Climate change and access to education seem to have the faintest of connections on the surface, but multiple studies have found to the contrary. Climate change which causes irregular rainfall, heatwaves and extreme weather events like cyclones and hurricanes, has been found to severely hamper access to education.
Adverse weather destroys school infrastructure and cuts off access to schools by destroying bridges and roads. A cyclone in Mozambique in early 2019 resulted in widespread damage to schools. Around 3,400 classrooms were destroyed or damaged and many required renovations after being used as emergency shelters.
In all, this cyclone had affected 3,05,000 schoolchildren in a country that already has a very low enrollment rate of around 20%. A prolonged disruption in their education will have a detrimental effect in the short and long term.
The 2016-17 agricultural season in Zimbabwe had heavy rainfall which destroyed around 20% of the country’s schools and affected 5,00,000 schoolchildren. The incidence of dropout increased in places that required bridges to reach schools and where families moved to safer places leading to the withdrawal of children from these schools. Adverse weather conditions also affect the teachers’ incentive to work in flood and drought-prone areas.
Another study by a University of Maryland researcher found significant links between extreme weather and early life educational attainment. Studying 29 countries in the tropical zone they found that climate change negatively affects school children in multiple ways. Since most of these countries are primarily agrarian, reduced rainfall affects a large swath of the working population.
Droughts and unproductive agricultural seasons result in lesser food in the home which leads to malnutrition, which impairs retention and learning performance. This leads to an increased dropout rate. Children are also pulled out of school to contribute to the household and compensate for the reduced income. Reduced disposable income also means that parents are reluctant to spend on their children’s education as opposed to necessities like food.
The brunt of the impact is borne by the school going girls, as this study by UNDP in Zimbabwe found. Boys are given priority over girls, especially at the secondary school level whenever the household faces adversity. Girls are forced to traverse large distances by foot to get water during times of drought. This impacts their ability to complete homework and attend school.
Early child marriages are used by the communities in Zimbabwe as a way to mitigate food shortages (which is exacerbated by climate change). Marriages are welcome since the dowry received helps the family to get by during times of low agricultural output. There is one less mouth to feed and the food security of the girl at the in-laws is also perceived to be better by the parents.
According to the UNDP study, “In 2015, 4.4% of the female students who withdrew from primary school gave the reasons citing marriage (3%) or pregnancy (1.4 %). Only 0.1% of the boys who withdrew from school did so for purposes of getting married. At the secondary school level, the situation was worse.”
The study goes on to state that “About 20.5% of girls who dropped out of school did so because of marriage and an additional 14.6% of the girls that dropped out of school did so because they were pregnant. In contrast, only 2.4% of boys who dropped out of school did so because of marriage, while only 0.6% dropped out because of pregnancy (of the partner).”
Increasing temperatures have been linked to lower test scores in a study by Harvard researchers. They found that “on average, student achievement fell by the equivalent of 1 percent of a year’s worth of learning for each additional degree Fahrenheit in temperature during the year preceding the exam.” This disproportionately affected black and Hispanic students since they were more likely to live in hotter places than their white counterparts.
It was also found that the negative effects of heat-affected minority students are three times as much as compared to the white students. The initial disadvantage gets magnified so much that the researchers posit that 13% of the racial achievement gap in the US can be attributed to heat.
Air conditioning mitigated the effect of heat on academic achievement to a large extent (78%). They also estimated that air conditioning would offset over ₹17,70,000 ($25,000) per classroom per year in future lost earnings due to increasing temperatures as predicted by climate change models. This significantly outweighs the cost that would be incurred in installing and operating these systems. Though this study isn’t related to access to education, it does give us some insight into how heat can affect academic growth.
The conclusions which have been controlled for all factors except heat can be applied to schools in hotter countries of Africa and Asia which lie near the equator. The schools in these countries would be running much hotter than the ones in the US and thereby reducing academic achievement and exacerbating the poverty of countries which is already attributed to hotter climates.
This field of research is nascent with only a few studies that exist. There is little to no data about access to education in India, home to one of the largest student populations which are spread across diverse biomes. This is especially crucial because climate change is going to affect India severely by the virtue of its sheer population and resource constraints and its proximity to the equator. Floods and droughts are common in many states already which would be affecting innumerable students.
The link between climate change and the frequency of extreme weather events has been established by multiple studies. This means that events like the ones mentioned above are going to increase in severity and frequency. Also, since climate change disproportionately harms those from marginalised communities, the hampered access to education will cut off one of the major pathways that families have for upward mobility.
Climate change will reinforce the income inequalities that exist worldwide and compound the intergenerational disadvantages even more since access to education will be severely affected.
We are 12 years from the point of ‘no return‘. Just a decade to make or break the future of humanity. Does climate change feel urgent enough yet?
Note: The author is part of the current batch of the Writer’s Training Program.