This blog was written by Mariana Rudge and originally published on the Sightsavers website in September 2023.

In a rapidly changing world, education systems must adapt and transform to ensure they are fit for purpose.

The impact of the school closures due to COVID-19 worsened an existing global learning crisis, creating a huge learning gap and leading to many children dropping out of school. To add to that, it’s estimated that climate change is disrupting the education of almost 40 million learners every year.

The impacts of these crises are not felt equally. Inequalities and discrimination mean that learners with disabilities, particularly girls with disabilities, are disproportionately affected and often have the least resources to cope.

The climate crisis and education

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change recognises that climate change is increasing the frequency and severity of extreme weather events, which interrupt education in many ways. These events can have an immediate impact and lead to school closures (such as in Bangladesh, where Cyclone Amphan damaged more than 1,200 schools). They also have indirect impact, including droughts that disrupt livelihoods, leading to malnutrition or families removing children from school as they can no longer afford school fees.

The impact of climate change is forcing education actors to adapt and build links between the climate and education sectors. The Global Partnership for Education (GPE), the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office and USAID have recently published guidance on climate change and education, recognising that the impact of climate change threatens the achievement of Sustainable Development Goal 4 on universal quality education. But there is also optimism in the potential of education to change attitudes, build resilience and equip learners with the knowledge and skills to mitigate and adapt to changes in the environment.

Education for climate resilience

There is promising research on the potential of education to reduce communities’ vulnerability to the impact of climate change. A recent global survey found that more educated people were more likely to be aware of the threats of climate change. Education influences risk perception and supports problem-solving skills, making communities more prepared to respond to disasters and to adapt to changes in their environment. During times of crisis, schools can provide safe spaces for children and ensure that they can access other health and support services.

In Malawi, Sightsavers is listening and responding to the concerns and priorities of parents of children with disabilities, as well as teachers and communities, to support the inclusion of young children with disabilities in early education. In a rural environment where adaptation is frequently needed, our consultations led to a more holistic education programme with more sustainable approaches. These included establishing community gardens and daily porridge provisions to address nutrition concerns and improve school attendance. Some of the children’s centres have subsequently become self-reliant by producing their own food and family incomes have been boosted through the provision of goats and guidance on farming techniques that can be replicated at home.

Climate justice and disability

People with disabilities account for 16 per cent of the world’s population. Despite being among those most affected by climate change, they are frequently excluded from climate debates. It’s essential for people with disabilities to participate in climate change action and have access to the information they need to prepare for climate shocks and environmental change. Building the resilience of people with disabilities will also strengthen their communities and societies, benefiting everyone.

The promotion of climate justice is essential to an effective climate response. As flagged by the GPE Climate Resilient Education Framework, safeguarding the rights and prioritising the needs of people who are most vulnerable to the impact of climate change should permeate all efforts to address the climate crisis through education.

Our call to action

A year ago, along with our partners, Sightsavers engaged with global debates at the UN’s Transforming Education Summit. We urged governments to ‘Do Your Homework’ and deliver education transformation to make schools inclusive of learners with disabilities. The work on that is not yet over – and we would like to add one more item of homework to the assignment. Governments must take urgent action to build more resilient education systems, which promote climate justice and prioritise the people who are more at risk from the impacts of climate change.

At the UKFIET conference in Oxford, UK, members of Sightsavers’ team highlighted the importance of inclusive education in building societies that are more equal and able to cope with the impacts of climate change. This is essential to meet Agenda 2030 commitments to both people and planet in a way that reaches the people who are still being left behind.

This article was originally published on the Sightsavers website.