Professional Voice 14.2.2

Australia needs a climate change education policy

Hilary Whitehouse

An absence of responsibility

Australia is a signatory to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), and, as a party to this Convention, has responsibility to undertake education and public awareness campaigns on climate change, and to ensure public participation in the matter - including the participation of children and youth. However, there is little evidence to suggest that the governments of Australia are yet taking this responsibility seriously.

As in many nations, Australian governments, both state and federal, continue to fail to support children, young people and their educators charged with educating for a climate destabilised future. Investment levels to support environmental and sustainability education are woefully inadequate across states and territories. Levels of support at federal level can be considered neglectfully low.

Climate change education and biodiversity education are part of education for sustainability (EfS) as it is known in Australia, and, education for sustainable development (ESD) as it is known internationally. When education for sustainability is underfunded and, curiously regarded as unnecessary to the ‘real’ purposes of schooling, this also impacts on climate change education (see Reid et. al. 2021).

We know how to educate for sustainability. The research, curriculum and pedagogical work has been extensive across the globe. Indeed, the efforts of Australian educators and scholars have been seen to have led the world over the last four decades. What is missing is not educational knowledge on how to educate. What is missing in Australia are well funded federal and state educational policy frameworks to support EfS and ESD, and climate change education.

To the question, what have we got in terms of climate change education policy? the short answer is not much. What we have (at most) are statements located in various curriculum and policy documents which, when considered together, give a sense of ad-hockery. Thoughtfully structured and enactable climate change education policy coordinated between state and federal levels would demonstrate that governments actually care about meaningful educating for the present - future.

The evidence is that such policy care is decidedly absent. The question is why? Why is Australia in the position of irresponsibility with regards to national policy settings to support what is now critical educational work given climate turmoil is disrupting all of our lives?

The 2021 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Sixth Assessment Report (Working Group 1) states unequivocally that no-one, young or old, will be sheltered from the accelerating effects of global heating caused by atmospheric carbon pollution. The IPCC Headline Statements from the Summary for Policy Makers (IPCC, 2021) states that it is “unequivocal” that humans have warmed the atmosphere, oceans and land, and “widespread and rapid changes in the atmosphere, ocean, cryosphere and biosphere have occurred”. The scale of climate change is described as “unprecedented”, strengthening, and “affecting weather and climate extremes in every region across the globe”. The laws of thermodynamics are physical and immutable and cannot be countered through political, economic or educational fictions.

Unbalanced economic priorities

Given the threats are known and real, the deliberate silence when it comes to climate change education policy in Australia is puzzling. The reasons appear largely political. Australia has suffered for many years from what historian Judith Brett (2020, p. 2) describes as, “poor national leadership on climate change, with our prime ministers lacking either the intellect or courage to develop coherent policy responses to the threat”.

In trying to make sense of why an aversion to climate action has manifested itself in Australia at the highest level of political leadership, Brett turned to analysing the economic structures that support how we make a living, focussing on our exports of mined carbon, that, when combusted, drive global heating. About 20 percent of current total exports are fossil fuels, and Australia is the source for at least 3.5 percent of total global carbon emissions. This figure has been projected to rise to 13 percent of total emissions by 2030 (Parra et al. 2019).

Australia is hamstrung in terms of the low diversity and complexity of our national economy. We are currently ranked 83rd on the Harvard Economic Complexity Index, and the nation suffers from a low level of economic diversification. Australia does not invest highly in education. According to Federal budget analysis (Ferguson and Harrington, 2020) slightly less than 2 percent of Gross National Product is spent on education and training across all sectors.

In 2021, national government expenditure on education and training is projected to be 40 billion dollars (this figure includes expenditures by states and territories). This is only four times the amount of tax payer money governments will spend subsidising fossil fuels over the same time frame. An Australia Institute Report states that for the 2020-2021 year, “Australian Federal and state governments provided a total of $10.3 billion worth of spending and tax breaks to assist fossil fuel industries. The $7.8 billion cost of the fuel tax rebate alone is more than the budget of the Australian Army” (see Campbell et al., 2021).

