Professional Voice 14.2.3 Climate justice education: the need for climate action in education.

Climate justice education: the need for climate action in education.

Natalie Purves

“This report is a reality check. We now have a much clearer picture of the past, present and future climate, which is essential for understanding where we are headed, what can be done, and how we can prepare.” (IPCC Working Group I Co-Chair Valérie Masson-Delmotte, 2021)

"A code red for humanity. The alarm bells are deafening, and the evidence is irrefutable" (The UN Secretary-General António Guterres, 2021).

Climate change presents a complex socio-cultural, environmental, political, and economic imperative. Human-induced climate change is one of the most important challenges facing the environment and humanity in the 21st century. According to the latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) (2021) report released in August 2021, climate change is widespread, rapid, and intensifying, and some trends are now irreversible, at least during the present timeframe. The report found that human-induced climate change is unequivocally responsible for the unprecedented changes across the climate system. These changes are observable in weather and climate extremes in every region across the globe.

The biggest injustice of climate change is that the hardest hit is the least responsible for contributing to the problem. One of the key findings from the IPCC report states that the impacts of the climate crisis and climate injustices are disproportionately impacting low-income, black, indigenous, and communities of colour. Further, climate change and its associated impacts are leading to the extinction of cultures and biodiversity. Climate justice is therefore based on principles of participation, democratic accountability, social justice, and ecological sustainability.

Climate justice education is one possible solution to limiting climate change and its associated injustices. There is high agreement within the IPCC Working Group that education and learning are a specific solution for which actors such as Australia, can choose and make decisions to reduce climate vulnerability and build resilience (IPCC, 2021). Furthermore, education on climate change and climate justice within multilateral organisations, international frameworks, and non-governmental organisations have identified young people as having a right and responsibility to participate in decision making and action on climate change and climate justice (International Climate Justice Network, 2021; UN, 2017; UNESCO, 2016; UNESCO, 2020a; UNESCO, 2020b; UNMGCY, 2021).

Youth led climate justice movements

“Listen to our voices”
“System change not climate change”
“Feminists demand climate justice”
“Resist colonialism and imperialism”

“Climate change affects us the most”

(Placards around the world at youth-led climate justice movement rallies)

In response to the climate crisis and climate injustices, climate strikes have been organised around the premise of ‘climate justice’ by youth-centred participation for climate justice movements. Led by Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg and others, they have called for a change to the system not the climate. These young people are made up of varying positionalities of injustices: as voices for indigenous peoples, justice claims on behalf of youth, environmental justice, ecofeminism, and more.

Youth activism on climate change is now the largest climate protest in world history, a persistent global demonstration of young people and enormous grassroots mobilisation (Bowman, 2020). In 2019, these climate justice movements (variously know as Global Climate Strikes, #FridayforFuture, Youth for Climate, StudentsStrike4Climate, Youth Strike4Climate and Skolstrejk för klimatet) involved 2,500 events in 163 countries, between four and six million people including 330,000 in Australia (Laville & Watts, 2019). Marris (2019) has highlighted how young people are organised, co-ordinated, and social media savvy to engage in the different types of activism, which then creates a feedback loop to draw more young people into the climate justice movement and strikes.

The Australian climate justice movement is a broad social movement whose activists adopt a wide range of strategies relating to climate change, climate justice, participation and procedural decision-making and activism. Notable among these movements are the Climate Council First Nations Climate Justice Panel, which explores First Nations fights for climate justice including their perspectives and solutions. The Australian Youth Climate Coalition (AYCC) focusing on social and environmental injustices and offering training and campaign information, and SEED, an Indigenous youth led Climate Network focusing on a just and sustainable future, with strong culture and community powered by renewable energy. Within these youth led organisations of experienced campaigners are school volunteer programs for non-Indigenous (Student Climate Leadership Program) and Indigenous (SEED Schools Program) young people to learn about climate change, climate justice and how to be active in the Schools Strike 4 Climate (SS4C) community campaigns.

There are also notable examples of alternatives to striking in youth led activism in Australia that involve current court cases: Waratah Coal Pty Ltd v Youth Verdict Ltd & Ors the 2020 objection by the Youth Verdict group to a coal project, and Sister Marie Brigid Arthur v Minister for the Environment the 2021 class action win spearheaded by a group of teenagers claiming a duty of care owed by the Australian Environment Minister for personal injury from climate change.

Transformative climate justice education

Transformative learning involves “a deep, structural shift in the basic premises of thought, feelings, and actions. It is a shift in consciousness that predominantly alters our way of being in the world” (O’Sullivan et al. 2002, p. 11).

