Illustration: the globe is divided into two by a red lightning bolt.

Cramming for Climate Protection

The car, the refrigerator, the television set – for decades, the Western lifestyle was desirable for most people on earth – and still is. But the more this way of life spreads, the closer the world is to climate collapse. How can education contribute to sustainability, societal transformation, and global justice?

We live at the expense of others. Others are paying a high price for our lifestyle in the Global North: the people in the Global South, the world around us, young people, and future generations. We are destroying livelihoods and changing the climate.

There is hardly a product of our daily consumption that has not been produced with the exploitation of people in other parts of the world.

For our consumer products, people in the Global South work under precarious conditions, do not receive living wages, and endanger their health. You only have to look at the production conditions of our mobile phones, clothes, chocolate, meat, etc.

There is hardly a product of our daily consumption that has not been produced with the exploitation of people in other parts of the world. Labor rights and human rights, which must be respected in our country, can be circumvented by outsourcing production, always to where it is cheapest.

The German sociologist Stephan Lessenich therefore describes our lifestyle as "externalizing", i.e., outsourcing. The price for our "prosperity" is paid by others. Political scientist colleagues Ulrich Brand and Markus Wissen speak of our "imperial way of life".

Others Pay the Price

Regarding climate change, which is not a "change" but already a catastrophe due to the global negative effects, this outsourcing of costs is particularly obvious: The countries of the global North are the main culprits, with so-called "emerging countries" copying our lifestyle and wanting to live at a similarly high energy level as we do.

Today, countries such as China and India contribute to a large proportion of emissions. However, the producers of climate change have so far not been those who suffer from it. Instead, those who contribute little or nothing to it are the main victims, i.e., many people from the global South. According to the NGO Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre, founded by the Norwegian Refugee Council in Geneva, there are already around 26 million people a year who have to leave their homes due to climate events, i.e. so-called climate refugees. And there will be many more. Furthermore, young people and future generations will suffer massively from the consequences of climate change. These people have not contributed to climate change, but they must bear the burden of our lifestyle.

In addition, the destruction of biodiversity, i.e. the serious extinction of species that we are driving forward with our "externalizing lifestyle", is at least as dramatic as the climate crisis. Never before has there been such a great extinction of species as now. This loss of biodiversity endangers our livelihoods and especially those of young people and future generations. There is still far too little focus on this problem. The climate crisis and species extinction are mutually reinforcing.

These serious consequences that our lifestyle has on others are all too often ignored. We pretend that none of this exists. Change happens far too slowly. We still live at far too high energy levels. We continue to hold on to private transportation with increasingly larger cars without a speed limit. We fly around the world – also an imperial behavior because people from the countries we visit during our long-distance journeys usually do not travel to us.

This loss of biodiversity endangers our livelihoods. The climate crisis and species extinction are mutually reinforcing.

We produce and consume far too much meat. We are always buying new products, throwing away too much.

Our economic system still relies on growth, although it has been clear since the first report of the Club of Rome in 1972 that unlimited growth is not possible in a limited world. The planetary boundaries have long been crossed. This is made clear, for example, by Earth Overshoot Day, which moves further forward every year. On a global average, on July 28 was the day on which the still renewable resources were used up for all of 2022, and from then on people lived at the expense of future generations. In Germany it was already on May 4.

Man fishing on dried up lake.
Our economic system still relies on growth, although it has been clear that unlimited growth is not possible in a limited world, photo: geralt via pixaby

If everyone in the world wanted to live at our energy and consumption levels, the collapse would be much faster. Our "prosperity" cannot be generalized to all people worldwide, nor to future generations. It is repeatedly noted that emissions in Germany are so low compared to the rest of the world: Per capita, however, we are in the highest range, and also far above the per capita consumption in China. It is obvious that we need a fundamental societal transformation towards sustainability and global justice. We cannot continue to live as before if we do not want to endanger the livelihoods of everyone on earth.

In this necessary transformation process, the initiators of the climate and biodiversity catastrophe, the countries of the Global North, have a special responsibility to quickly take fundamental measures for climate protection and biodiversity protection and to support countries of the Global South in "developing" beyond fossil dependency.

The Key to Change

The problem of our (still imperial) lifestyle with all its serious effects has so far been addressed far too little in our schools. However, we cannot stand up for "climate education" in the world if we ourselves do not implement it adequately in our schools and which should include education for the protection of biodiversity.

Climate and biodiversity education must be anchored centrally in our schools – much more than before. The German botanist Gregor Hagedorn, together with other scientists from Scientists for Future, a non-institutional, non-partisan and interdisciplinary association of scientists, calls for at least 20 percent of the educational work to be dedicated to this important topic.

At least 20 percent of educational work should be dedicated to climate and biodiversity education.

This topic should be addressed as a "Whole School Approach" in schools, where different subjects can reflect on the problems of our lifestyle from different perspectives, problematize them and develop new perspectives, also across disciplines. Above all, new teaching and learning formats are needed that enable much better contemporary climate education, such as formats such as "FREI DAY": Here, students are on the trail of questions of their own choice. They develop innovative and concrete solutions and implement their projects directly in the neighborhood and community.

