NAJIB SAAB 4/1/2021

Literacy is a term that refers to the indoctrination of the basic principles of reading and writing, which is essential to secure proper communication among humans. However, climate and environmental literacy is a new concept, based in essence on stimulating good communication between humans and nature, as we cannot treat with love and respect, creatures and things that we do not understand.  

Climate and environmental literacy was the subject of an initiative championed by 350 organizations in more than 100 countries, which kicked off in an open letter addressed to government signatories of the Paris climate agreement. It called upon them to take urgent measures to make climate and environment an integral part of the educational curricula, at all levels. Knowledge of scientific facts about nature’s elements and resources, the impact of their imbalance on the continuity and quality of life, the consequences of pollution and depletion of natural resources as a result of unsustainable production and consumption patterns, and the contribution of these factors to climate change, are all basic prerogatives for creating generations capable of dealing with emerging variables, and contributing to the making of a sustainable future. This can be achieved through transforming personal consumerist behavior, as well as in positively influencing public policies.

The global initiative is being backed by “Earth Day” organization, which has attracted the support of international labor and teachers’ unions, environmental groups, NGOs and Mayors around the world, who together represent hundreds of millions of people. The campaign is working to vigorously get its message across to governments, so that climate and environmental literacy will be endorsed within a binding implementation plan at the 26th Climate Summit scheduled in Glasgow in November 2021.  

While it’s true that climate and environmental education is not a new topic, what is at stake now is to include it as a compulsory subject in the educational curricula, instead of it being optional, to be accompanied by practical on site applications and activities, that transfer ideas to the broader community outside the school, with a strong civic engagement component.

Recent years have seen environment being allocated a larger spot within Arab schools curricula. However, the issues addressed remain mostly confined to the romantic aspects of nature, pollution and hygiene which, as significant as they are, cannot surpass topics such as climate change, disasters, consumption patterns, green economy and the relationship of food security to the environment. It is also imperative to incorporate the major local environmental challenges facing the Arab region- such as water scarcity, drought, urban air pollution, marine pollution, degradation of natural areas in terms of soil, animals and plants, and the threat of sea level rise due to climate change- in school curricula.  

The Arab Forum for Environment and Development (AFED), a signatory to the global Climate and Environmental Literacy initiative, set out a roadmap for integrating the environment into Arab school and university curricula, in a comprehensive report it published last year. It also launched an initiative, in cooperation with its Arab university members, aiming at introducing a mandatory environmental course for first-year students of all majors, under the title “Introduction to Environment and Sustainable Development”. This course combines general information, case studies and field applications, putting the environment and sustainability at one level with basic subjects that are given to first-year university students, whatever their major might be, such as language and cultural studies.

Once the course is completed, the student will have gained a better understanding of the basic environmental concepts and their linkages to economic and social issues, the challenges facing the environment, and how they can be solved by applying the principles of sustainable development and the transition to green growth. The course also introduces the services provided by the ecosystem, and offers students knowledge and skills, alongside social values which trigger a strong concern for the environment and motivation for active participation in its protection and enhancement. It provides the student with a better understanding of natural resources, their equitable distribution and regeneration, and the inevitability of maintaining a balance between biocapacity and human needs. The course presents the historical relationship between humans and the environment, and the development of the concept of sustainability. In parallel with the information, students acquire basic skills for technical writing and conducting research on environment-related topics. This will also help students decide whether to choose a specific major or profession related to environment and development.  

The proposed 3-credit course comprises 11 main topics covering 11 class weeks. These include: background and basic definitions, encompassing the concepts of biocapacity, ecological footprint, pollution and the relationship between human health and the environment. Next, the syllabus moves on to discuss the evolution of sustainable development and the 2030 goals and green growth. Next it reviews the importance of agriculture and food security, including water scarcity, irrigation efficiency, land degradation and the environmental impact of fertilizers, pesticides and genetically modified crops. Then it moves on to fresh water sources and their integrated management, energy sources including fossil, nuclear and renewables, with a focus on their environmental impacts, and the water-energy-food nexus. The course goes on to address waste management, focusing on its role in circular economy. Finally, it reviews air quality and pollution sources, the environmental impacts of land use and city expansion, especially in the domains of waste, water, sanitation, transportation and air pollution.

Subsequent to specific topics, the syllabus addresses key global environmental issues, including climate change, ozone depletion, desertification and oceans. It concludes with an overview of environmental policies and governance, including national institutions, laws and legislations, as well as international agreements and treaties.  

The benefits of eliminating environmental illiteracy, both at school and university levels, are not limited to motivating better social behavior, but exceed that to scientifically prepare students to build a career suitable for a new era. The inevitable impact of climate change and the unprecedented human pressure on the limited natural resources, require a complete shift towards a circular economy, based on rational investment in nature’s capital. This requires skills based on new scientific foundations.  

Ending environmental illiteracy allows the student to enroll in specializations that open up job opportunities within the new economy, whether in energy, water, food production, construction and transportation, or managing forests, seas and lands. There will be no place in the new job market for climate and environmental illiterates.