As the youth led movement organises around the premise of ‘climate justice’ and radical calls for systematic change, a transformative climate justice education is required. The teaching and learning of climate change and climate justice, which includes climate action, needs to refocus from individual behavioural change as forms of direct action, to collective action or indirect action as forms of systematic and social changes (Kwauk, 2020). This kind of action is transformative as it includes social, ecological, political, and economic change, that targets the radical transformation of individual competencies, social values, interpersonal relations and energy systems, by developing students’ ecological/social/self-awareness (Kwauk, 2020).

Educating young people to participate in a transformative climate justice education, requires efforts to transform the structures, institutions, and dynamics which reinforce and perpetuate inequality (UNICEF, 2020). This type of education needs to be inclusive of the total environment, justice, and non-human life and use an approach that involves experiential learning, critical pedagogy, empowerment, and values education.

Curriculum on climate change and climate justice

Ever wondered what our curriculum teaches kids about climate change? The answer is ‘not much’ (The Conversation, 2019)

In response to international frameworks such as UNESCO’s (2005) Education for Sustainable Development, climate change has been embedded into the Australian curriculum. In the F-10 Australian Curriculum (ACARA, 2021), climate change is mentioned predominantly in the secondary Geography, Science and Humanities. There are 14 curriculum links including in the ‘rationale’ and ‘introduction’ statements and fragments of text in the descriptions of the Sustainability Cross-Curriculum Priority. In the Year 9-10 curriculum (a common age group represented in the climate justice movement), climate change is explicit only twice in the content descriptors for Geography and History and is an optional in four elaborations for Science and History (ACARA, 2021). While specific mention of climate change is limited to these learning areas, there are avenues to teach climate change and climate justice through a teacher’s interpretation of the content descriptors in the other learning areas.

Unsurprisingly, but questionable considering Goal 2 of the Alice Springs (Mparntwe) Education Declaration is for students to be active and informed members of the community, protest and activism are absent from both curricula. Dunlop et al. (2021) argue that whilst young people learn about the role of protests (e.g., responses to environmental and climate change movements in optional Year 9-10 History and the Ethical capability), environmental politics in education is needed so that young people are more aware of the role that protest plays in current environmental movements. Dunlop et al. (2021) emphasise that this should include the legality and legitimacy of protesting in relation to national and international legal and political frameworks, exploration of political system failures, and encouragement of disagreement in the classroom space to examine their own and others’ opinions.

In a review of Australian education policies’ capacity regarding education and learning on climate change to contribute to changing societal behaviours, UNESCO (2015, p. 35) found that while “climate change is considered a key component of education for sustainability…the role of formal education is largely absent from national policies on sustainability and climate change issues”. More recently, the new Alice Springs (Mparntwe) Education Declaration has removed references to climate change and integrating sustainability across the curriculum, resulting in halting discussions of the complexities of climate change in schools (Gough, 2020).

Australia has recognised the need for climate change education in signing international frameworks such as the Paris Agreement Work Program, which states that education programs on climate change and the promotion of participation in decision-making on climate change need to be developed (UNFCC, 2021). However, as previously noted climate change in the Australian curriculum is taught sporadically. Considering the scale of the climate crisis, explicit mention of climate change as a topic for learning is inadequate, often being left to school leaders and teachers to develop and enact climate change education programs (Colliver, 2017; Gough, 2020; Whitehouse & Larri, 2019).

An interdisciplinary response to climate justice education

Interdisciplinary studies are a process of answering a question, solving a problem, or addressing a topic that is too broad or complex to be dealt with adequately by a single discipline, and it draws on the disciplines with the goal of integrating their insights to construct a more comprehensive understanding (Klein & Newell, 1998)

Addressing the complex topic and problem of climate change and climate justice to construct a more comprehensive understanding, requires an interdisciplinary approach to teaching and learning. Selby and Kagwa (2010) argue that there can be no ethical and adequately responsive climate change education without global climate justice education. Climate justice education as an interdisciplinary sequence of teaching and learning, would need to incorporate a combination of learning areas/capabilities/priorities. Additionally, it should include learning about climate change, energy, social and environmental injustices and incorporate Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples’ knowledge and perspectives. Finally, taking into consideration that participation and democratic accountability are principles of climate justice, then student involvement in the development of a unit and decisions in how to participate in climate action is also an important consideration.

This interdisciplinary approach is supported by the learning objectives for UNESCO’s (2017) sustainable development goals for climate action: learning which is framed by the cognitive, socio-emotional, and behavioural domains. Additionally, this approach aims to make sense of the complex environmental, social, political, and economic issues of climate change and climate justice and knowing how to intervene in decision making. There is a need to think at different scales, from local, national, and global.

As discussed, an interdisciplinary approach to climate justice education requires integrating disciplinary knowledge and skills across the learning areas in the curriculum. Further, it requires students to develop behaviours and attitudes across a range of capabilities and priorities. It therefore cuts across and integrates different learning areas, and capabilities of critical and creative thinking, ethical, intercultural, and personal and social, and cross-curriculum priorities of Sustainability and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Histories and Cultures. However, research shows that the priorities and capabilities are pushed to the margin in favour of mandated discipline-specific subject material (Brennan et al., 2021).

