The growing educational divide between developed and developing countries is an issue that is overlooked in the spheres of development—oftentimes being attributed to economic inequality or government shortcomings. However, climate change is just as attributable to creating and aggravating this divide. Climate change is an urgent issue that is threatening the viability of the entire globe. Currently, the earth is warming at a rate 10 times more than the period after an ice age (Diffenbaugh 2019). Developing countries are much more vulnerable to bearing the brunt of the effects of climate change (even though they emit much fewer greenhouse gasses than their developed counterparts). Flash floods, heatwaves and other extreme weather events all aggravate the effects of poverty, rapid population growth and underdeveloped infrastructure. Climate change can be thought of as a “threat multiplier” that will contribute to worsening the many developmental issues that these countries are still experiencing.
A Stanford University study (Diffenbaugh 2019) found that climate change has increased economic inequality between developed and developing countries by 25% since 1960. With so few resources to prepare for such crises and the after-effects, developed countries are faced with disastrous prospects as climate change continues to accelerate.
There will be major consequences to the most vulnerable socioeconomic groups in these regions, especially in regard to the education sector. Developmental and educational gains are being negatively impacted by climate change as health and income is exacerbated by rising temperatures and more volatile weather (Randall et al, 2016). The poverty cycle in its current state in most developing countries is extremely hard to break away from and with the added external factor of climate change, those living in poverty and extreme poverty have potentially even lower chances of breaking off from the cycle. This in turn means that parents may not be able to pay school fees or may even require their children to work in order to generate more income.
In sub-saharan Africa (where 60% of the workforce is in agriculture) and crops are mainly watered by rainfall, increasingly disparate rainfall patterns mean that agricultural output is being impacted in a negative way (Randell et al, 2016). For those in poverty who rely on subsistence agriculture to feed their household, it becomes increasingly harder to invest in additional income producing activities such as education—as they do not have the resources or time to propagate the monetary means necessary. Many children either drop out after finishing primary school or do not go to school as a result of the major demand for child labor in rural areas and are also used as additional labor in agricultural tasks/for domestic tasks (Randell et al, 2016).
Children from the poorest households are already five times less likely to finish primary school than their wealthier counterparts and rural children are twice as likely to never finish school than children from the city (UN 2015). About 258 million children worldwide are out of school. Climate change with its ties to low rates of educational attainment could seriously undermine human developmental gains in the long-term. Education is an important factor in poverty alleviation, helping people open new opportunities towards employment, resources and skills. Additionally, education helps reduce the effects of climate change by increasing the awareness of a population and their ability to adapt. Lack of schooling is a major barrier in the development of many countries that subsequently leads to large percentages of the population being trapped in the poverty cycle.
Numerous studies have also been conducted on the association between in-utero exposure to climate events and long-term human development (Randell et al, 2016). Exposure to negative rainfall shocks in Burkina Faso, Vietnam, and Zimbabwe whilst in-utero is associated with adverse later life outcomes (including poorer cognitive ability, reduced grade completion, lower school enrollment, and increased child labor). Climatic effects on agricultural production and income likely mediate the relationship between early-life climate and educational, cognitive, and labor outcomes. Pregnant mothers, infants, and young children exposed to unfavorable climatic conditions are more likely to experience poor health and food insecurity during critical periods of fetal and child development. Another pathway between climate and education is through direct heat exposure. In-utero exposure to extreme heat impacts fetal development, leading to adverse birth outcomes—including low birthweight and preterm birth (Randell et al, 2019).
As the UN and other organizations work on devising new strategies for poverty reduction, they must also keep in mind environmental changes and the climate catastrophe—especially how it can better inform the policy-making process. For example, integrating climate change education into rural school curriculums can help families better understand and respond to changing environments. As climate change intensifies, LEDCs will face more and more roadblocks to education. Achieving the UN SDG goal of “universal primary and secondary school completion” will require effective development and implementation of targeted policies that reduce vulnerability to climate change and extreme weather—particularly during prenatal and childhood periods. Income stability and food security is also an important issue that can be remedied through the expansion of crop insurance or social protection programs. Funding additional research is crucial in better understanding the mechanisms underlying the relationship between climate and educational attainment. Only then can different regions design effective policies that increase access to education in a more and more volatile world.
Diffenbaugh, Noah S., and Marshall Burke. “Global Warming Has Increased Global Economic Inequality.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, vol. 116, no. 20, 22 Apr. 2019, p. 201816020, 10.1073/pnas.1816020116.
NASA. “Climate Change Evidence: How Do We Know?” Climate Change: Vital Signs of the Planet, NASA, 21 Sept. 2018, climate.nasa.gov/evidence/.
Randell, Heather, and Clark Gray. “Climate Change and Educational Attainment in the Global Tropics.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, vol. 116, no. 18, 2019, pp. 8840–8845, www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/30988183., 10.1073/pnas.1817480116.
Randell, Heather, and Clark Gray. “Climate Variability and Educational Attainment: Evidence from Rural Ethiopia.” Global Environmental Change, vol. 41, Nov. 2016, pp. 111–123, 10.1016/j.gloenvcha.2016.09.006. Accessed 1 Aug. 2021.
United Nations. The Millennium Development Goals Report. 2015.