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Take off the blinkers, COP28 — schools are in the fierce eye of the climate storm

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Katherine Sutherland is Legal Researcher at the Equal Education Law Centre and Stacey Jacobs is Researcher at Equal Education.

When the schooling sector is vulnerable to climate shocks and stresses, not only is the right to quality schooling hindered, but larger efforts to mitigate and adapt to the effects of climate change are jeopardised.

As leaders gather in Dubai at the 28th Conference of the Parties (COP28) to shape global policies and set climate finance priorities, they do so in the context of a chilling prediction: emissions from the world’s wealthiest 1% will cause 1.3 million heat-related deaths, between 2020 and 2030, hitting low-income countries and vulnerable groups like children the hardest.

Yet, if history is any guide, COP28 will likely echo its predecessors, directing policies and resources towards “greening” energy giants, big business, and the obscenely rich.

Despite their minimal role in fuelling the climate crisis and their extreme vulnerability, children and school communities will likely be an afterthought. Any consideration they receive will not recognise our youth and basic education as one of the strongest tools for forging climate-resilient communities.

It will not be about recovering lost school days because of dangerously hot school infrastructure or classrooms swept away by floods. No, it will be about reducing school carbon footprints and amending the curriculum to teach children how climate change affects them as if this is not already their lived reality. It is time for climate “justice” leaders to wake up.

Climate hazards wreak havoc on schools

In April 2022, a number of schools in the Eastern Cape’s then drought-stricken Nelson Mandela Bay Municipality were forced to close early when their taps had run dry, and learners’ access to safe drinking water and sanitation was compromised. Without alternative water provision solutions in place, teaching and learning came to a halt.

Further up the coast in that same month, devastating floods in KwaZulu-Natal (KZN) damaged about 350 schools. Under-resourced schools suffered the most, often built on low-lying flood-prone land and reliant on fragile temporary mobile classrooms that are extremely vulnerable to inclement weather.

Without any urgent intervention, thousands of learners expected to return to unsafe school environments unsuitable for learning. Fortunately, government departments valiantly banded together to form task teams and provide much-needed relief and support. Perhaps believing that the almost predictable annual flooding in KZN was now a phenomenon of the past, they planned to provide 26 of the most severely damaged schools with more mobile units (74 mobile classrooms and two kitchens) to cater to an estimated 3,000 learners.

Fast forward to October 2023, almost a year and a half later, the Auditor General of South Africa — in a presentation to the Education Portfolio Committee — reports that “none of the 76 mobile units was signed off for use”.

Some mobile classrooms had been built on the same ground that had previously been submerged by floods, and some had already become unusable due to further flooding that occurred only one month after the initial floods. As a consequence, one school reportedly had 110 learners in one classroom. On 23 October 2023, KZN again faced widespread destruction caused by heavy rain and wind.

This story is by no means unique, and while extreme climate shocks make the news, continuous climate stresses often do not. Research has shown that poor air ventilation, bad air quality (particularly in mobile classrooms), and extreme temperatures negatively impact learning outcomes and school attendance.

One school governing board member interviewed for Equal Education’s Overcrowding Report in Etwatwa, Gauteng reported that “with our infrastructure in summer, it is terrible – when it is hot, it gets too hot. It has an impact on learning outcomes. For you to achieve the objective of the lesson, an environment needs to be conducive for learners to listen attentively… They [learners] will fake that they are sick. So it’s not only teachers who are affected. Learners and teachers don’t want to be at school. Sometimes they fall asleep in class.”

A learner interviewed in 2023 surveys conducted by the Equal Education Law Centre corroborated this, saying “I always feel suffocated and because of too much heat I usually fall asleep during teaching time because there is no air coming inside and there are too many challenges we face in our classroom, such as learners fitting [into the classroom] and no fresh air coming to clear that smell.”

Education is a multiplier right

When the schooling sector is vulnerable to climate shocks and stresses, not only is the right to quality schooling hindered, but larger efforts to mitigate and adapt to the effects of climate change are jeopardised.

Education functions as a multiplier right, so in the absence of the necessary focus and investment in the sector, the global community risks the realisation of other Sustainable Development Goals.

Education is key to furthering adaptation capacity and reducing harm related to climate disasters. It also fosters care for the environment and facilitates the development of skills and behaviours “that support policies or political decisions that have a positive impact on the environment”. Unicef reports that “investments that improve educational outcomes can considerably reduce overall climate risk for 275 million children”.

Yet, an excessive focus on carbon emissions to the detriment of other key human rights components in the fight against climate change means schooling considerations are rarely on the climate justice policy agenda.

One study on child-responsive climate finance assessing 591 projects and programmes funded by key multilateral climate funds from 2006 to 2023 found that just 5% of projects and only 2.4% of climate finance spent over the 17-year period were child-responsive, amounting to a meagre $0.03 per capita per annum. Just one of the 591 projects focused on education as its principal objective.

A call to bridge the gap

The climate crisis is a children’s rights crisis, and to truly champion children’s rights means safeguarding their right to quality schooling. It is time to bridge the gap between the education and climate justice sectors, invest in climate-proofing our schools to ensure education continuity and allow young voices to inform decision-makers about the dire impact of climate hazards on them and their learning environments.

Prioritising children, their inputs and their participation in decision-making processes is not just a choice; it is a moral imperative. DM

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  • Dennis Bailey says:

    Yep, children, as we have seen in Gaza, are expendable pawns in the politics of adults. Madiba would turn in his grave to see what has become of his legacy of putting children in The forefront of our fight against poverty. Current policy seems to shout go to hell – but children only have to live in SA to know how bad hell can get.

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