’s great organizations there as well like the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, has a BC branch that has developed great climate justice curriculum that a lot of teachers are using in schools.
Will Brehm 15:56
So, there’s a lot of work happening in that part of Canada and it seems like its government, its non-governmental, schools are involved, cities are involved. They have the green mandate in Vancouver. How much of that is connected to the sustainable development goals of the UN? Right? I mean, so, you know, is that something that’s happening because they’re doing it for their own sort of political economic reasons in Western Canada? Or is it a response from, “Oh, the SDGs, are here and we have to meet them?”
Marcia McKenzie 16:34
Yeah, it’s an interesting question and one of the things I’m really interested in is policy mobility. So how these things like the SDGs, where do they come from? And then what impact do they have in different countries or different regions? And I think there’s a couple of different things that could factor into uptake of the SDGs or, you know, what effect they’ve had. One is, you hear about organizations or governments, who keep doing what they’re doing but they kind of orient it to the “flavor of the day” or whatever. So, I’ve talked to organizations that are like, “Well, you know, we were doing education for sustainable development. Now, we’re going to do SDGs, you know, that’s what we put on our grant applications. But we don’t -our programs don’t change, but”. So, I think, there’s some of that, but at the same time, I think the global policy programs do have a big effect. And in some places like my province, where I live in Canada, in Saskatchewan, we’ve seen absolutely the effect of the UNESCO Decade of Education for Sustainable Development-
Will Brehm 17:47
In what ways, like how does it manifest?
Marcia McKenzie 17:50
So, you know, in 2009, there was a Minister’s mandate around environment, conservation, and sustainability. So, they were recognizing, okay, we need to be doing more on this. We need to get it into the curriculum. And then they talked to folks next door in Manitoba, where they had been working with education for sustainable development and the Deputy Minister there, at the K-12 level was involved in the Council of Ministers of education, which is sort of a national advisory body of all the provincial ministries, and he had been seconded to UNESCO, so you see this kind of flow through of actually, Gerald Farthing was deputy minister at the time in Manitoba, and other folks as well that are back and forth between UNESCO Paris and the ESD section there and different Canadian places and this would be parallel in some other countries. But then you get the flow through so that the Ministry of Education in my province is talking to Manitoba, and suddenly they bring in the same folks to do the training of educational leaders and the school divisions across the province in ESD.
Will Brehm 18:58
There is a policy flow, and does it go back to UNESCO? Like does the lessons and experiences of the teachers who are getting this training and putting it into practice, get sort of that knowledge get picked up and somehow is mobile back through the channels to UNESCO to inform the SDGs and what they do in other countries or how they conceptualize what you know, quote unquote good practice is?
Marcia McKenzie 19:22
Yes, I think that is the case that there’s some of that. We just got some new funding to do a study of three UN policy programs that have a focus on climate change education and when we were -we did some initial pilot interviews for that and talking to folks from different countries that have been involved with UN programs. Before we really heard from them about how through UNESCO people coming -there’s someone from Southern Africa that we interviewed, who was involved in the environmental education and ESD work there and through UNESCO people coming- to their meetings, they were able to give feedback on what was working or not working. Or priorities in different Southern African countries and to feel like that was taken back to UNESCO and then shaped kind of later renditions of things. So, I think there is some of that for sure.
Will Brehm 20:18
Yeah. And then I mean, then you the UNESCO Secretariat would have to sort of leverage that knowledge to push other countries in ways. I mean, it’s a very political process. Really, you know, for me, and that’s what’s so fascinating is how UNESCO has to -its member driven but that Secretariat also has a very sort of clear political agenda. And we just hope that they’re doing right, and they’re going to be successful. And, you know, they have a lot of power behind the SDGs in a way.
Marcia McKenzie 20:50
Yeah, it’s very interesting and kind of who is at the table of deciding what these policy programs are going to be, and different countries that support different policy programs like ESD had its origins in Japan, and Japan’s very supportive of UNESCO and so yeah, there’s a lot of interesting politics.
Will Brehm 21:11
Yeah. I mean, when I read SDG 4.7, you know, I mean, it’s like this “catch-all” indicator, or sub-indicator, and you see that education for sustainable development, the ESD, which definitely comes from Japan, that’s where I live. And so, it’s a really, really, really big thing. But then in Korea, as Aaron Benavot was telling me, it’s all about global citizen education. So how do they fit together? You know do they fit together? Or is it just, we’re using this discourse to please two different nation-states?
