Greta Thunberg, who famously missed school to protest climate change, recently met Malala Yousafzai, who won the Nobel Peace Prize fighting to make sure girls could get an education. The photo op quickly went viral. Quipped Yousafzai, “She’s the only friend I’d skip school for.”
Behind the banter was a telling truth — the battle to stem climate change and the fight to educate girls are inextricably linked. When girls get an education, they make more money, which helps them guard against disaster, and have fewer children, which helps curb consumption, and therefore, pollution. Education also opens doors to science and government, institutions where women are desperately needed to help solve climate change.
“Malala may not think about her work as being about climate, but achieving equity in education is about seeing girls — and then women — able to shape their own lives and communities, as well as the world we live in,” said Katharine Wilkinson, a vice president of Project Drawdown, a climate change think tank.
A growing body of evidence suggests that educating girls could have profound effects on containing climate change. Research finds that education helps women better understand the dangers of global warming and prepare for disasters. For example, schools often teach students how to navigate a disaster, such as when to seek shelter against a coming storm.
When Cyclone Sidr struck Bangladesh in 2007, for example, Lamia Akter, then a 7-year old student, passed on a cyclone warning she heard at school to her fellow villagers, many of whom were reluctant to leave their homes. She knew what might happen if they failed to heed the warning. She also knew from her classes to bury important papers and possessions — and mark their locations with bamboo cane — and to herd livestock to higher ground. She managed to convince her family members to leave for the shelter, and everyone survived.
Also, women with an education tend to earn more money, which helps them better protect their families in case a flood damages their home or drives up the cost of food.
“If you look at malnutrition that often occurs with drought and flood, when mothers have a higher education, they tend to spend more money on their children, on what to feed their kids,” said Raya Muttarak, director of population, environment and sustainable development at the Vienna-based Wittgenstein Centre for Demography and Global Human Capital. “Women tend to invest in their childrens’ health while men with money might spend it on alcohol. In many cases education is more important than money, but often they go hand in hand.”
She added, “Unfortunately, educating girls has not been recognized in the global climate change agenda.”
According to World Bank estimates, as many as 130 million girls worldwide are not in school. Experts say it is essential to get those girls into the classroom, as educated women tend to wait longer to get married and have fewer children. A recent report from Project Drawdown found that making sure all women can access education and health care — specifically contraception — would do about as much to slow climate change as restoring more than 230 million hectares of tropical forest, an area larger than Greenland.
“The climate crisis is not just — or even primarily — a technology crisis,” Wilkinson said. “We ought to be looking at solutions that are human, not just engineered.”
That being said, education is key to helping girls to enter science. Currently, men file far more patents for new inventions than women do. Experts believe that closing the gender gap in science and technology education will lead to more innovation from women, including new tools to fight climate change. However, the need is urgent. At the current rate of progress, it could be more than 75 years until women are filing patents as often as men, according to the Institute for Women’s Policy Research.
Education also opens the doors to politics, especially where female students are groomed for leadership, experts say. That’s potentially good news for the climate, as countries with more women in government are more inclined to ratify environmental treaties.
“Giving girls 12 years of quality education is key to addressing a whole host of global challenges, including climate change,” Anne-Marie Trevelyan, the UK’s secretary of state for international development, said through a spokeswoman. “Good secondary science education brings a better understanding of climate change and a greater urgency to tackle it. Today’s girls are tomorrow’s leading scientists, campaigners and politicians.”
Wilkinson agreed. “The most powerful part of girls’ education, in this moment, is around leadership, particularly among young women,” she said. “We are seeing girls and young women step into leadership in a way that we haven’t had before, and which has been desperately needed.”
Poverty, sexism and violence, however, all make it harder for girls to get an education. Parents may force their daughter into an early marriage because they can’t afford to feed and clothe her. And many families place more value on educating boys than educating girls. Often, particularly in many developing countries, girls face real threats to their health and safety.
“It often comes down to basic things,” said Colin Bangay, senior education advisor in Sierra Leone with the UK’s Department of International Development. “For example, when girls start to menstruate and don’t have access to sanitary towels, they’re not likely to go to school. Also, it’s not unknown for girls to be raped in schools.”
Governments and NGOs are trying to expand access to education through initiatives that lower the cost of schooling, help girls manage their period, and make it safer for them to go to school. Such initiatives could prove critical to tackling climate change, though advocates agree that educating girls is its own reward.
“Women and girls have a right to education,’” said Ursula Miniszewski, director of gender and equality for the Global Greengrants Fund. “There is no ‘to what end.’ It’s not a means to an end. It just is.”
Marlene Cimons writes for Nexus Media, a nonprofit climate change news service.