As we enter 2021 and wish each other a Happy New Year, the arrival of Covid-19 vaccines is a good reason for optimism regarding humanity’s most immediate threat. Unfortunately, when it comes to our most urgent long-term danger – climate change – there is no vaccine, no bright path before us in the months to come. There is instead what UN Secretary General António Guterres called last month our ‘broken planet’ and our continuing “suicidal…war on nature.”
But in the spirit of teaching itself as the ultimate act of optimism, it’s worth identifying and nurturing the hopeful signs for climate change action in 2021. There are several and educators are amongst those taking action at the forefront. Thisyear the world will see a long-overdue acceleration of collective efforts on behalf of the planet’s health. There will be widespread mobilisation to make governments responsive and accountable to slow this global disaster and to elevate the importance of climate education and civic literacy.
Education International has long been in the fight. Our Unite Campaign to adopt the UN Sustainable Development Goals recognised the links between quality education, environmental sustainability and human rights.
Our World Congress in 2019 adopted resolutions to “harness the power of education” through curriculum and professional development and in solidarity with students protesting against climate change. Later, at the UN Climate Conference (COP 25), EI publicly pledged to support our 32.5 million members by providing tools and capacity building to combat climate change.
Last June, EI’s Executive Board joined the global climate literacy initiative along with hundreds of other trade unions, education, civil society organisations, and individuals to increase the understanding and knowledge of students of the climate crisis and to encourage action.
Educators know that climate education is not just a science subject. It is science and maths and language and geography and civics and history and literature and more. It is a crucial interdisciplinary topic that must be approached both in the classroom and through a whole-school approach Curricula, teaching training and teaching and learning materials urgently need revision and improvement to address the crisis we face and give all learners the skills and knowledge needed in transition to new sustainable economies and employment.
Working to influence the UN Climate Conference (COP 26) in Scotlandthis November, EI recently joined with EarthDay.org and organisations in more than 100 countries to urge that climate education be part of the core curriculum. Sustainability education must be incorporated across all subject areas, as already required in the Australian Curriculum. Beyond curriculum and the ‘teacher’s voice’ in every aspect of climate education, schools themselves can lead the way to sustainable communities through engineering and retrofits including such technologies as solar panels, water tanks, insulation and energy efficient design and construction.
The focus on professional development for educators and a new emphasis on climate knowledge and sustainability in education needs also to be matched by a strengthened organising and mobilisation attitude – by educators and our allies working together.
The new year will bring new leadership for climate action from the US administration of President Joe Biden, who has promised to rejoin the Paris Agreement on his first day in office. He’s also scheduling in his first 100 days, “a climate world summit to directly engage the leaders of the major carbon-emitting nations of the world to persuade them to join the United States in making more ambitious national pledges, above and beyond the commitments they have already made.”
What makes the Biden pledges most notable is the striking contrast – with Donald Trump, of course – but also with extremist actors like Jair Bolsonaro of Brazil and his deliberate deforestation of the Amazon and, in my own country of Australia, Scott Morrison, who has been globally condemned for ignoring the life-threatening climate crisis at home with dire effects for our entire region.
In my own Australian Education Union (AEU), we are fighting back. During the catastrophic bushfire season at the start of the year educators found themselves on the frontline; battling fires that raged for weeks, defending education settings and providing emotional support to students anxious about their future.
By working together with the broader union movement in Australia, we are pushing the Government to adopt emission targets by working with alliances on policy to ensure workers are not left out of the debate or the solutions.
And with last year’s student ‘school strikes for climate’ ranking amongst some of the largest protests in Australia's history, the AEU is now one of 25 unions in Australia supporting direct student action to highlight the Government’s continued negligence.
Promoting climate and overall civic literacy in a period of increased political polarisation and misinformation is a severe challenge. This is true whether it’s the right-wing climate spin of a Morrison in Australia, the red-tagging of a Duterte in the Philippines or judicial repression of an Orban in Hungary. Ignoring extremist control of information necessary for democracy is not an option if we want to keep our institutions accountable and public sectors thriving. Above all, our students must learn to recognise issues of concern, seek out trustworthy information, engage productively across differences, and take action to help respond to problems.
As teachers, education support personnel, and unionists, we have more than a responsibility to teach and defend the truth; we have an absolute responsibility now to identify, call out and correct misinformation, disinformation and outright lies.
There is no reason to believe that 2021 will be the happy new year that changes the course of world history. But in December, if we are able to reflect on a year when educators helped lead the world toward a measurable change in the environment for science and truth, it will rightly be called an audacious start.
 António Guterres’ full address at Columbia University is available at https://www.un.org/sg/en/content/sg/speeches/2020-12-02/address-columbia-university-the-state-of-the-planet