COP26: Can educating people help tackle climate change?
04 November 2021
By Nick Powdthavee
This month's United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP26) focuses attention on one of the greatest challenges of our age.
With humanity seemingly careering towards a climate change catastrophe we can only hope that the discussions between politicians and business leaders gathering in Glasgow translate into the measures necessary to reduce CO2 emissions and limit global warming.
Of course success in tackling climate change requires more than the concerted decision-making of global leaders. It demands collective awareness and action from the world's citizens. It relies on a willingness to accept that changes in behaviour can make a difference to climate change, but also that any improvement in raising awareness leads to pro-environmental behaviour. Unfortunately, evidence suggests that learning this lesson may be harder than we think.
One factor that many believe can encourage climate change awareness and pro-environment behaviour is education. There is evidence to suggest that education contributes to 'human capital', which in turn benefits the individual, employers, and society more generally, in terms of productive outcomes.
It does this not only through the more obvious knowledge-based skills, but also through non-knowledge based skills. These include, for example, critical thinking, which helps with processing new information, problem solving and better decision making, and social skills, which enable people to interact and communicate more effectively and also to separate acceptable from unacceptable behaviour.
The power and value of education, whether through knowledge or non-knowledge based skills is evident from existing research that shows the positive contribution that a year of education can make in areas such as individual health, wealth, and wellbeing. One year of compulsory schooling, for example, can increase weekly earnings by between 10 and 14 per cent on average.
Unsurprisingly then, there is a widely held view that education is a critical factor in waging the war on climate change. But, while the apparent link between how well people do educationally and climate change awareness is strong, proving a causal relationship between education and positive outcomes in the context of climate change decision-making is difficult.
It is not easy to disentangle the effects of education from other personality traits or abilities that might make somebody more pro-environmental, or find the right circumstances to test the link between education and attitudes and behaviours related to the environment. It would be unethical, for example, to run an experiment in which people were randomly assigned more or less education for comparison purposes. So instead, researchers have resorted to the less satisfactory alternative of using variables to represent education, such as distance from home to school, or regional spending on education.
Fortunately, the evolution of the education system in England and Wales, combined with responses to questions relating to the environment in a long-running household survey, provides a unique opportunity to study the connection between education and environmental awareness and behaviour.
In September 1972, the school leaving age in England and Wales was raised from 15 to 16. While the 'Understanding Society’ survey (UK Household Longitudinal Study – UKHLS), one of the largest panel surveys of its kind in the world, has been running since 2009 and includes a number of questions relating to the environment. Using responses from 22,000 people between 2012-2014, in conjunction with a widely accepted mathematical technique – regression discontinuity design - it was possible to compare the educational cohorts before and after the change in school leaving age. In particular, it allowed a comparison of the effect of an additional year of schooling on several aspects of climate-change literacy and pro-environmental behaviour.
The findings show that more schooling does make a difference. It had a significant impact on climate change literacy in terms of raising awareness of the need for behavioural change in order to save the environment. This was a powerful and positive effect, directly linked to additional schooling, that was evident from responses to questions answered decades after the extra education.
Disappointingly, though, additional education did not increase the belief that a major environmental disaster was imminent due to climate change. Nor did it, perhaps more importantly, reveal any direct link to pro-environmental behaviours (the questions were specifically concerned with pro-environmental action related to packaging, travel and energy saving measures in the home). In other words, people with additional schooling were more inclined to believe that behaviour made a difference to environmental outcomes, but no more likely to adopt pro-environmental behaviours: attitudes changed, but not actions.
All is not lost, however, for those pinning their hopes on education making a difference in the climate change challenge. The findings may demonstrate that we should not be complacent in our assumptions about the contribution that education can or will make. But at the same time, while additional education per se had a limited impact on environmental behaviour, it would be an overstatement to say that education does not matter.
After all, the study looks at additional education at a time when climate change was not included in the curriculum. Yet, regardless of its absence, some element of the extra year of education, whether it was critical thinking ability, increased social skills, or the motivation to continue studying beyond secondary level, for example, was sufficient to significantly affect climate change awareness. This is just as likely to be the case today. In addition, whatever educational attributes created a positive climate change literacy effect, they may well be further enhanced by changes to the modern curriculum that introduce environmental content.
Furthermore, and of particular interest to policymakers, while the extra education may not have directly affected pro-environmental behaviours there is reason to believe that it may make them more likely. Research in behavioural science and economics has shown that people who are more aware of and care more deeply about an issue are more likely to respond positively to so-called behavioural 'nudging' techniques – interventions that influence the choices people make. Given that extra education creates greater awareness about climate change, it may well prepare the ground for 'nudging' initiatives, offering some grounds for optimism.
On average, it seems that a generation of citizens in England and Wales, pre-changes in school leaving age, are less inclined to believe that human behaviour affects climate change than the generation that followed closely behind. It is true that the improved environmental awareness of the post-change cohort of citizens that followed (many of them today's senior leaders and decision-makers) did not translate directly into better environmental behaviour. However, they may well be more amenable to 'nudge' interventions designed to prompt the behavioural changes needed to tackle climate change.
Now that is a valuable lesson.
Follow Nick Powdthavee on Twitter @NickPowdthavee.
For more articles on Behavioural Science and Sustainability sign up to Core Insights here.