Education systems: A Victim and a Key to the Climate Crisis

The Complexity of the Climate Crisis Impacts on the Education Sector

UNICEF East Asia & Pacific
09 March 2020

The Tonle Sap Lake is the beating heart of Cambodia, changing its volume over a typical year, overflowing and inundating floodplains during monsoons that has allowed the irrigation of agriculture for centuries. However, this lifegiving source is also the source of destruction – as a result of the climate crisis, heavier than usual precipitation towards the end of the monsoon season, it can result in destructive floods.

In October 2013, nearly 1.8 million people were affected by floods in Cambodia, of which a quarter were children. The education sector was significantly impacted: over 1,200 schools in the floodplain were affected, with 155 schools being so severely damaged that they had to close for up to nine weeks; more than 450,000 students were unable to access schools during the floods, and 40,000 textbooks were lost[i].

However, beyond these direct impacts, children and adolescents also suffered less documented indirect impacts.

Floods have been linked to impacts on children and adolescents’ health through increased risk of contracting diarrhea, resulting in increased absenteeism in schools. As an agriculture-dependent economy, especially in the rural areas, floods impact livelihoods through damage to crops and livestock – when these take place, adolescents are more likely to miss school to support livelihood activities for their families, affecting their participation in schools.

The direct and indirect impacts on the education sector and risk of disruption to children and adolescents’ education is only likely to increase due to the climate crisis, unless action is taken.

The Cambodian example illustrates some of the impacts of the climate crisis on the education system, and most importantly, on affected children and adolescents, who often go unnoticed in the global narratives around the impacts of climate change – and this needs to change.

Cambodia is not alone. The East Asia and the Pacific region is one of the most vulnerable to climate-related impacts, with about half of the population directly affected every year by floods, droughts and storms[ii]. With climate change, increasing temperatures, changing rainfall patterns and rising sea levels will add to current vulnerabilities.  Scientific evidence shows that the frequency, intensity and duration of extreme events will likely increase, hence, it will be important to build climate-smart education systems so we can protect hard-earned gains in children’s education and learning. Education systems need to be prepared to face the increased challenges the climate crisis presents and have an ongoing response to them. Furthermore, while many children and adolescents acknowledge the significance of climate change, they are ill-equipped with the knowledge and skills to help to implement effective solutions to address the impacts. The education sector is not just a victim; it can play a key role in addressing the climate crisis.

UNICEF’s latest report It is Getting Hot: Call For Education Systems To Respond To The Climate Crisis provides an analysis on the impacts of climate change on the education sector in the region, with special case studies on Cambodia, Mongolia and Viet Nam. It offers an overview of the challenges and opportunities for the education system, providing recommendations to address these, and move forward in the climate crisis agenda.

The Complexity of the Climate Crisis Impacts on the Education Sector

The climate crisis has both direct and indirect impacts on the education sector, affecting children’s rights to education as guaranteed in the Convention on the Rights of the Child.

These are illustrated in the figure below:



Climate atlas
A schematic diagram of direct and indirect impacts from climate change on the education sector

The direct impacts are usually more visible and generally much better documented than the indirect impacts, which are illustrated in the figure. As the figure illustrates, the interlinkages between climate change and its impacts on the education sector can be quite complex.

What does a climate-smart Education system mean?

Climate students
UNICEF Viet Nam\Truong Viet Hung
Boys and girls jumps and plays at the front yard of Sin Cheng semi boarding ethnic lower secondary school

I. Improve learning and skills in schools to address climate crisis challenges

The education sector plays a key role in educating children and adolescents on climate change. There is a need to ensure skills-based learning, through action-oriented pedagogies, where there is significant potential to encourage children and adolescents (as well as teachers and communities) to participate in climate mitigation, adaptation actions and to become part of the solution. In the same sense, it is crucial to ensure children and adolescents understand local impacts and the most recent knowledge regarding climate change, integrating these components into the national curricula, together with other key topics such as gender and inclusion.

II. Enhance data and improve the evidence base to identify solutions

There needs to be a systemic understanding of climate impacts both directly and indirectly on the education system. Generating evidence on how climate change affects education allows education stakeholders to actively participate in climate change discussions, monitor progress and identify solutions. In addition, the systemic collection of climate impact data on the education sector could allow for an integrated data and information for climate-smart education actions across sectors.

III. Increase strategies to ensure continued education of all children and adolescents under a climate change scenario

In addition to specific initiatives for climate-smart schools, there needs to be innovative alternative education modalities ready and available, to ensure that access to quality education for the most vulnerable and at-risk children is continued despite climate impacts.

IV. Work across sectors to strengthen education systems and their voices in order to provide a better response with climate-smart education planning and financing

Ministries of education in the region often have limited engagement with ministries coordinating climate change – this needs to change to address the impacts and needs of the education sector accurately. In the same regard, given that climate impacts on the education system are cross-sectoral, collaboration across other sectors is necessary.

The progress achieved thus far and the potential for improvement to ensure climate-smart system is assessed for key components of the education system as below: 

Climate icons
Countries’ progress and potential for improvement on climate resilience in the education sector are assessed across these areas in the report

The New Normal

We are already seeing the immense impacts of climate change on the education system. UNICEF’s report hopes to trigger discussions by providing an initial evidence base and calls for urgent actions by the education and climate change stakeholders to safeguard children’s basic right to Education.

[i] MOEYS (Ministry of Education, Youth and Sports), n.d. Education and Resilience in Cambodia.

[ii] UNISDR, 2019

climate photo
A typical summer day in rural Cambodia, where temperatures reach as high as high as 40 degree Celsius. This is the dry season. It hasn’t rained for six months and the surface water has dried. The groundwater remains the only source for piped water supply. If the drought continues, the few drilled wells will run out of water sometime between March and June.