Cooperation is important, which shows a wide range of options and encourages action and responsibility. It is necessary to recognize that we can no longer live like this if we want global climate justice and a future for all people. We need change, accept drastic climate protection measures, and take action ourselves.

In this process of recognition towards a necessary social transformation, schools can provide important support. Schools from different countries can learn from each other because climate education is already at different stages in different countries. Developing a common strategy here would be an important task for European school and education policy. Networking, partnerships, collaborations worldwide are ideal ways to learn from each other.

Schools in different countries can learn from each other, because climate education is already at different stages in different countries.

Education is an important key to transformation, and climate education in schools is urgently needed. However, "education" cannot be confined to schools. In addition, we urgently need educational measures in society as a whole that generate acceptance for necessary climate protection measures. They must also be aimed precisely at the people whose lifestyles are exacerbating the climate situation, at political leaders, and at those responsible in the economy.

Fundamental measures for climate protection need a broad social basis that accepts them. Good climate communication is important for this. People need to be educated about the threatening situation ahead so that they can support change - there is still too little knowledge.

Fight Against Fake News and Trivialization

Everyone must be taken along and to achieve this, a wide variety of educational strategies are required, for example broad-based campaigns for information and education and with suggestions for action and change. Fake news and business lobbying still trivialize or negate the facts, and party-political interests repeatedly take precedence over necessary measures and prevent them. A lot of important time has already been lost.

The media have an important role to play in the field of climate communication, which they have so far taken up far too little. Facts and trivialization are still often opposed and suggest to people that climate facts may not be facts after all. Here, public service programs with their educational mandate are called upon to offer regular and well-researched formats for different target groups that communicate scientific facts to the population and thus achieve acceptance for necessary climate protection measures.

For example, the "Climate before Eight" initiative draws attention to the lack of media coverage – especially of public service programs – and encourages appropriate formats and broadcast times (

European Responsibility

The EU is called upon to provide comprehensive Europe-wide education and information measures on the climate and biodiversity situation. Joint educational strategies and campaigns for the acceptance of climate protection measures should be developed and implemented and educational concepts for schools should be developed. Successful approaches of individual countries can be presented as models and inspire others to follow suit. For the climate and biodiversity situation, it is important to put a stop to unrestricted lobbying, to decisively put climate protection measures before profit interests, and to expose measures for "greenwashing" as such.

The historical responsibility for the emergence of the situation and the collective failure of the European countries and the countries of the global North, which have been relying on "business as usual" regarding the growth of emissions for decades and have thus significantly exacerbated the climate and biodiversity situation, must be reflected and processed by the EU.

A group of climate activists demonstrates in front of the European Council headquarters in Brussels.
The EU must finally take the climate emergency it declared in 2019 seriously and align all measures consistently and promptly with this goal, photo: Wiktor Dabkoswki via picture alliance

And the highest priority must be given to advancing measures that put a stop to the climate catastrophe. The 1.5-degree target of the Paris Climate Agreement, which is now being so negligently abandoned, is the orientation, and every opportunity and effort must be made to achieve it. Climate researcher Mojib Latif has now come to the conclusion that the 1.5-degree target can no longer be achieved and that 2 degrees can hardly be achieved, which will actually have catastrophic effects, and he accuses international politics of failure.

Drastic measures must finally be taken and, in line with the 2021 ruling of the Federal Constitutional Court, the interests and rights of young people and future generations must be protected, who will be exposed to massive impairments if the 1.5-degree target is not achieved. The EU must finally take the climate emergency it declared in 2019 seriously and align all measures consistently and promptly with this goal.

The permanent outsourcing of costs to people in the global South, to the environment, biodiversity, and the climate must finally be admitted and fundamentally dealt with. Only in this way can the necessary responsibility for the situation be assumed. And only on such a basis can we (the countries of the Global North) take responsibility for climate protection and climate education and preserve livelihoods for all.

Climate Policy on an Equal Footing

Within the framework of global justice, attention must be paid to the budget that we still have available in terms of CO2. Per capita in the north, no more can be claimed than can be granted to all people without further damage to the earth and the climate and intact livelihoods for future generations. What right do we have to claim more for ourselves in the global North?

If we take these requirements seriously, every person worldwide is entitled to a budget of approx. 1 ton of CO2 per year. (cf. Federal Environment Agency 2021) This must be communicated in the sense of climate education, because so far, we have been massively above it. In Germany, we have a per capita consumption of over 11 tons.

If we want to pursue global climate policy on an equal footing and encourage countries around the world to engage in climate education and climate protection, we must follow these guidelines and quickly develop measures that will return us to this budget. Otherwise, we are not credible and still imperial. And then we will not be able to prevent others from wanting to live at such high levels of energy and consumption as we do. And this would lead us and our children and grandchildren further into climate catastrophe.


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About the Author
Gudrun Spahn-Skrotzki
Lecturer and Writer

Gudrun Spahn-Skrotzki is a teacher and lecturer at the University of Kassel. At the German Climate Foundation in Bremerhaven, she led the establishment of a climate education center. She is the author of the book with the German title „Klimabildung – Leitlinien für alle Schulen und Fächer " (“Climate Education - Guidelines for All Schools and Subjects”), published by Beltz Verlag in 2023.