To sensitise students about climate change, overhaul environment education in Indian schools

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Incidents of extreme weather events including flash-floods, cloudbursts, excessive rainfalls and rising levels of air pollution have become topics of living room conversation not only in our country but globally. These disasters weigh heavy on our economy and health and also costus many precious lives every year.

Recently, the World Meteorological Organisation's report "State of the Climate Asia" highlighted that our country lost $87 billion last year due to natural disasters like cyclones, droughts and flashfloods.

Who is to blame for this rise? And why should it matter to us?

Climate scientists put the blame on greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide that humans have continuously pumped into the atmosphere. Burning fossil fuels contribute the maximum carbon dioxide to the atmosphere. We burn fossil fuels for powering industries, automobiles with internal combustion engines, heating and cooling our homes and workspaces, cooking our food, recycling our waste and ironically, also for charging batteries of electric vehicles. Fossil Fuels feed the energy-hungry planet. Since we are the cause of the change, the onus to slow down the rate of this change also lies on us.

While world leaders have gathered in Glasgow, UK to participate in the 26th UN Climate Change Conference of Parties (COP26), India as a nation with the youngest population in the world needs to follow creative approaches to co-opt its youth into the climate change movement. To nurture the understanding of protecting the environment and driving change in every sector to build a robust mechanism against climate change, we have to start with young minds in our schools.

Significance of Environmental Education

Imparting environmental education in schools will help shape and sustain future policymaking. Nurturing critical thinking and problem-solving skills are the bedrock of progressive education. Environmental Education can become the medium that delivers these goals in a manner that is meaningful to society and humankind at large.

The net-zero emission targets by the years 2050, 2060 and 2070 that are being pledged by governments across the world certainly require that we dramatically switch to greener sources of energy. It also makes it imperative that we design an environmental education curriculum that imbues in our children the willpower and the potential to design a world that moves away from oil and runs only on alternative energy sources.

Status of Environmental Education in India

India is one of the few countries in the world where environmental education is compulsory at all levels of formal education.

In 1991, the Supreme Court took cognizance of environmental pollution and declared that the subject should be taught as a compulsory subject at all levels of education. Years took in its implementation and finally in 2003, the NCERT prepared a model syllabus for Environmental Education which the Apex court directed to be implemented for grades I to XII in schools across the country.

While environmental education has become an essential part of our education, combating climate change requires an educational response that goes beyond the curriculum. Reflection is also needed regarding the relative importance of environmental education in schools, not only with respect to curricula but also in terms of the opportunities it creates for students and the impact it has on the physical and cultural environment.

Environmental education's impact can be best measured by the change in behaviour it affects in students and the larger community as opposed to the marks a student scores in the exam.

Curricula across schools and examination boards mandate that students be aware of the effects of the combustion of fossil fuels. Students study alternative energy sources that are currently in use and those that have the potential for development. This however remains a theoretical lesson because of the minuscule weightage it receives in the assessment.

What can schools do?

Environmental education and a call for sustainable living go hand-in-hand and both together can help eliminate the root cause of climate change by inculcating the values of environment-friendly living.

The first step towards this is to develop a sensitive mindset among students about the issue. Geography and environmental education classrooms must remain abuzz with discussions on topical issues such as poor air quality, wildfires, disrupted El-Nino and La-Nina cycles, palm oil cultivation that has wiped out carbon sinks, the rainforests in South Asia and other related issues which are either effects or causes of anthropogenic climate change. Educators must give opportunities to students to develop prototypes that tap renewable sources of energy like the sun and wind and design contraptions that use the mechanical energy of a moving bicycle to charge a rechargeable battery.

These steps towards creating awareness and finding solutions are possible only if teachers are trained to address the issue of climate change and drive project-based learning in the classroom. For instance, our school has an environmental club where students participate actively to do environmental related activities. We also have programs like "Capstone projects" where students develop projects leveraging clean technologies that can be developed for use by the masses.

There is an urgent need to address the curricula which are mostly designed for students and not by them. Active participation of students as change-makers requires that their voice is incorporated in the programs they participate in. Environmental Education must develop in individuals the capacity for self-reliance. This requires an active engagement with local communities that have adopted sustainable practices over generations. Working with indigenous people, wherever possible will help students adopt sustainable living.

Instituting programs that study and critique legislation and policies to mitigate climate change will go a long way in nurturing the administrators and policymakers of the future. Over the years, progressive schools like the one I teach at have consistently adopted UN Sustainable Development Goals (UNSDGs) to inform discussions in Model United Nations Conferences. School-wide projects around UNSDG no.13 (Climate Action); programs like an annual energy audit will ensure to take active action to curb fossil fuel use.

Developing an eco-centric value system will go a long way in preserving our environment. Not just case studies, but expeditions to places where students see people living in harmony with nature will help them believe that it is possible to be content with minimum exploitation of our resources.

In all, making the curriculum more practical and reflective, equipping teachers with the right tools and training in environmental pedagogy, partnering with the community and valuing students' voice will help us develop an education system that combats more than just climate change.

The author is Environmental Systems and Societies teacher at Shiv Nadar School, Gurugram

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To sensitise students about climate change, overhaul environment education in Indian schools
To sensitise students about climate change, overhaul environment education in Indian schools
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