sherif1_ HOSHANG HASHIMIAFP via Getty Images_girls school afghanistan HOSHANG HASHIMI/AFP via Getty Images

The Climate-Education Crisis

World leaders must acknowledge the deepening links between the climate crisis and education. Over the next 30 years, more than 140 million people are expected to be displaced by climate change across South Asia, Sub-Saharan Africa, and Latin America, at a cost of some $7.9 trillion.

NEW YORK – Climate change threatens the very future of humanity. Entire villages are already being washed to sea, and conflicts over scarce resources are intensifying around the world. Each year, more and more families are forcibly displaced by extreme weather events, creating a vicious cycle of extreme poverty, acute hunger, and insecurity.

As we mark Earth Day 2021, we must expand our focus to acknowledge the deepening links between the climate crisis and education – an area where we desperately need to translate good intentions and financial commitments into meaningful action. Education for the world’s most vulnerable populations – especially girls and boys displaced by climate-related disasters, armed conflicts, and protracted political crises – must become a top priority in our race to protect humanity and create a more viable future for generations to come.

The challenge we face is unprecedented. Over the next 30 years, more than 140 million people are expected to be displaced by climate change across South Asia, Sub-Saharan Africa, and Latin America, at a cost of some $7.9 trillion. This wave of mass migration and displacement will disrupt global efforts to expand democratic and responsible governance, and to achieve the targets outlined in the Sustainable Development Goals and the Paris climate agreement.

Compounding the injustice facing marginalized and vulnerable children who have done nothing to contribute to the problem, girls – especially adolescents – often are the first to be forced out of school when droughts, landslides, floods, and other disasters strike, and they are the last to return, if they return at all. Without access to education, these girls face increased risk of sexual exploitation, early marriage, unwanted pregnancy, and child labor.

This represents a tragic loss of human capital. The Malala Fund estimates that in 2021, climate-related events will prevent at least four million girls in developing countries from completing their education. And this number could reach 12 million by 2025.

We need to start connecting the dots between these issues. By incorporating education aid into their broader climate agendas, governments can replace the vicious cycle of displacement, poverty, and insecurity with a new, virtuous cycle. Educated girls are powerful agents of change. With the right education, today’s marginalized and vulnerable young people can build tomorrow’s stronger and more resilient economies and communities.

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The numbers don’t lie. Recent studies indicate that an additional year of primary school for girls can raise per capita income by 10-20%. Conversely, the price of failing to educate girls through secondary school is estimated at $15-30 trillion in lost productivity. These foregone gains could make a huge difference in addressing climate change and building stronger societies.

Research also shows that educating girls saves lives. A 2013 study analyzing the links between girls’ education and disaster-risk reduction found that if 70% of women aged 20-39 received at least a lower-secondary education, disaster-related deaths could be reduced by 60% by 2050.

There are flickers of hope behind these grim statistics. Consider Afghanistan, where an increase in droughts, floods, and extreme weather is displacing families and triggering conflicts. Though Afghan girls’ and women’s basic rights have long been systematically violated, women are now teaching science and biology and empowering the next generation of girls. In rural areas, girls who missed out on education are accessing safe learning environments in community-based education centers. And national education policies are taking a proactive approach to get more girls in school.

In the Sahel, where people are increasingly fighting over scarce resources and fleeing record-breaking temperatures and droughts, children are the ones left furthest behind. Yet in countries like Chad, the international community has come together to support multi-year resilience education programs through global funds such as Education Cannot Wait, hosted by the UN. Thanks to these collective investments, girls are acquiring new skills in science, technology, engineering, and math, which will afford them more opportunities to thrive – and perhaps become powerful advocates for sustainable development and climate resilience.

In Mozambique, children today face the triple threat of climate change, violent insecurity, and COVID-19. But with ongoing support, girls and boys can now access remote education services, and are learning through TV, radio, and tablets. These children will know what to do when the next cataclysmic cyclone hits. Through education, they are becoming more resilient, more aware, and more empowered to act.

To address the multiplying risks facing children in developing countries – particularly in crisis contexts – we must take urgent, holistic, and collective action to link education and climate change. For donors, governments, and private-sector leaders, this means that education should be earmarked in contributions to the Paris agreement, COVID-19 response packages, and overall strategies for low-carbon, climate-resilient development. And as we look ahead to the COP26 climate change conference in Glasgow in November and other global gatherings, funding for education – especially education for vulnerable girls – should be put at the top of the international agenda.

Hope is not enough. We need to embrace proactive measures to ensure humanity’s long-term survival. The choice is ours. An investment in girls’ education is an investment in our shared humanity, our economy, and the future of the planet.