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Lives displaced and disrupted: how climate change threatens the right to education
Bangkok, Thailand

By Chairat Chongvattanakij - Minsun Kim

23 June 2023


Widely regarded as the single greatest challenge ever faced by humanity, climate change is reshaping migration patterns around the world, presaging far-reaching social, political, economic and cultural ramifications. According to the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre (IDMC), the year 2022 saw 32.6 million disaster-related internal displacements globally. Yet the impact of climate displacement on the right to education remains critically underexplored.


In this regard, UNESCO and the UN University-Institute for the Advanced Study of Sustainability (UNU-IAS) jointly organized the only education-focused side event at the 79th Commission Session of UN ESCAP, in Bangkok, on the topic of 'Climate Change and Right to Education', with the express aim of stimulating dialogue and fostering partnerships to address this issue.


Ms Rolla Moumné, Right to Education Programme Specialist at UNESCO Headquarters, Paris, introduced the UNESCO initiative on the impact of climate change and displacement on the right to education. Under this initiative, UNESCO will release a ‘global synthesis report’ towards the end of this year which will feature global policy recommendations on how to ensure the right to education in the face of climate displacement.


Citing the confluence of population density, rapid urbanization and distinct geographical characteristics, Dr Jonghwi Park, Academic Programme Officer and Head of Innovation and Education at UNU-IAS, noted that Asia and the Pacific accounted for a staggering 80 per cent of the total global climate displacement from 2008 to 2020. UNESCO’s recent study in the Asia-Pacific region reveals serious barriers to education in the context of climate disaster and displacement, including the destruction of schools, the repurposing of schools as post-disaster emergency shelters, and increasing dropout rates due to climate-induced poverty. Climate displaced persons commonly encounter further problems: in addition to being traumatized, many face language and administrative barriers – if not outright discrimination.


Dr Park reminded the audience that teachers can also become victims of climate disasters. As such, they require assistance and training that would enable them to resume teaching quickly as well as provide psychological support to traumatized students. Displaced adults generally lack opportunities for reskilling, upskilling or language learning that would help them adapt and thrive in a new environment. Indeed, one of Dr Park’s core observations was the need for data-based prioritization in delivering aid or intervention to specific demographics and disaster scenarios. At the policy level, Dr Park, along with other speakers, called for greater interaction between educational policies and disaster risk reduction policies.


Another crucial issue raised at the event was the current absence of any international legal framework that would afford protection to cross-border climate displaced persons and ensure their right to education. When people are displaced by climate change, ‘access to education is the first to suffer,’ said Mr Anindya Dutta, Project Officer on Migration, Environment and Climate Change at the International Organization for Migration (IOM) Thailand. Conversely, he remarked that education can make a difference to one’s climate readiness.


This promising idea was further developed by Ms Rika Yorozu, Head of Executive Office and Regional Programme Coordinator at UNESCO Bangkok, in her discussion of UNESCO’s Greening Education Partnership (GEP). Ms Yorozu explained that within the framework of Education for Sustainable Development, GEP seeks to ‘empower learners to be agents of change’ in fashioning environmentally sustainable societies. GEP leverages a strong multistakeholder alliance to catalyze action around four main pillars: 1) greening schools; 2) greening curriculum; 3) greening teacher training and education systems’ capacities; and 4) greening communities.


Addressing the third pillar of GEP, Ms Deepali Gupta, Advocacy and Partnership Specialist (Asia-Pacific) at Global Partnership for Education (GPE), underscored the need for ‘climate-smart education systems’. Recognizing that climate displacement further marginalizes the most vulnerable (including women and girls, ethnic minorities and people living with disabilities), Ms Gupta noted, ‘We need an education system that is able to address some of these power asymmetries and create not just a greener society but also a fairer society.’ To this aim, she introduced GPE’s 7-Dimension Framework for Action, which identifies important entry points for mainstreaming climate considerations into education systems.


Addressing the Thai context specifically, Dr Chongrak Thinagul, a representative from Thailand’s Department of Environmental Quality Promotion (DEQP), alluded to the Eco-School Project, which exemplifies a whole-school approach in advancing nature-based learning and forging connections between school and local community. Perhaps the key lesson to be taken away is, in Ms Gupta’s words, ‘If we could mobilize school communities to restore ecosystems and to adopt sustainable practices, this can have an immense impact.’ Education thus holds tremendous promise as the vital driver of climate resilience, sustainable development and human flourishing.