OPINION: It’s time to reform India’s environmental education

Tuesday, 13 July 2021 14:24 GMT

Students wearing protective masks wait for vocational higher secondary education exams which were postponed amid the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) spread, inside a school in Kochi, India, May 26, 2020. REUTERS/Sivaram V

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* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

In a country heavily at risk from climate change impacts, teachers and students need to understand the threats - and opportunities - better

Siddhant Sarang is a Bihar-born environmental activist and documentary filmmaker studying at Delhi University in India.

The world is facing climate change, the greatest challenge of our time, and India was the seventh most affected nation by climate change’s devastating impacts in 2019 according to the Global Climate Risk Index 2021 report.

Climate impacts affect people in developing countries disproportionately, threatening lives and livelihoods.

Playing in the rain is something children do everywhere – and as the rains get more extreme, they still seem “normal” to a child. It is only later, when they encounter information about climate change in school that they realise the harm they see every day.

A recent survey by educational company Brainly found that 79% of Indian students feel it's important to study climate change and environmental conservation.

India is one of the few countries where environmental education is compulsory in formal education. But 65% of the Indian population remains unaware of climate change as a problem, according to Yale University. Of the remaining 35% - mostly educated people – 80% see it as a serious threat.

Climate and environmental education is paramount to equip the new generation with the knowledge, awareness and skills needed to tackle climate change and other environmental challenges, and in 2019 leaders at the COP25 climate conference called on all countries to commit to climate education by COP26.

India’s first endeavour to include environmental education in formal education was made under the National Policy on Education in 1986. The National Curriculum Framework, in 2005, further stressed the integration of environmental issues and recommended project-based learning.

In 2016, the UGC introduced a six-month compulsory course on environment studies for undergraduates from all disciplines.

But the themes introduced in our schools and colleges are far away from the immediate concerns of climate change.

They are mostly centred on information like environmental laws, wildlife protection, Supreme Court decisions and things like the kinds of grasses grown in India. They don’t talk about greenhouse effects, health concerns from climate change, impacts of a changing climate and other important topics.

Environmental education in India is strongly influenced by rapid economic development,  which has led to a pile of environmental issues due to natural resource depletion.

The extent of pollution, overpopulation, rapid deforestation, and overexploitation of natural resources in the race to become a global economy has also transformed the Indian education system to produce consumers that can contribute to the global economy.

Practical knowledge is very important in climate education. In the syllabus, there should be mention of environmental problems students face in their everyday lives. Then complex global environmental problems should be connected to this.

When students realise how closely linked environmental issues are to their lives and future, they will be motivated to conceive solutions. It will develop a behavioural change in them.

Curriculum should promote experimental learning to make students directly engage in solving the environmental problems in their surroundings. Beyond textbooks, students should be taught about realities on the ground. Educational institution should organize debates and propose solutions to environmental challenges with environmentalists.

Teachers also need training programs to give them confidence and knowledge in facilitating climate change and sustainability education inside and outside the classroom.

For now, our education system is apathetic towards climate education – a bit like it has been to “Moral Science” education.

When I was in school in 2013, Moral Science was a compulsory subject. Teachers wrote some points on the board and told us to remember them. They never taught nor explained the nuances. They never took this subject seriously, and because of this we students never studied.

Right now, the attitude of teachers towards environmental education is similar.

That needs to change. Teachers should be trained to help young people understand the causes and consequences of climate change, bring about changes in attitudes and behaviours to reduce the severity of future warming, and build resilience to it.

That would lead to climate literacy in India’s Resultantly, it will lead to the climate literacy of India’s nearly 25 crore (250 million) school students. It will boost the India’s fight against climate change if even half of these students take climate issues seriously.

Environmental education is the way to meet the Sustainable Development Goals, an essential tool to fight the climate crisis. It can prompt a profound cultural change that contributes to our planet’s sustainability.

As the world is prepares for COP26 in November, it’s time for India to adopt an environmental and climate education policy that works.