I have been writing about the UN Sustainable Development Goals. There are two major things that make me uncomfortable about them. What follows was a comment left on Prof Bill Scott's blog

The SDGs literature is littered with claims about the state of the world that need to be critiqued - especially by teachers before they embark on goal related teaching. If they don't, they risk grounding children's knowledge and understanding of the world in some highly questionable assumptions.

Two areas are extremely important and illustrative of other problems with the goals:

a. The international poverty line has been set at $1.90 / day, already a controversially low (and massaged) level [1]; yet SDG target 1.1. is 'By 2030, eradicate extreme poverty for all people everywhere, currently measured as people living on less than $1.25 a day.' The message this sends is that extreme poverty will be eradicated is everyone is living on $1.26 a day or more. A scandalous downplaying of poverty.

b. The UNSDGs are inextricably linked to the UNFCCC and the 2015 Paris Agreement (target 13.a). The Paris Agreement implies that limiting warming to no more than 2C of warming would be an achievement, it really wouldn't. In the words of Professor Kevin Anderson, 'let's be blunt about it, [2C of warming] will kill a lot of people, they will be poor, they will be a long way from here, they will be low emitters and they will typically be non-white' [2]. The scientific and political reality of course is that limiting warming to 2C is highly highly improbable, the UNFCCC framework convention is non-binding and unworkable. 3C, 4C of warming is far more likely [2, 3]. The message of the UNFCCC and by extension SDG goal 13, however, is that with mass scale futuristic negative emissions technologies (NETs) and widespread voluntary and rapid reductions in carbon emissions we can still bring Climate Change under control. It is fanciful thinking. Prof Anderson labels this 'collective delusion and wilful ignorance' on the part of the public and national government's who (when you look at their policies on energy etc) have apparently 'abdicated responsibility' for tackling climate change [2].
Framing both issues (which are of course interrelated) in the way the SDGs do, is a misrepresentation of the reality of the situation. Strong scientific and moral cases can be made to say that poverty and climate change are at least TWICE as bad as the SDGs would have us believe. In terms of scale, the difference between the world presented to us by the SDGs and what is actually happening, is significant. The difference between 3-4C of warming and 1.5-2C of warming is huge. If 3-4C warming is the likely future, this demands a very different approach to teaching and learning on the subject. Likewise if, as many development specialists attest [1], the actual percentage of people living in poverty is closer to 60% of the world’s population, not the 10% claimed by the World Bank, teaching on poverty would also look very different.

If we accept the world, as presented to us by the SDGs, we allow the goals (and their advocates) to shape our thoughts and feelings about the state of the world. Our thoughts and feelings influence our teaching and in turn, the thoughts and feelings of our pupils. Do we really want our schools to be grounding their teaching in rose tinted understandings of poverty, climate change and how these issues should be responded to?

However uncomfortable it might be, we surely should seek to redesign ESD from a more realistic view of the world; it might then look very very different. Perhaps that's the problem?

(1) Dr. Jason Hickel has written extensively on issues surrounding the formulation of the international poverty line and wider problems relating to the SDGs. See: and for an introduction.

(2) Professor Kevin Anderson regularly delivers public lectures on climate science, the UNFCCC process, the prospects for limiting warming to 2C and the spurious claims made by advocates of NETs. His latest public lecture can be viewed here:

(3) Prof. Joel Wainwright and Prof. Geoff Mann map the possible trajectories of global politics in a Climate Change impacted world in their new book: Climate Leviathan:


Morgan PhillipsComment