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Sustainable and resilient education essential to tackle climate change

21 February 2018

It was the words of a 10-year old which resonated through the assembled audience attending the official opening of the 20th Conference of Commonwealth Education Ministers (CCEM).  As the waves from the Pacific Ocean hit the shores under the skies of Nadi in Fiji, Shalvi Shakshi and her classmate, Timoci Naulusala, 12, arrived by drua, a tradition Fijian canoe, and the symbol of their country’s COP23 logo. They carried with them a secret message for April’s Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in London (CHOGM). Today’s lesson, though, was about saving the planet from the existential threat of climate change.

“On behalf of the young people of Fiji, we ask our Commonwealth visitors to take this message home to your own young people. Please join us in our fight to save our planet, the only home we have.

“And please support Fiji as it leads the climate struggle as president of COP23. Our schools and other places of learning can be places of climate action. And no matter how old we are, we can all make a difference.”

Traditional dancers greeted Commonwealth Secretary-General Patricia Scotland and Fiji Prime Minister Josaia Voreqe Bainimarama. They ceremoniously placed a garland on the Secretary-General, and greeted her in a way that only Fiji can. The audience of almost 480 acknowledged that Secretary-General Scotland has made climate change one of her priorities. In turn she acknowledged that the next generation would take over today’s efforts to save the planet and to do that these school children needed a resilient education system.  

“The interlinkages between education and other areas of the Commonwealth’s work are extensive. Education has an enabling role that is unique. Quality education empowers women, girls and other marginalised groups, and protects against violence and other harmful practices,” said Secretary-General Scotland.

“Early investment in education can support improved health outcomes and contribute to a reduction in poverty. Education imparts the knowledge, develops the skills, and values and attitudes that will equip Commonwealth citizens to lead sustainable lifestyles.

This, in turn, will make us collectively more resilient, and enhance our combined ability to reduce or withstand global challenges, including climate change.”

Today was a poignant moment for Fiji’s prime minister and his people. Exactly two years ago their country was battered by cyclone Winston, killing 44 people and destroying homes and infrastructure. The overall  cost to repair the damage amounted to one third of Fiji’s GDP, a fiscal measure of the goods and services it produces every year.

Those in the room stood in silence and in solidarity to remember those who had perished and remembered those who had just witnessed the ferocity of cyclone Gita. Now downgraded to a storm, Gita hit Fiji and Tonga last week. Although Fiji escaped major damage, other Commonwealth nations, such as Tonga and Samoa, faced destruction and flooding.

“It is singularly appropriate, given the new age of climate uncertainty that is upon us, that sustainability and resilience be the theme of this conference,” said the prime minister. “We all know that education is the key to sustainable development because it equips people with the skills they need to benefit their own lives and the lives of those around them. But governments at every level must also place sustainability at the core of their decision-making.”

The former New Zealand prime minister, Helen Clark, echoed the need for countries hit by natural disasters to ‘build back better’. Education, she said, had to play its full part in equipping current and future generations of citizens to rise to the challenges facing the world. That meant that education had a role to play in achieving all sustainable development goals (SDG), especially SDG4 which pledges quality education for all.

Ms Clark said, “Each year some fifteen million girls are married before the age of eighteen. That’s estimated to be 28 girls every minute, or one every two seconds.

“Many of these girls have not been able to finish their education. Early pregnancy is among the leading causes of death for girls aged fifteen to nineteen worldwide. And child brides face a significantly higher risk of contracting HIV.

“But turn that around by enabling every girl to complete her education and make her own choices about her life.”

In just under eight weeks the message inside the scroll, given to Secretary-General Scotland by two young Fijian children, will be read out to Commonwealth leaders. Along with it will be another epistle. This time the recommendations of youth, teachers, university vice chancellors and civil society feeding into the ministerial discussions at 20CCEM, seeking to create a sustainable and resilient education system, fit for all.   

Read Helen Clark's speech