Pacific educators affirmed their commitment to climate justice and to advance a just transition during a conference hosted by Education International Asia-Pacific (EIAP) and the Council of Pacific Educators (COPE) in Lautoka, Fiji on May 23-25, 2023.
In a first of its kind in the region, Pacific education unionists gathered to strengthen capacities and build solidarity among education unions in response to the intensifying challenges presented by the climate crisis. Moving forward, the union representatives committed to implementing climate action plans for their respective unions and communities.
With the theme ‘Educators Stand for Climate Justice and a Just Transition,’ various field experts, union allies and leaders delivered inspiring keynote speeches and lectures to more than 50 Pacific unionists. In her opening speech, Education International (EI) President Susan Hopgood said that aggravating climate change means that educators are also experiencing some of its worst impacts, especially those living in frontline communities such as low-lying islands in the Pacific. Therefore, educators must be involved as stakeholders in a just transition. Likewise, EIAP Regional Committee Chair Tsukasa Takimoto said that educators and union members have a duty to advocate for policies that promote sustainable development and tackle climate change. The two EI leaders were united in reiterating the need for more public funding in education as a veritable form of climate action and a step towards realising quality climate education for all.
Meanwhile, the guest of honor, Fiji’s Minister of Employment and former General Secretary of the Fiji Teachers Union Agni Deo Singh lauded EIAP and COPE for their initiative to promote climate action in Pacific education. United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization’s (UNESCO) Director and Representative to the Pacific States Nisha, another notable guest, said that she hopes this could be the start of the recognition of climate education as integral to curricula and the education sector in the region. In response, COPE President Luisa Fatiaki Tongatama said that Pacific educators are ready to rise to the challenges of our global ecological crisis. She noted that Indigenous Pacific peoples’ cultures and traditional practices are already embedded with genuine solutions to the climate emergency.
Indigenous Pacific unionists led the discussions regarding the pressing threat of climate change on the well-being and survival of their communities. Laumata Lauvi of the Samoa National Teachers Association began the discussions by talking about the climate impacts already being experienced by frontline communities in the Pacific. Rakentai Momoe of the Kiribati Union of Teachers explained the hardships being faced by Pacific climate migrants. Meanwhile, Te Aomihia Tao-Glassie of the New Zealand Post Primary Teachers’ Association (NZPPTA) delivered a speech about the role of Indigenous Peoples’ leadership in climate education and climate action. Esau Teagai of Tuvalu Teachers Union also shared about community-generated climate solution in Tuvalu. Toka Toka, youth coordinator for the Cook Islands Teachers Union, shared about their experience working with youth climate justice groups and the importance of collaborating with allies.
Education unionists also shared about how climate change is altering the education sector and the sector’s just transition response. Michael Waller of the NZPPTA explained the mounting challenges being posed by climate change on the teaching profession from the perspective of his local school that is located near the Frans and Fox glaciers in Aotearoa New Zealand. Urmila Singh of the Fiji Teachers Union and Brad Hayes of the Independent Education Union of Australia discussed their respective unions’ work on incorporating just transition concepts into the curriculum. Finally, Kevin Bates of the Australian Education Union reiterated the organising and bargaining skills that education unions bring to the climate justice movement.
The COPE Women’s Network also dedicated a session to climate change and women in the Pacific. Led by COPE Women’s Coordinator Nanise Bale Kamikamica, Pacific women gathered to discuss the pertinent issues affecting women in the face of the climate emergency. According to the group, there is a need to push for a feminist response in climate action because women are being disproportionately affected by climate impacts. In the Pacific, women are responsible for the education of their communities and the preservation of traditional knowledge and practices, but lack the economic opportunities that would bolster their own resilience. For COPE’s Women’s Network, this means that women need to be empowered to take on leadership positions in national and local contexts so that women’s concerns about climate change are prioritised. Furthermore, gender equality requires the commitment of men to promote gender justice in policymaking, the group said. Among unions, this must mean empowering women members by providing trainings and professional development.
Field experts and climate justice allies also discussed the science and public policies surrounding climate change. Elizabeth Holland, professor of ocean and climate change at the University of the South Pacific and longtime Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change author, explained the state of climate impacts in the Pacific. Professor Holland said that the threat of surging seas to the future of Pacific islands, as sea levels could rise to five meters in a high emissions scenario. Meanwhile, Maureen Penjueli of the Pacific Network on Globalisation discussed the importance of climate treaties such as the Paris Agreement in shaping the global response to climate change. Joy Hernandez of the International Trade Union Congress – Asia Pacific, via a video recording, spoke about the labor movement’s response to climate change through the concept of a Just Transition. Additionally, climate justice researcher and campaigner Alanah Torralba discussed the state of just transition among EI union affiliates; while independent researcher Richard Cornelio discussed the findings of EIAP’s Climate Consultation Survey, which detailed the baseline knowledge of Asia Pacific educators regarding climate change, climate justice and a just transition. Lastly, EIAP also launched its animation video based on the ' Teach for Climate Action' advocacy tool kit.
In his progress report, EIAP Regional Director Anand Singh noted the progress that the Educators for Sustainable Development (E4SD) programme has achieved since its inception in October 2021. Due to the constraints of the COVID-19 pandemic, the initiative was launched through a virtual conference that was attended by more than 300 unionists, he said. It was proof that Asia Pacific educators were eager to join the climate justice and just transition movements, Singh added. In 2022, during EIAP’s 9th Regional Congress, educators passed a resolution on the climate crisis, which among others, called for the strengthening of educators’ capacities on climate change and the social justice and labor issues surrounding it. This conference is just one of many initiatives of EIAP to advance that mandate, he said.