Australia’s economic settings are one reason that climate change education is not yet on the policy agenda.

Declared silences

As Brett (2020) analysed, Australian policy leadership is ridden with climate change denialism even as the effects of climate turmoil are experienced more broadly and more acutely. This includes denialism within education policy.

The Mparntwe Education Declaration (which replaced the Melbourne Declaration in December 2019) is completely silent on climate change (see Gough, 2020). Students and teachers are asked only to “engage with complex ethical issues and concepts such as sustainability”. The term, ‘engage’ is a passive exhortation, when what is required in the face of a monumental crisis is material action. The Declaration envisages the role of education as preparing “young people to thrive in a time of rapid social and technological change, and complex environmental, social and economic challenges”.

Thriving, however, is an unlikely outcome, feeling distressed is far more likely. Recent research surveyed people aged between 16 and 25 from 10 countries including Australia. Ten thousand respondents fully completed the survey. To quote from the paper:

Respondents were worried about climate change (59% very or extremely worried, 84% at least moderately worried). Over 50% felt sad, anxious, angry, powerless, helpless, and guilty. Over 45% said their feelings about climate change negatively affected their daily life and functioning, and many reported a high number of negative thoughts about climate change. Respondents rated the governmental response to climate change negatively and reported greater feelings of betrayal than of reassurance. Correlations indicated that climate anxiety and distress were significantly related to perceived inadequate government response and associated feelings of betrayal. (Marks et al., 2021, n.p.)

This research indicates there is a high correlation between lack of action by governments and younger people’s increased levels of negative feelings towards their futures. The politicised tactic of being silent on climate in national education policy does not make the problem go away. Meaning that if national educational policy makers truly expect thriving in times of rapid environmental and social change, then climate change education policy needs to be developed.

Global heating is real and we know its causes. The writers of education policy are engaging in fiction just at a time when what is required is clear-sighted recognition of how education systems can respond to known dangers. Realistic policy settings define action.

A rational response

The youth climate justice movement is a rational response to inaction. That this movement gained rapid momentum during a pandemic, indicates children and young people are finding out for themselves how and why governments, corporations and education systems have failed to act meaningfully to protect their futures. In following the money, young people are informing themselves of the root causes of climate turmoil. That they feel abandoned and disheartened by historic and contemporary economic, political and educational structures motivates their resistance.

Children and young people have no recourse other than to self-organise to protect their interests and protest governments and industries that receive substantial taxpayer and corporate largesse to accelerate the existential threat. Schools around Australia show varying levels of support for their activists. Some schools are highly supportive allowing teachers to accompany students to online and in person protests. Climate activism is now embedded within youth culture. In September this year, Teen Vogue, asked its readers to hold the megabanks responsible for investing a staggering three trillion dollars in the last five years in fossil fuel industries (see Eder and Carlson, 2021).

Long gone are the gentle climatic certitudes of the Holocene. However, the settings within state and territory and federal education policy assume the Holocene still exists. This is itself a form of climate change denialism.

International policy directions

A stable climate cannot be guaranteed, not now nor into the future without a massive pivot in how we arrange human affairs and how we educate for transformation. The absence of climate education policy among so many nations, not just Australia, is addressed by United Nations policy that education is one key to addressing climate turmoil.

The educational policy vacuum in Australia can be solved by implementing our current international obligations. Though Australia used to be known as a nation proud to be a ‘good’ international citizen, our international standing is falling. One reason is Australia, as a signatory to the United Nations, is seen to still be dodging its obligations under the UNFCCC.

Credible educational policy is located in the recently launched United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) ESD Roadmap (UNESCO 2020). The roadmap prescribes the responsibilities of all signatory nations across five priority action areas to implement education for sustainable development including climate change education.

Keeping in mind that Australia is a signatory nation, the first priority action area of the ESD Roadmap requires that education for sustainable development (ESD) must be integrated into all national and state educational policies.

