by Emiliana Vegas
It is a paradox. Paris, the city where the historical COP21 agreement was signed, has experienced in the last couple of days the effects of climate change through some of the worst floods in more than 30 years. Rainfall has been such that the Louvre Museum, the most visited in the world, was forced to close to protect art pieces from the torrential rain that caused the Seine to rise more than 6 meters. The floods were a reminder, for Parisians and for the rest of the world, that global warming is imminent.
We are all shocked by the news showing the Louvre being threatened by floods, just like we are worried about melting glaciers, the rapid sea level rise (17 cm in the last century alone), heat waves, wildfires, and the severe droughts in areas around the globe, contrasting images to that of the floods.
Recently, NASA measured the evolution of carbon dioxide levels in the Earth’s atmosphere. Their study concluded that, up to present day, there had never been so much CO2 accumulated in the atmosphere: current levels are reaching more than 400 particles per million, considerably above the threshold of 350 considered safe by scientists. Again, the alarms went off.
From the industrial era, we have hit the gas and consumed our planet’s resources at full speed. Today, 80% of primary energy in the world comes from carbon, oil, and gas. If we don’t reduce the burning of fossil fuels, accelerate the transition to renewable energies, and stop deforestation, humankind’s future will be in jeopardy. We will not only see ecosystems around us being threatened, but also agriculture, food production, and water supplies. Essentially, everything we need to survive.
The Paris agreement recognized this reality. In this historical encounter world leaders, the international community, the private sector, and civil society came together to transform the energy sector, the engine of the global economy. The approved text contained a proposal to limit the increase of the planet’s temperature “well below 2 degrees Celsius and to drive efforts to limit the temperature increase even further to 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels”. If this is to truly happen, all actors must be aligned toward this common goal. Even the Catholic Church has put on a green t-shirt: Pope Francis recently made a plea to the world to take measures against climate change.
These large agreements are necessary and must be celebrated. Yet, the big leap will require that we work together with the 117 million students currently in Latin America’s schools. They can become an army ready to raise awareness and reduce greenhouse gas emissions. However small the actions they learn in the classroom might seem — waste management, water conservation, use of renewable energies, recycling, and preservation of green areas, for example — these are the seed of future habits that children can replicate in their homes and can be adopted by entire communities.
It is in this spirit, that the Rise Up initiative from the Education division at the Interamerican Development Bank (IDB) came to be. Instead of simply teaching the science behind climate change, the program uses innovative materials and teaching methods to turn students in the protagonists of projects designed to promote, improve, and celebrate sustainability in their communities. Similarly, the IDB maintains a direct dialogue with their counterparts in countries across the region to ensure that every dollar spent in school infrastructure, whether it is to transform or build new facilities, leads to more resilient and sustainable structures.
It is in our nature as human beings to adapt to survive, and that should be a key principle for education systems: to offer tools to children and youth so they can change their relationship with the planet and choose a lifestyle that does not pose a threat to ours of any other species. Only then can we guarantee the well-being of generations to come.
It is not a coincidence that Bill Gates wrote a letter addressed to the world’s youth on this issue. The creator of Windows is convinced that they are the ones responsible for coming up with the radical and innovative ideas needed to fight climate change. “If you could have a superpower, what would it be?” asked the philanthropist, to which he answered without hesitation: “more energy and more time”. At the IDB, we would ask for real environmental education to be available at all schools.
We are convinced that education can be a real superpower, capable of of mitigating the effects of climate change and take actions to stop it. An education that responds to modern demands and prepares students for the challenges of the future. And ultimately, one that allows Latin America to turn vulnerability into opportunity and take the lead in this race that will define our survival.