You Have a Right to Climate Education

Ellen Taylor
October 4, 2023

A few weeks ago, on the 22nd of August, the United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC) published something very important - General Comment 26, on children’s rights and the environment, with a special focus on climate change. As a volunteer-led youth organisation campaigning for climate education, this could not be more perfect!

Before I explain what General Comment 26 actually states, and what it means for young people across the world, let me explain what the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child actually means! It is the most complete statement of children’s rights ever produced, and is the most widely-ratified international human rights treaty in history. That means that all children and young people here are entitled to all the rights outlined in this document, and if your rights aren’t met, it gives you a tool to challenge those in power. The UK ratified the UNCRC in December 1991, and the government has a responsibility to implement the UNCRC, so all public bodies and those who make decisions and policies that affect children should consider the UNCRC when doing so.

The UNCRC gives Teach the Future an international legal basis, which is difficult for the government to ignore. We can use this General Comment as a way of persuading politicians and policy makers that what we are doing is right, with the backing of the greatest experts on children’s rights in the world.

But what does General Comment 26 actually mean? And what does it have to do with climate education? The Committee produces General Comments to explain the rights contained in the UNCRC, and provide guidance on particular issues, like climate change! Climate education is one of the children’s rights highlighted within the document, alongside the “right to a clean, healthy, and sustainable environment”, and places a responsibility on governments to combat environmental harm and climate change.

The Committee states that, children should be provided with environmental and human rights education, age-appropriate and accessible information”. This is one of our key arguments - and also highlights the importance of intersectionality when addressing climate change in education. We can’t address climate education without also educating young people about their rights. They state that “Education is one of the cornerstones of a child rights-based approach to the environment”. If that is not a rousing endorsement of our movement, I don’t know what is! They highlight that “education is instrumental in protecting their rights and the environment and in increasing their awareness and preparedness for environmental damage”. In other words, if we don’t educate the future (and our present!), we will not be able to mitigate the effects of climate change in the near and distant future. We have a responsibility to produce a generation that is equipped to handle the challenges of climate change.

They also put forward the view that “states should incorporate children’s right to a clean, healthy and sustainable environment into their national legislation”, and “this right should be mainstreamed across all decisions and measures concerning children” - including education and access to green spaces. This is a clear argument for retrofitting - because how can children live in a clean environment, if it is one that is reliant on fossil fuels? They also state that “underserved communities should be prioritised for the climate-proofing and renovation of schools”, which is a core aspect of climate justice.

They also make the argument that “Environmental values should be reflected in the education and training of all professionals involved in education, encompassing teaching methods, technologies and approaches used in education, school environments and preparing children for green jobs”. Evidently, teacher training is just as important as climate education for young people. After all, who will deliver climate education, if there’s no training?

“Exploratory, non-formal and practical methods, such as outdoor learning, are a preferred way of delivering this aim of education”. It is clearly time to look at different ways of delivering education, rather than the traditional desk-and-table rigid learning. Young people can often learn more effectively when given the opportunity to explore nature on their doorstep, immersing themselves in their environment. They also argue for “safe, healthy and resilient infrastructure for effective learning. This includes ensuring the availability of pedestrian and biking routes and public transportation to school”. This is an important, but often overlooked, point. What is the point in showing ways you can reduce your carbon footprint, that aren’t even possible? Cycle lanes are practically non-existent in Northern Ireland, as well as poor public transport, particularly rurally, across the UK. More needs to be done to facilitate achievable climate action, and provide routes for people to do so.

We have always known that climate education is the key to our next generation’s success, and so does the UNCRC. We have an international legal basis, supported by numerous experts. Now we need our policymakers and politicians to actually listen!

You can read more about the General Comment 26 and the UNCRC at large on the United Nations website.