Climate crisis impacts young lives


14 March 2023

As much of Australia recovers after devastating floods, research here and overseas shows that the effect of extreme weather events on children’s education extends beyond interruptions caused by school closures, damage to buildings and loss of materials to childhood development and health.

In Australia, associate dean and associate professor of education at Charles Sturt University (CSU) Brendon Hyndman is co-editing a forthcoming book, The Impact of Extreme Weather on School Education, with Jennifer Vanos, associate professor in the School of Sustainability in the College of Global Futures at Arizona State University.

The book considers how to protect international school communities from extreme weather influences, the training that teachers receive for weather protection in schools, building design, and the impacts of closures on schools.

Often these issues only receive attention during disasters, says Hyndman. But there are other hidden aspects that have an impact on children’s education.

He says even elevated temperatures, lack of air flow, or if children “are not quite protected and supported enough in the school yard”, can affect learning.

Hyndman observed students in Darwin were expected to learn under extreme and prolonged heat, despite research showing they are most attentive at temperatures between 20 and 24 degrees. In some schools there is air-conditioning in staffrooms, but not in classrooms, he says.

The extreme heat could have a negative effect on students’ and teachers’ health but also their functioning and ability to pay attention and learn. Often conditions lead to turnover of teachers, which had a negative impact on students’ continuity of learning.

“By negatively impacting students’ ability to learn, the heat could cause northern Australian students to lag behind southern jurisdictions across a range of learning outcomes,” Hyndman says.

Unequal effects

One US study found that exposure to extreme heat and rain during prenatal and early childhood years in countries in the global tropics could make it more difficult for children to complete secondary school education.

The Young Lives study, an Oxford University longitudinal research project that has followed the lives of 12,000 children across four continents since 2001, reveals extreme weather events are having a significantly unequal effect on the poorest and most vulnerable children.

The study of two birth cohorts in India, Peru, Vietnam and Ethiopia looked at the climate conditions the children have experienced as well as their nutrition, height and weight, cognitive skills such as maths and vocabulary, and educational attainment.

Dr Catherine Porter, Young Lives director, says the study found climate-related shocks could even affect a child in the womb.

“We have research from India that shows if a mother has experienced a flood or a drought it affects the child’s later outcomes in terms of their educational achievements like maths
or vocabulary,” she says.

Similar consequences occurred when children in Peru experienced frost or rainfall shocks, or when there was drought in Ethiopia.

Recent research undertaken by Young Lives in Vietnam concluded that “childhood exposure to climate shocks such as flooding and related crop failures affects children’s nutrition, growth, cognitive skills and access to education. This impedes their learning including developing basic literacy, numeracy, and socio-emotional skills – with the poorest children
most affected”.

Shocks can lead to the poorest families withdrawing children from school, and girls and young women often taking responsibility for household chores and child-minding, the Young Lives study found.

“Children can be temporarily pulled out of school and, depending on how long that lasts, it could become permanent,” says Porter.

“For example, in Ethiopia around half (of the children studied) have not yet finished their schooling and they are coming up to age 20,” she says.

What can be done?

It’s Getting Hot, a 2019 UNICEF paper on climate change effects in East Asia and the Pacific, says education systems urgently need a strong voice in climate change discussions.

Several years later there is still a significant gap, according to a UNICEF spokesperson: “Only 12 of the 27 climate change plans submitted by countries in the East Asia and Pacific region mention education – and even then, the focus is on education as a tool to raise awareness of climate change without considering the huge needs of the education sector.

“Education officials must have a seat at the table when these plans and financing priorities are developed, and children’s views and priorities must be taken into account.”

That means looking beyond physical losses, as the indirect impact on children’s education can be more long-lasting and potentially more costly. The report cited 2018 World Bank global analysis of missed education, which shows that limited educational opportunities for girls and barriers to completing 12 years of education cost countries between US$15 trillion and US$30 trillion.

Action could include improving the evidence base to inform climate and education policies and developing sustainable financing mechanisms for climate resilient education systems, the report says.

Young Lives also highlights the need for better policy connections. A Young Lives policy brief issued this year says that policymakers need to better understand how climate-related shocks, nutrition, and foundational learning interconnect. That would enable more social protection programs to reach disadvantaged households in disaster-prone regions, particularly those aimed at vulnerable infants and adolescent girls and aligned with early learning and school feeding programs.

Porter says safety nets in Ethiopia and Peru have had a protective impact on young people’s skills. She says ideally, policies such as insurance-based support to governments in developing countries would be in place before a shock occurred and there would be automatic triggers when rainfall was above or below a certain level.

“Things can be done to mitigate but of course it would be better to try and stop the acceleration of the climate crisis,” says Porter.

Christine Long

This article was originally published in the Australian Educator Summer, 2022