Marcia McKenzie 21:43
Yeah, it’s very interesting. I mean, global citizenship kind of came along, after, in kind of the work of UNESCO from what I understand, but they are both under one division. So, there’s a section of ESD and a section of global citizenship and they work together as colleagues and there’s a lot of overlap obviously, depending how you understand education for sustainable development, but it does definitely have social aspects in there that would overlap with some of the global citizenship priorities. So, you know, in some other work we’ve been doing -for a report that will be launched in June as well -a 10 countries study and looking at focus on ESD and global citizenship education across the education policies and curricula of 10 countries. And so, you can kind of see through that process, where there’s overlap, and which countries may focus more on the environmental aspects versus the social and citizenship aspects, and I don’t know why. I’m interested to find out more about that, in terms of the politics of the different countries, but I don’t think I can comment on that.
Will Brehm 23:02
No worries. It’s just that it’s so fascinating to see how these different -because it is a member-state organization. So, the member states have a lot of power, but the Secretariat is sort of managing all of this and so the politics in that sort of global level is really quite fascinating. And I think, quite hidden as well. And, you know, it’s very hard unless you are at that table, it’s very hard to know what is actually happening.
Marcia McKenzie 23:25
And I think my sense is that the UNFCCC is even more, so you know, really sees itself or is understood as meant to be neutral and facilitating the process for member-states. But the priorities or motions need to come from the member states. So, in talking to Adriana Valenzuela who’s the education focal point for the UNFCCC about how great it would be if we could get education data on the negotiating table, and she’s like, Oh, that sounds great, but we can’t bring that forward. It would need to be a member-state. So, it’s almost like I would need to maybe work with Environment Climate Change Canada to bring it to the negotiating table to then see if we could get it there. Whereas I think this seems to be a little -UNESCO doesn’t have that same framework of the COP meetings and, you know, decision making in what’s going to be included and, you know, nationally determined contributions being put forward under the Paris Agreement and everything it’s much more kind of technical than the UNFCCC.
Will Brehm 24:31
Yeah, yeah, right. I mean, it’s really quite fascinating. As an academic, I keep thinking like it would be so great to do like an ethnography of that global process.
Marcia McKenzie 24:40
Well, that’s what we’re trying to do. And we just got the funding to do it as well.
Will Brehm 24:46
You’ll have to come back on and tell me about it once you end up doing it. One of the things that I struggle with, with the SDGs and thinking about education for sustainability or, you know, to reduce climate change is the inclusion of economic growth in the SDGs. It’s one of the SDGs. It’s seen as what countries should be maximizing -having more growth, which, you know, will put more carbon into the air, which will ultimately make climate change even worse into the future. And at the same time, including all these environmental sustainability goals of trying to make the world more sustainable. And for me, those are contradiction. And I don’t know how education for sustainability will square that contradiction.
Marcia McKenzie 25:41
Yeah, there’s been discussion of that for sure. Because you could be say, moving forward climate action while increasing gender disparity, you know, so kind of the conversation that you need to be moving them all forward, not some at the expense of others, but that’s so hard to do with 17 priorities and never mind all the you know, I think it’s 169 target under the 17 goals. But it’s the same problem that we’ve had with sustainability before that or say education for sustainable development which a lot of people see as having at least three pillars, as they’re often called, of the social, the economic, and the environmental and oftentimes people would, or still do, separate those three out. So, in my province where this is a priority that I’ve had superintendents tell me, “Well yea, we’ve got it in the curriculum now, we do it in our school division and so if you’re doing economy, social or environment, you can tick that you’re doing ESD. So, basically everything humans would be concerned with has something to do with the social, or the environment. So, you know, it becomes meaningless. So, I think it is a challenge for the SDGs even more so in a sense because at least with three pillars, you can say, Okay, these need to be nested and you can’t have economic prosperity if it’s harming the environment or harming the social. Environment is the biggest and then social then economy are nested together. Whereas the SDGs with 17, it’s much more complicated.
Will Brehm 27:21
It seems like we need to have different definitions. Like so of the economic, what does economic prosperity mean? To me, it seems like we need a new way to define that rather than GDP per capita, for instance. Right. I mean, because if that’s the goal, then we’re going to sacrifice all these other things that we say we care about.
Marcia McKenzie 27:44
Yeah, there was a presentation yesterday on the OECD and one of the folks that have worked there in the past was talking about how they’re just starting to look at well-being indexes and that would be great to see more countries go that way sooner rather than later.
Will Brehm 28:04
Yeah. I mean, are you an optimistic person? Like, do you think that in these 10 years that we’re now saying is sort of the critical moment. So, for 2020-2030, for instance, do you think the global community is really going to be able to radically alter its practices through education?
