In parts of the tropics, exposure to extreme temperature or rainfall in early life is associated with fewer years of schooling in later childhood. This finding comes from my new article in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, with coauthor Clark Gray. As climate change leads to increasingly severe heat waves, floods, droughts, and hurricanes, it is important to understand how extreme weather impacts kids’ education in different parts of the world. This will help decisionmakers develop solutions to keep children in school in a world of increasing climate variability.
Education is critical for socioeconomic development. It expands skills. It increases job opportunities. It helps people improve their living standards. Education contributes to gender equality. Despite these crucial benefits, access to education remains a challenge, particularly in the world’s poorest nations. In 2016, 263 million school-aged children, one in five kids globally, remained out of school. As part of the Sustainable Development Goals, the United Nations hopes that by 2030, all children worldwide will complete primary and secondary school. But climate change may make this harder to achieve.
Climate’s Effect on Education
Climatic conditions can impact schooling outcomes in several different ways. In the most direct sense, extreme weather events such as tropical cyclones may destroy or damage school buildings, or schools may be used to shelter people who have been displaced from their homes. This leaves children temporarily unable to attend school, and some kids may never return to their studies. Agricultural households suffering losses to income and food security caused by droughts or heat waves may not have enough money to pay school fees or may pull their children out of school to help earn additional income. During severe droughts, girls may miss school because they must travel longer distances to collect water or may be married off at an early age, which often coincides with dropping out of school. In addition, entire families may migrate in search of food, water, and employment, pulling their kids out of school.
Climatic conditions can also affect schooling outcomes in more indirect ways. Extreme weather experienced in utero and during early life can impact children’s education years later by shaping birth outcomes as well as child health and nutrition. The prenatal period and first few years of life are when the brain develops most rapidly, so adequate nutrition during this period is critical for kids’ well-being. Studies find that both low birthweight and early childhood undernutrition are associated with poorer cognitive development and lower educational attainment later in life.
Climatic conditions can affect birth outcomes and child health in several ways. Reduced agricultural production due to droughts, heat, or floods can negatively affect the nutrition of pregnant women or young children. Flooding in early life can cause diarrheal and other waterborne diseases, which may lead to acute malnutrition. Exposure to extreme heat in pregnancy, particularly during the third trimester, can lead to preterm birth and low birthweight. Lastly, experiencing a natural disaster can destroy a family’s home and sources of income, food, and clean water, leading to stress and limiting resources available for pregnant women and young children. Exposure to extreme weather events like these in early life impacts kids during critical periods of development, potentially leaving them at an educational disadvantage compared to those who experienced more favorable climatic conditions.
Evidence from the Global Tropics
This study builds upon a prior study in rural Ethiopia, in which we found that more rainfall during the main agricultural season, as well as cooler springs and summers in early childhood, were positively associated with having completed at least one year of school. These findings prompted us to examine the relationships between early life rainfall and temperature conditions and educational attainment across multiple countries and regions.
We found that in Southeast Asia – a region that is historically hot and humid – experiencing hotter-than-typical conditions is associated with fewer years of schooling. Greater rainfall is positively associated with education West and Central Africa as well as Southeast Asia (the two hottest regions), and higher-than-average rainfall is associated with less education in Central America and the Caribbean (a region that is prone to hurricanes).
We predicted that kids from the most educated households would be best protected from the effects of climate, but to our surprise we discovered that these kids suffer most when exposed to extreme temperatures. Children from more highly educated households have the highest potential schooling trajectories to begin with, and as such, they have the most to lose in a warming world. In contrast, kids from the least educated households have many other barriers to school attendance (for example, poverty, food insecurity, lack of nearby schools, and child labor) that could outweigh the effects of early life climate.
The one exception is in Central America and the Caribbean, where we found that high rainfall was associated with lower educational attainment, but only among children from the least educated households who lived in countries that were hurricane prone. The poorest households lose the greatest percentage of their assets and income during hurricanes and other natural disasters. This suggests that exposure to hurricanes can have lasting, long term impacts on education among kids from the most vulnerable families.
Solutions to Keep Kids in School in a Changing Climate
To ensure that kids remain in school despite a changing climate, we need more research to understand how climatic conditions impact education in different places and among different populations. For example, a study in a rural part of East Africa might find that the effect of droughts on agricultural production and household income drives the climate-education relationship. In this case, there are several potential solutions that could help make kids from farming or livestock herding households less vulnerable.
For example, programs could provide drought- or heat-tolerant crop varieties or help farmers diversify their livelihoods to include non-agricultural income sources. Crop or livestock insurance programs, which are already being tested on a small scale, could provide payouts to farmers during periods of adverse weather to prevent income losses. Or government programs could provide cash transfers to poor households, which would help buffer their income during periods of environmental stress. In Kenya, a cash transfer program targeted at the most vulnerable households helped families keep their daughters in school during a recent drought.
Solutions such as these would help improve the nutrition of young children and pregnant women and would lessen the need for agricultural families to pull their kids out of school. There are many other potential pathways between climate and education—from exposure to extreme heat in utero to experiencing severe hurricanes in early childhood. Each of these pathways will necessitate specific strategies to ensure that kids can make the most of their educational potential.
Heather Randell is an environmental sociologist and demographer at the University of Maryland. In fall 2019, she will join the faculty at Penn State as an assistant professor of rural sociology.
Sources: American Journal of Epidemiology, Economics & Human Biology, Feed the Future, Global Environmental Change, Journal of Health Economics, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Reuters, Review of Economics and Statistics, Sustainable Development Goals Knowledge Platform, The Lancet, The Star, UN Women, UNESCO, UNICEF, World Development.
Photo Credit: A Riak Bumi staff member, gives instructions on coloring sketches. The event was to promote orangutan awareness through art (drawing, songs etc), West Kalimantan, Indonesia, May, 2010. Photo by Ramadian Bachtiar/CIFOR