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Is Education Ready for the Climate Emergency Mobilization?

Updated: Jan 21, 2022

The stark reality before us is defined by science. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has indicated that the planet has another 9 years to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from fossil fuels by at least 50% and until 2050 to become net carbon-zero in order to have a reasonable chance of maintaining global temperatures under 1.5 degrees C above preindustrial levels.

Failure to meet the 1.5 degree C target will have catastrophic consequences including disruptions to food systems, more extreme heat and weather events, sea-level rise that will impact coastal communities, lost sources of water, spikes in illness carried by insects that will thrive from global warming, and mass human displacement and migration. As a planet, we are already at 1 degree of temperature rise above preindustrial levels. This is a unique period of human time on earth.

While there is an increased awareness and desire for action, the climate emergency has not reached the necessary apex to initiate real change. Canada, for example, cannot yet demonstrate any recognizable reduction in greenhouse gas emissions. The climate emergency is not yet being treated as an emergency.

Fossil fuel use needs to be completely eliminated to hold any chance of maintaining global warming to 1.5 degrees. The fact that so little progress has been made on fossil fuel subsidy reform demonstrates the extent to which governments and industry are interlocked and shortening an already limited time frame to address this challenge of enormous size and magnitude. When the climate emergency does become equated with the need for robust political action, the limited time available will demand an economic policy response that is fast, equitable and dynamic.

Scope and Context

The extent to which fossil fuels intersect our daily lives means that reducing by 50% over the next 9 years will be, in and of itself, a huge undertaking. It will be necessary to transition off of fossil fuels while implementing a massive green infrastructure plan to develop renewable energy sources while transforming industry, agriculture, public institutions, our homes and buildings and the way we consume goods and services.

We will need to fundamentally shift how we live and work together; how our communities are organized to act with sustainability as the key objective. And this will need to happen at the same time that unprecedented impacts from the climate emergency continue to unfold.

This magnitude of the change required is recognized by the scientists and authors of the 2018 IPCC Report identifying the need to eliminate fossil fuel consumption to keep global temperatures at 1.5 degrees C above preindustrial levels.

“The global transformation that would be needed to limit warming to 1.5°C requires enabling conditions that reflect the links, synergies and trade-offs between mitigation, adaptation and sustainable development. These enabling conditions are assessed across many dimensions of feasibility – geophysical, environmental-ecological, technological, economic, socio-cultural and institutional – that may be considered through the unifying lens of the Anthropocene, acknowledging profound, differential but increasingly geologically significant human influences on the Earth system as a whole.”

Allen, M.R., O.P. Dube, W. Solecki, F. Aragón-Durand, W. Cramer, S. Humphreys, M. Kainuma, J. Kala, N. Mahowald, Y. Mulugetta, R. Perez, M. Wairiu, and K. Zickfeld, 2018: Framing and Context. In: Global Warming of 1.5°C. An IPCC Special Report on the impacts of global warming of 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels and related global greenhouse gas emission pathways, in the context of strengthening the global response to the threat of climate change, sustainable development, and efforts to eradicate poverty [Masson-Delmotte, V., P. Zhai, H.-O. Pörtner, D. Roberts, J. Skea, P.R. Shukla, A. Pirani, W. Moufouma-Okia, C. Péan, R. Pidcock, S. Connors, J.B.R. Matthews, Y. Chen, X. Zhou, M.I. Gomis, E. Lonnoy, T. Maycock, M. Tignor, and T. Waterfield (eds.)]. In Press.

A Call for Mobilization

As daunting as this appears, doing the work is not our biggest challenge. The greatest priority right now involves raising awareness that will persuade governments to recognize the climate emergency for what is: an existential threat that demands immediate and transformative attention.

In his book A Good War: Mobilizing Canada for the Climate Emergency, author Seth Klein uses the mobilization effort of the Second World War to exemplify the degree of focus that is required now. This mobilization effort is being assisted by the Climate Emergency Unit, whose overarching goal is to influence the implementation of wartime-scale policies in Canada to confront the climate crisis. “We seek to move governments and leaders in Canada into true climate emergency mode, pressing them to adopt ambitious policies that align with what science says we must do.”

A wartime-like emergency mode of operations requires that governments:

  • spend what it takes to win,

  • create new institutions to get the job done,

  • shift from voluntary and incentive-based policies to mandatory measures, and

  • tell the truth about the severity of the crisis and communicates a sense of urgency about the measures necessary to combat it.

A New Deal - Moving Beyond Austerity Thinking and Action

Despite the increasing magnitude and frequency of climate emergency events, change continues to be presented from an austerity perspective; that we can “have our cake and eat it too” through an emission reduction effort that maintains the use of fossil fuels. The science contradicts this strategy. We have nine years to significantly reduce fossil fuel use, aiming for its complete elimination; the sooner the better.

The Covid-19 pandemic has demonstrated the lack of capacity that, left unchallenged, austerity thinking will offer K-12 education in a climate emergency world. The reality for working parents is that school is as much about childcare, and youth and family support, as it is about education. Inequities are clearly evident. We have seen how our education systems are separated from overall community needs.

This is much more than simply retrofitting buildings and switching to electric vehicles. It is a call for action that will transition our communities to a different and improved way of life. It’s a full scale mobilization effort with vision, leadership governance and wide-scale participation to take us to where we need to go.

Similar to World War II, the climate emergency mobilization requires a new deal; massive job creation that will increase and improve the working rights of all people. It needs to be a job program of epic proportions.

"There will be a transformation – a response to the climate crisis – and whether it occurs in a manner that is just and fair or unjust and repressive remains an open question. Past industrial revolutions have cared little for those whose lives were turned upside down by change. Another is coming. Our challenge is to try as best we can to ensure this one unfolds differently.” Klein, p. 239

Mobilization for Education

The climate emergency is not just a problem for education to overcome. It will demand more than can be delivered under current education system structures. This is an opportunity for education to demonstrate its rightful place with a large scale mobilization campaign.

Now is the time to connect education with the longstanding call for progressive and innovative change to industrial era schooling. The mobilization effort will help our political leaders to recognize that education is more than a call to retrofit schools. This is the time to enact our collective responsibility to redefine schooling through policy and infrastructure that aligns student-centred learning with local synergies and global sustainability.

Education for Mobilization

Education needs the climate emergency mobilization effort. But the mobilization effort also needs education. Achieving a political commitment to economic policy of this magnitude will require a monumental effort rarely seen in modern times. It will need to be driven by people’s emotions, dreams and aspirations; not just for themselves, but for their children and their children’s children.

Education can help the mobilization effort because education:

  • is interconnected with people’s day-to-day lives,

  • is foundational to future generations,

  • connects with people on a personal level, and

  • offers a vision for the betterment of society as a response to the climate emergency.

There is an undercurrent of energy for a new commitment to education that can be connected with the Climate Emergency Mobilization effort.

Phil Dawes, January 21, 2022

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