UCD researcher leads international consortium on education and climate change

June 1st, 2021


Orla Kelly (pictured) is an Assistant Professor in Social Policy at the UCD School of Social Policy, Social Work and Social Justice. She specialises in studying sustainable human well-being, eco-social policy, sustainable development, and the social dimensions of climate change. In 2020, Orla received funding from the World University Network to lead an international consortium of academics working at the intersection of education and climate change. 


It was a deeply sobering experience that would colour the course of her academic career. On a field trip to India in 2012 with Harvard University’s FXB Center for Health and Human Rights, to evaluate a tutoring programme for adolescent girls with local partners, Orla Kelly came face to face with the impact of climate change on education. 

“The programme was designed to supplement the girls’ education, which was being interrupted by household work. But we were in northwest India, near the Pakistan border, and there was a drought at the time. Not only were the girls not going to tutoring, but they also were not attending school at all because of water shortages. There I was with our list of metrics - like how they were scoring on the math test - and it just seemed ridiculous under the circumstances. Like trying to diagnose if someone has a broken hand while their shirt is on fire. It is obvious, of course, but it really brought home to me that human flourishing is contingent on healthy ecosystems.”

The experience also made Orla consider how we might harness the power of social institutions - such as governments, the family and education - to meet the sustainability crisis.

Now leading an international consortium of academics working at the intersection of education and climate change, her partners in the UK, Australia, Africa and elsewhere in Europe have expertise in climate science, education, health, policy, social science, science communication and sustainability literacy. Together this Education in a Warming World consortium is brainstorming sustainable recovery, looking at social drivers of climate change, and devising best practice guidelines for “an interdisciplinary approach to teaching climate change or environment-related issues”.

While it is “fantastic” to see the launch of UCD’s new BSc in Sustainability, Orla wonders if “sometimes you are already preaching to a choir” in such specialised courses. Introducing bespoke climate change modules across all disciplines too might push the issue to a wider audience.

“One of the coinvestigators in our consortium, an epidemiologist from Maastricht University, was involved in developing a toolkit in Sustainability Literacy and Competency (SLC) in nurse education. The toolkit is designed to teach nurses to think about sustainability within their field such as considering how the climate crisis might affect health outcomes. Such training also engenders discussions on how hospitals themselves can function more sustainably. When you think of nursing you may not immediately think of sustainability, but really it permeates everything. The environmental crisis transcends disciplinary boundaries.”

In an effort to promote a transdisciplinary approach to teaching sustainability and climate change related issues, the consortium members have begun recording short videos on climate change related topics. “We cover a range of topics from an indigenous perspective on climate change to ecological grief. My video explains the importance of framing the climate crisis as a public issue as opposed to a personal problem. It is our hope that educators across disciplines will use these videos as teaching aids in their courses, thereby reaching a more diverse set of students.” 

Orla is also working with colleagues at UCD to drive other College and University wide sustainability initiatives. In collaboration with Gabriela Martinez-Sainz and Daniel Capistrano from the School of Education, she recently secured funding support from the UCD College of Social Sciences & Law to pilot a survey to capture how well undergraduates grasp the drivers of climate change. The survey will also look at the prevalence of climate anxiety and assess the extent to which the student body is involved in climate activism, if at all. 

“I think that it will be useful for the university to see where people do and don’t have an understanding of this issue.”

Some of Orla’s partners in the Education in a Warming World consortium plan to roll out a similar survey in their locations “so we will get this cross-national picture of how universities are doing, and where we can do better”.

UCD has form when it comes to the pressing issue of climate change. Our Rising to the Future 2020-24 strategy has ‘Creating a Sustainable Global Society’ as the first of four strategic themes. This year UCD rose 12 points to No. 22 in the Times Higher Education Impact Rankings for its commitment to SDGs. Clearly, momentum is building. 

“There are so many exciting things happening across the University on this issue and there is a real opportunity for UCD to be a leader. I think one of the best things that we can do next is really look at a holistic way of integrating sustainability into every aspect of the education process,” says Orla, who remains hopeful that the world can unite to safeguard the future of our planet. 

“We do need change, fast. The disruption we have experienced with Covid-19 has shown us that new ways of living are possible. Now it is crucial that we make the necessary social, institutional, and cultural shifts to safeguard the planet, and in doing so, ourselves.”  


This article was brought to you by UCD Discovery, fuelling interdisciplinary collaborations.