Education policy makers and practitioners are asked to assume responsibility towards bringing about global transformation, and policy and practice are instrumental to scaling up ESD in all education institutions, communities and informal learning settings. Nations are asked to make ecological and socio-environmental learning take their full place alongside traditional curriculum studies.

Priority action area 2 of the ESD roadmap encourages students to become agents of change, visioning learners as active and agentic (rather than passive) and as people able to take action in their own interests and that of others – Australian young people have well demonstrated they are so capable.

The international vision is that every educational institution and organisation will align itself with ESD (and EfS) principles and practices. To quote the roadmap; “this whole-institution approach to ESD calls for learning environments where learners learn what they live and live what they learn” (UNESCO 2020, p. 28). No longer is there a conceptual gap between formal learning and taking positive environmental actions.

Priority action area 3 focuses on building the capacity of educators to better understand Agenda 2030 and the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (UNSDGs). Educators are asked to be much better prepared in terms of enacting the knowledge, skills, values and actions possible within robust ESD programs. There is a large body of published evidence on what effective ESD (and EfS) looks like across different nations and priority 3 draws on that evidence.

Priority action area 4 draws on educational research that consistently shows empowering and mobilizing young people is vital to transformation in practice. The roadmap recognises young people “continue to envision the most creative and ingenious solutions to sustainability challenges” (p. 32). The focus on intergenerational justice acknowledges the capabilities of young people and their decision-making capacities.

Priority action area 5 identifies the importance of community-scale actions for enabling learning partnerships for change, promoting partnerships for learning and active cooperation between learning institutions, the community, and business enterprises.

Were Australian federal and state and territory governments to implement all priority actions as directed in the UNESCO ESD Roadmap, we would be well on our way to having robust sustainability education and climate change education policy. And perhaps gain the greater trust of young people as well.


Brett, J. (2020). The Coal Curse: Resources, Climate and Australia’s Future. Quarterly Essay (78). Melbourne, Vic: Black Inc.

Campbell, R., Littleton, E. & Armistead, A. (2021). Fossil fuel subsidies in Australia.

Federal and state government assistance to fossil fuel producers and major users 2020-21.

Canberra, ACT: The Australia Institute. Online at:

Eder, K. & Carlson, S. (2021). Big Banks Are Funding Fossil Fuel Projects: Let’s Hold Them Accountable. Teen Vogue, September 23, 2021. Online at:

Ferguson, H. & Harington, M. (2020). Education and Training Budget Review 2019-20 Index. Canberra, ACT: Parliament of Australia. Online at:

Gough, A. (2020). Educating Australia on the climate crisis. Asia and the Pacific Policy Society Policy Forum. 5 February 2020. Online at:

IPCC (2021). Headline Statements from the Summary for Policy Makers. Online at:

Marks, E., Hickman, C., Pihkala, P., Clayton, S., Lewandowski, E. R., Mayall, E. E., Wray, B., Mellor, C. & van Susteren, L. (2021). Young People's Voices on Climate Anxiety, Government Betrayal and Moral Injury: A Global Phenomenon. Lancet Planetary Health, 23 September 2021. Online at:

Parra, P.Y., Hare, B., Hutfilter, U.F. & Roming, N. (2019). Evaluating the significance of Australia’s global fossil fuel carbon footprint. Fremantle, WA: Climate Analytics. Online at:

Reid, A., Dillon, J., Ardoin, N. & Ferreira, J. (2021). Scientists’ warnings and the need to reimagine, recreate, and restore environmental education, Environmental Education Research, 27:6, 783-795, DOI: 10.1080/13504622.2021.1937577

UNESCO (2020). Education for Sustainable Development: A Roadmap. Paris, France: United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization. Online at:






Hilary Whitehouse is a registered teacher in Queensland, a Fellow of the Cairns Institute and Deputy Dean of the Graduate School at James Cook University. She is known for her scholarship on climate change education. She is an editor for the US-based Journal of Environmental Education and the Australian Journal of Environmental Education. She volunteers with the small NGO, the Bats and Trees Society of Cairns.

This article appears in Professional Voice 14.2 Re-evaluations: Climate education, pedagogy, wellbeing and professional autonomy