Q&A With Environmental Sociologist Heather Randell
By Lisa Palmer
Education is seen as a key tool for building resilience to climate change in the developing world. But new research shows that climate change could also make it harder to keep kids in school and ensure they get the best out of their time in the classroom.
Heather Randell, a postdoctoral fellow at the National Socio-Environmental Synthesis Center, a research institute funded by the National Science Foundation and the University of Maryland, studies the relationships between environmental change, development, and human health and wellbeing. Her research focuses on the social processes underlying migration, the links between development and rural livelihoods, and the social and health impacts of environmental change.
In the November issue of Global Environmental Change, Randell and co-author Clark Gray of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, published the results of a study on how climate variability competes with schooling in Ethiopia and could lower adaptive capacity for generations. “Investments in education serve as an important pathway out of poverty,” they write, “yet reduced agricultural productivity due to droughts or temperature shocks may affect educational attainment if children receive poorer nutrition during early childhood, are required to participate in household income generation during schooling ages, or if households can no longer pay for school-related expenses.”
Randell and Gray link longitudinal socioeconomic, demographic, and schooling data from the Ethiopian Rural Household Survey to high-resolution gridded climate data to measure exposure to temperature and precipitation relative to historic norms.
This kind of research has implications for determining vulnerability to climate change and development trajectories for many parts of the world. What follows is an edited excerpt with Randell about the study, why it’s important, and what comes next.
Lisa Palmer: Your results show that climate change competes with the ability to send kids to school in rural Ethiopia. What factors are at work here?
Heather Randell: This is a two-pronged issue. Climate change is impacting kids in early childhood and is also competing in that moment with sending kids to school. We focused on early childhood exposure to climate variability as the main mechanism affecting schooling outcomes.
We find that experiencing less rain as well as hotter springs and summers in early childhood is associated with a lower likelihood of having had any schooling or being currently in school. Exposure to adverse climatic conditions during early childhood affects nutrition, and in turn physical and cognitive development, and this has impacts on future educational outcomes. If parents only have a certain number of resources to send their kids to school, which kids would they send? Probably not the kids whose growth in early years was limited by poor nutrition and as a result has affected their cognitive and physical development.
We also looked at child labor as a mechanism and competing factor for sending kids to school. If kids are working on the farm and helping the family generate income they are less likely to go to school. We find that when kids experienced less rain in the main summer growing season it increases their family’s demands that they help with farm labor and cuts into their schooling.
More variable and extreme climatic conditions, which are becoming increasingly common, are a barrier to schooling, while research shows that education is an important part of adaptive capacity to climate change both within and outside of agriculture. You can envision the multigenerational impacts. First there are the kids who experienced poor climatic conditions in early childhood and did not go to school or get a good education, and then as adults they have a lower adaptive capacity to future climate change.
Why is this important to understand the climate variability and education links now?
Sub-Saharan Africa is expected to endure more extreme heat events and researchers are finding that the events that used to be the extremes are going to become increasingly common. In light of this, education is increasingly seen as a resilience solution. The global tropics, including sub-Saharan Africa, are particularly vulnerable to temperature extremes because they are already hot. The tropics are areas of high biophysical limits to crop growth (again because it is so hot) and also social vulnerability because it is where the majority of the world’s poor live and where the majority of the people who practice smallholder agriculture live. The links between climate change and people’s livelihoods and wellbeing is really clear there, and it is important to understand what is happening with education and how policies might help.
Your paper is focused on the effects of temperature on education. Why is temperature a big factor?
Research on climate, nutrition, and social outcomes often focuses on rain – on droughts, on monsoons, on flooding – but temperature is half of the equation with climate change and we find in the paper that temperatures are really important. They influence food security, they influence crop yield, and they influence kids’ educational outcomes.
What got you interested in this research question?
If kids are working on the family farm they are less likely to go to school
I went to Ethiopia the summer before I started my PhD program. I was in the north of the country and saw families, particularly younger households, in which the men were migrating to the cities for work and the women and young kids were left behind and panning for gold to make a living. The younger households are finding themselves on smaller plots and more marginal land so it’s harder to grow enough food to sustain the family and earn income. This experience got me interested in the effects of climate change on livelihoods and on kids in particular, given that we know climate impacts agriculture. I wanted to understand how environmental change affects how kids spend their time and the effects it can have on human capital development.
Among the Sustainable Development Goals is providing universal primary and secondary education in the next 15 years. How can this be achieved when climate change is affecting the nutrition and cognitive development of young children in some places?
Exposure to adverse climatic conditions early in life can have long-term impacts on education and livelihoods. Climatic variability can affect nutrition and water availability, limiting a child’s physical and human capital development and the capacity to earn higher income and adapt to future climate change. To improve early childhood nutrition and reduce competing demands for kids’ time when they are in school, policy options include providing drought-tolerant or heat-tolerant varieties of crops; crop insurance to protect households from economic and food security losses from a drought or heat wave; reducing school-related expenses or providing assistance with school supplies in periods of low productivity; or creating programs to help with income diversification so households become less reliant on crop production as proportion of overall household income.
Our next project should give us a clearer picture of how widespread this phenomenon is. In a macro-level analysis of 29 countries throughout the topics, we will examine how climate impacts educational attainment for males and females born in a given year in a given location. The project will identify much larger-scale patterns and trends to see how temperature and precipitation impact educational attainment across a large swath of the world that experiences high rates of poverty and is generally dependent on agriculture.
Lisa Palmer is a journalist and fellow at the National Socio-Environmental Synthesis Center and former public policy scholar at the Wilson Center.
She is the author of the forthcoming book Hot, Hungry Planet: The Fight to Stop a Global Food Crisis in the Face of Climate Change, to be published by St. Martin’s Press in April 2017.