Marcia McKenzie 28:30
Yeah. I don’t know. It may be through other means. You know, it’s been really interesting the last few months to see the school climate strikes and you know, from starting with one person that fell on everyone’s kind of minds and hearts and suddenly people are out there all over the globe doing climate action strikes in schools and so I think it you know, it’s, I hope that that type of activity will just build as we’ve all got it kind of weighing on us, but no one feels like they can do enough on their own. Obviously, our governments aren’t taking.
Will Brehm 29:10
Yea a lot of governments say go back to school. Don’t strike!
Marcia McKenzie 29:13
Yeah, yeah, exactly. So, I think education is as part of that, you know, potentially. The more we can do the better to give more people the skills to feel they can take action and make change and have the knowledge that they need and to be able to work together and all those things, but I mean, within the time frames, realistically, it’s going to have to be other things as well. Some of those people that are educated, mobilizing a lot of other people. So yeah, I don’t know. And I think it’s also a question of, you know, we always talk about climate change mitigation and adaptation. Well, what does climate change adaptation education look like right?
Will Brehm 29:43
And what would that be adapting to? You know, flooding everywhere, two degrees hotter everywhere.
Marcia McKenzie 30:01
Yeah. So, I think part of the key to the mitigation part too probably is -because it’s such an emotional, difficult issue that we need to be facing the impacts and how people around the world are already being devastated by the weather effects related to climate change, and so on.
Will Brehm 30:23
Yeah, I mean, like, how do you prepare? I mean, there’s already countless deaths happening due to climate change, and climate migration is happening all over the place already. And it’s only going to get worse. There’s going to be more deaths caused by climate change. You know, hundreds of millions or billions I, you know, it’s probably pretty hard if you’re a demographer to sort of calculate that out. Yeah, but some percentage of that will be children. It’ll be a lot of children that will end up dying. And so, the question is, like, you know, climate change adaptation education, you know, how do you teach the ability to grieve for that large number of people? I don’t know. I mean, it’s sort of this is why for me, it becomes a sort of like, existential moment.
Marcia McKenzie 31:05
Yeah, I know, I know, I have a 13-year-old daughter and I don’t actually talk to her very much about my work in this area. I mean, I tell her I do research and work on sustainability and climate change education, but I don’t go on at length about the outlook. But -through the climate school strikes- she learned more through some of her friends and came home just a couple of weeks ago in tears, you know, writing, drawing in her journal that we only have 12 years left, why isn’t anyone doing anything? And you know, it’s intense.
Will Brehm 31:41
That’s powerful. That seems to be what is needed. You know that sort of powerful, emotional response. Like a cliff that’s in the distance, that we can see. It’s coming into view.
Marcia McKenzie 31:57
And we were talking about what’s needed and how we need to change lifestyles and our expectations. We were talking about, “what would it be like to move into apartment?” she’s like, “well, that’s not a problem. Like, I’d rather say let’s move into an apartment rather than, you know, half the planet or worse goes extinct”.
Will Brehm 32:17
Yeah. Right. You’re willing to sacrifice some sort of luxuries now, knowing that it actually could -that is sort of that change in attitude that we were talking about earlier. Like maybe I shouldn’t be eating meat all the time and I shouldn’t be flying around the world.
Marcia McKenzie 32:35
But I think it’s one thing for people in their 40s or 60s or 80s. You know, you can think oh, gosh, is it going to be really bad for our kids or grandkids generation? But it’s another thing for a child to look forward and say, am I going to be able to live out my full life or is it going to be just a nightmare before then.
Will Brehm 32:59
And is that sort of conversation happening at the global level? Because to me, that seems to be the most important conversation to be having.
Marcia McKenzie 33:07
Will Brehm 33:10
But it is it being reflected in some of these sort of, you know, the global meetings on climate change and sustainability. And, you know, what we can do? Is that even being like -it’s certainly not an indicator. In no way is it an indicator of the SDGs.
Marcia McKenzie 33:23
Yeah, I mean, I think people are aware, and, you know, it’s the underlying passion. Someone like Aaron Benavot, who was director of the GEM report, Global Education Monitoring report. And, the last GEM report that he did had a focus on sustainability and was really fantastic, but you can tell he’s got that passion in him. And for a lot of people that are doing this work, they have that in them. You know, we all have hypocrisies, or tradeoffs, but, you know, that is driven by that desire to do change. But sometimes when you get together at a meeting, then you kind of take that as an assumption and just move on to trying to move things forward.
Will Brehm 34:15
Well, Marcia Mckenzie, thank you so much for joining FreshEd. Please come back on when you have more of this ethnography of what’s happening at the global level.
Marcia McKenzie 34:24
Great. Thank you very much for having me. Great to meet you.
Climate Change and Education Policy