The focus of the global community at the recent Conference of Parties (COP22) negotiations was on addressing progress to-date on the ambitious goals set in the Paris Agreement. To meet these goals over the coming years, we will need significant action from government, industry and communities in the short term, and interventions and innovations from the next generation of sustainability leaders in the medium- and long-term. And to ensure today’s youth become tomorrow’s sustainability leaders, we must fully leverage the power and responsibility of education to raise awareness and empower young people to address climate change challenges. This is precisely the purpose of Masdar Institute. As the world’s first graduate-level university dedicated to providing real-world solutions to issues of sustainability, the Institute is leading the way in youth engagement to build the next generation of climate change leaders. Education has two obvious effects on the fight against climate change. Firstly, it impacts individuals’ general awareness of the issue, and secondly, it determines how enabled they are to develop the necessary solutions and innovations to overcome climate change. In fact, so important is education to the fight against climate change that Article 6 of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change is wholly dedicated to education, training, public awareness and access to information related to climate change. The link between education and awareness is obvious. A Yale University research paper based on a Gallup World Poll survey of residents of 119 countries found that 40% of adults worldwide reported never having heard of climate change. That figure rises to more than 65% in some countries like India and Egypt. While national factors behind these figures are as diverse and complex as the polled nations, the report authors asserted that: “educational attainment tends to be the single strongest predictor of public awareness of climate change.” And while awareness of climate change is important, general awareness does necessarily equate to concern, especially in countries where climate change is part of the political debate, like in the US. This solidifies the importance of ensuring that the information shared about climate change is as accurate as possible, and that the public is educated enough to understand the scientific concepts at its core. A high basic scientific literacy in the population can help increase a community’s ability solve and adapt to climate change by enabling members to make informed decisions about climate, and the factors that impact it, like pollution. The second effect of education on the fight against climate change – our ability to solve and mitigate its impacts – is more difficult to remedy. This requires the development of a quality educational infrastructure, from primary through to higher education, that has a strong focus on Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM). A STEM-focused education will provide students with both the understanding of the cause and effects of climate change, and also, the tools and knowhow to solve them. Irina Bokova, Director-General of UNESCO, and Christiana Figueres, former Executive Secretary of the UNFCCC, beautifully articulated the economic value of education in a comment piece, saying: “education provides the skills people need to thrive in the new sustainable economy, working in areas such as renewable energy, smart agriculture, forest rehabilitation, the design of resource-efficient cities, and sound management of healthy ecosystems.” Additionally, new research published in the journal Science suggests that investing in education could even be a better way to reduce vulnerability to climate change-related disasters, like cyclones and floods. The report asserted that improving education can give people the skills and knowledge to better prepare for and recover from natural disasters. The paper cited how improving the education of people in Cuba helped them more quickly respond to hurricane alerts and recover from the impact of the storm. The report’s authors conclude that educated people have a better awareness of risk, which gives them the knowledge and skills to adapt flexibly. An example of the link between education and climate change awareness is Japan, where 46.4% of the population has undergone tertiary education and 98.9% are ‘climate change aware’. These benefits of education, and the impact they have on awareness and the response to global climate change, is why Masdar Institute has put such a strong emphasis on developing the UAE’s capacity to understand and tackle climate change. The Institute contributes to the development of the UAE’s next generation of climate change talent through its graduates, students and outreach programs such as the Young Future Energy Leaders (YFEL), which is enhancing the expertise of young sustainability leaders through real world engagement. Select Masdar Institute students and members of YFEL attended the COP22 meetings to learn from the negotiations and develop the skills and networks needed in their future roles as energy leaders in decarbonizing the environment. More critically, Masdar Institute focuses on developing the human and intellectual capital required to solve the diverse set of problems posed by climate change. We require all our faculty and students to continue with their engagement in research that respond to real-world sustainability challenges, like the need to capture and sequester carbon in an affordable and efficient manner, and the value of developing sustainable and efficient energy supplies. The result so far is nearly 550 highly-trained graduates, 14 patents, five spin-off companies. We also engage with industry and academic leaders from around the world in research of direct relevance to known and anticipated issues of sustainability in areas of water, energy, advanced materials and smart systems. These activities help develop the tools, skills and professionals needed to tackle climate change in local and international industries and government. Going forward, Masdar Institute renews its commitment to partner with more UAE and Gulf based universities, government bodies, and companies to improve awareness of climate change and sustainability issues. We also renew our commitment to excellence in education, as we know that scientific vigor and academic discipline is critical to developing meaningful innovations. It is our shared duty to educate the UAE’s people, both young and old, on the seriousness of climate change while using STEM education to enhance our ability to overcome the challenges of this global environmental challenge.
Dr. Behjat Al Yousuf is Interim Provost at the Masdar Institute of Science and Technology
20 November 2016 This op-ed originally appeared in print in Gulf News on 17 November 2016