“We do not inherit the earth from our ancestors, we borrow it from our children.”
- Chief Seattle
Climate change is leaving its stamp on every nook and corner of the world. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) First Working Group Report 2021 unequivocally states that humans are responsible for this climate emergency we find ourselves in. The sixth mass extinction is already underway. People are facing multiple climate-related impacts such as heat waves, severe droughts, flooding, and water scarcity rendering the vulnerable population, especially the children, exposed to malnutrition and diseases. Children born today are seven times more likely to face extreme climatic conditions than their grandparents. A survey across 10 countries led by Bath University where responses from 10,000 people aged between 16 and 25 were taken, found that 60% of the respondents felt worried, sad, helpless, angry, powerless and guilty about climate change. What's more, four out of ten young adults are afraid to have kids of their own because they are concerned about the kind of future these kids might have, tainted by the catastrophic effects of climate change. The report further finds that these young adults who are still in the process of developing psychologically, socially and physically are more affected by eco-anxiety which is defined as “a chronic fear of environmental doom”.
Moreover, according to the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), India will have the highest youth population in the world over the next decade. They will be left to face the devastating brunt of climate change. The only logical step moving forward from here on is to convert their climate anxiety into climate empowerment. Therefore it becomes imperative that these youth be empowered with relevant and accurate information on climate change issues so that they can brace and equip themselves to respond to the crisis.
Image Credits: DFID - UK Department for International Development
Climate change is an intergenerational concern and conversations about it should not be restricted to adults alone. Hence it becomes vital that we educate children on climate change from a very young age when they are the most impressionable. According to UNESCO Report 2021 titled “Getting every school climate-ready”, where data from 100 countries were sought, only half of the education sector plans or national curriculum documents make any reference to climate change and the emphasis on the subject matter is very low. It is evident that an issue of such mammoth proportions threatening humanity's very existence is not receiving the immediate and undivided attention it deserves at the school level. If children are aware of climate change, they will be empowered to process the environmental changes they see around them and are likely to adapt better and adopt a more climate-friendly lifestyle.
Shifting the focus to India, we have several factors that make us, as a nation, more vulnerable to the impacts of climate change. But when it comes to climate change education at a school level, it is still at a very nascent stage. This is despite the fact that environmental education has been a part of our curriculum since the 1980s. A survey conducted by the Epsons group finds that there is a big gap in climate emergency perception among Indians where 73.4% of the people are optimistic about avoiding climate crisis in their lifetime. At the same time, a study conducted by Brainly found that 79% of Indian students feel that it's important to study climate change and environmental conservation. Moreover, the United Nations (UN) has clearly stated that “Education is a critical agent in addressing the issue of climate change”. To add to it, a study conducted by San Jose State University found that if only 16 per cent of high school students in high and middle-income countries were to receive climate change education, there could be nearly 19 gigaton reduction of carbon dioxide by 2050. Therefore, it cannot be stressed more that climate change education should be integrated across school curricula at all levels in order to facilitate effective learning and a deep understanding of the subject matter. This will help children to better fathom what is happening around them.
Certain educational boards in India do make cursory mention of climate change in their curriculum, within subjects like the Social Sciences and Environmental Studies wherein the awareness required on such a grave issue is not imparted. There is no learning continuum or progressive gradation of relevant climate change-specific content across school education. There is also a lack of stand-alone structured and graded courses in this regard. This calls for an innovative curriculum with specific activities tailored to the age of the students so that they gradually develop the knowledge, skills, values and attitudes that will enable them to make informed decisions and take individual and collective action on the climate emergency.
The Indian Government needs to introduce climate change education in schools as a top priority. It should allocate considerable time and resources for the development and implementation of relevant policies and strategies on climate change and integrate these into education plans and budgets. Ideally, climate change education should be incorporated as a graded subject at all levels of school education. It could initially be included in the curriculum as an extracurricular subject, and later on, with proper impact assessment and feedback, could gradually be introduced as a stand-alone subject. Eventually, it should be mandated by the government along the same lines as any other mainstream subject such as Maths or Science. This is more likely to result in actual learning, and hopefully, meaningful change in lifestyles.
But incorporating climate change into the curriculum is one uphill battle and comes with its own struggles. The current school curriculum in India is already jam-packed with mainstream subjects and accommodating another subject in their tight schedule will prove to be a challenge. The pressure is on the educators and teachers to make this smooth transition happen so that sufficient emphasis is given to the subject. Another major challenge is that most science teachers are asked to teach about climate change and their knowledge about this subject might be limited. The Yale Program on Climate Change found that 70 per cent of middle school and 55 per cent of high school science teachers do not recognize the scientific consensus on climate change. Furthermore, according to a study by the National Centre for Science Education, 40 per cent of teachers who integrate climate change into their science curriculum teach it inaccurately.
Hence it is absolutely crucial to strengthen teachers’ and educators' capacities to deliver accurate information, integrate local content, and promote critical thinking about climate change mitigation and adaptation. This includes increasing their understanding of climate change, helping them develop necessary skills, and providing them with pedagogical support. The requisite data sharing and exchange of climate science resources can be done by forming a knowledge network among the existing knowledge institutions engaged in research and development in this field through suitable policy frameworks and institutional support. More importantly, the concept of success in the mind of future generations should be re-defined in this era of climate change. They need to be disconnected from the dream of material success and instead focus on living in harmony with nature, valuing experiences instead of things and building healthy relationships. The future of the earth can be secured, by educating our future generations and shaping a healthy and profound perspective within them. This will steer them towards becoming more responsible citizens and being proactive while fighting for a cause.
We as individuals can do our bit by talking to school principals and curriculum creators, recommending that they incorporate climate change in schools. Writing advocacy letters to the government and urging it to act in this regard could be one way of going about it. An intergenerational issue like climate change where the survival of the planet is itself at stake should be included in the school curriculum and there are no two ways about it. We need to give the earth a fighting chance to tackle this catastrophe.