Challenges for teachers and schools in enacting a climate justice education

New South Wales Education Minister Rob Stokes has warned students and teachers will be punished if they follow through on a climate rally during class time (Sky News Australia)

Greta Thunberg has declared that any punishment for attending rallies is a “statement (which) belongs in a museum”.

“Each day I send my kids to school…we do not support our schools being turned into parliaments. What we want is more learning in schools and less activism in schools.” (Prime Minister Scott Morrison, 2018)

As millions of school students strike around the world for climate justice, teachers are faced with a dilemma of whether to declare solidarity or condemn the strikes. Young people involved in the climate justice movement are undoubtedly learning a multifaceted range of skills and applied knowledge in the climate justice movement, without any formal curriculum. Additionally, Wood (2020) argues that although the SS4C are youth-led, the young people involved are not isolated individuals and nor does their knowledge, skills and actions stem from a world removed from adults. This poses a challenge to the education system, schools, and teachers as they grapple with ways to support young adults who strike from schools in the face of inaction (Brennan et al., 2021; Mayes & Holdsworth, 2020).

The school strikes challenge the very notion of education and schools, as places for learning the knowledge, skills, behaviours, and attitudes that will facilitate active and informed citizens (ACARA, 2021). Moreover, education policies state the need for “learning for life” when faced with the unpredictability of climate change, and the need for students to become independent learners, with critical and creative and problem-solving skills, empowered through voice, agency, and leadership (DET, 2019, p. 7).

There are several challenges and barriers facing teachers and schools in enacting a climate justice education:

  • School leaders and teachers who do recognise the magnitude of the climate crisis often do not advocate for student participation in climate strikes, because this would likely be in opposition to existing policies or risk assessment outcomes.
  • The hidden curriculum in secondary schools creates system and structural blockages that impede student voice and participation and the agency of the teacher.
  • Teachers may need to explore their own affective responses to the climate crisis and their own ideological assumptions about what climate justice is.
  • Teachers may also need to gain an understanding of youth led climate justice movements and their own analysis of the movement.
  • Climate justice education may need to be framed by the teacher through a domestic social (in)justice lens, to open up critical dialogue on relationships between structure and collective agency, and engagement with untapped activist curriculum for a critical understanding of its tensions and conflicts.

Final thoughts

As discussed above, the IPCC (2021) report has unequivocally stated that the impacts of human-induced climate change are devastating and widespread. Further, climate injustices are disproportionately impacting low-income, black, indigenous, and communities of colour. Youth led climate justice movements are organised, co-ordinated, and social media savvy to engage in the different types of activism. These young people are engaged in an informal curriculum that is teaching them a multifaceted range of skills and knowledge. Consequently, it is crucial that as educators we facilitate opportunities for developing and enacting an interdisciplinary and transformative climate justice education that includes the voice of young people. This means a climate justice education that interrogates our own ideological assumptions about climate justice and critically engages with an untapped activist curriculum.


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Brennan, M., Mayes, E., & Zipin, L. (2021). The contemporary challenge of activism as curriculum work. Journal of Educational Administration and History, 1-15

Colliver, A. (2017). Education for climate change and a real-world curriculum. Curriculum Perspectives, 37(1), 73-78.

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Kwauk, C. (2020). Roadblocks to Quality Education in a Time of Climate Change. Brief. Centre for Universal Education at The Brookings Institution.

Laville, S. & Watts, S. (2019). Across the globe, millions join biggest climate protest ever. The Guardian.…

Marris, E. (2019). Why young climate activists have captured the world’s attention. The Guardian.…

Mayes, E., & Holdsworth, R. (2020). Learning from contemporary student activism: towards a curriculum of fervent concern and critical hope. Curriculum Perspectives, 40(1), 99-103.

Selby, D., & Kagawa, F. (2010). Runaway climate change as challenge to the ‘closing circle’ of education for sustainable development. Journal of education for sustainable development, 4(1), 37-50.

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Wood, B. E. (2020). Youth-led climate strikes.: fresh opportunities and enduring challenges for youth research – commentary to Bowman. Fennia, 198(1-2), 217-222.




Natalie Purves is an Outdoor and Environmental Studies educator from Victoria, currently completing a Doctor of Education at Deakin University. My interest and activism in climate change and the climate justice movement has been slowly ‘boiling’ (along with the planet) ever since I started working with secondary school students 9 years ago. The focus of my current research is on how climate justice education is assembled in Victorian secondary schools through student voice, agency, and participation for empowerment in the climate justice movement, curriculum development, and teacher practices and pedagogy. I aim to develop a teaching resource that may guide other teachers who wish to co-develop climate justice education with their students.

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