Catch them young: School climate education key for sustainable development


With COP26 a wrap, young influencers across the world sharing their views through social media and reports galore, climate change and its impact has never been more top of mind for so many people. And increasingly what we’ve seen, and really excitingly, is youth awareness and participation from every corner of the world.

In India, traditional knowledge, including that on nature, has been passed on within communities for generations. Today we see a clear and strong correlation between education and climate change awareness! Young people and students are the future of our nations and communities, and all their education shapes their views and sense of accountability for climate action and responsible living.

On the formal education front, India has had an active policy for environment education since the 2003  Supreme Court directive set out a possible way forward; with the goal being to educate each young Indian about the environment, learn about sustainability and the real risks emerging from climate change. There is an active argument in favour of including climate change education (CCE) in schools as it acts as a positive impetus for India’s efforts to meet its sustainable development goal targets (SDGs), a key priority at the COP26 UN Climate Change Conference held earlier this November.

In India, we are seeing a rise in youth climate organisations demanding greater climate action, climate change education and climate justice. Community-based youth movements are establishing strong links with school clubs to spur grassroots mobilisation, including learning about climate change and sustainability.

The British Council — with a long history of addressing climate change through the arts, education and English — builds on this very idea through its Climate Connection programme. Climate Connection enables youth, policymakers, artists, teachers, students as well as business and community leaders across its global network opportunities to find creative and collaborative solutions to common climate change challenges.

Recently, the British Council ran a global survey for its Global Youth Letter -crowdsourced across 23 countries. The survey found 78% of young Indians (between 18 and 25) did feel equipped to act against issues arising from climate change like the loss of forest cover, rises in temperature, uneven rainfall pattern and loss of biodiversity.

It attracted the views of thousands of young people around the world with an active opinion on climate change and, once again, placed the spotlight on young people being at the centre of global collaborative approaches. The intent of the survey and the Global Youth Letter was to create a platform for young voices across the world, so their points of view were presented to policymakers at COP26.

The survey offers a ray of hope for the future. It underlines the intent of young people from both urban and non-urban backgrounds – in India and across the world – to look for solutions to the climate crisis. It also highlights the potential of social media – a tool this generation is well-versed in – as an enabler of awareness and motivation among citizens globally; to be conscious of climate change 24×7. Youth – the future agents of change – do need the right support, and greater access to training and skills development for their intent to result in successful action.

On the education and skilling front, innovative experiences can be planned as part of extra-curricula activities to be balanced with the formal school curriculum. It would be useful if educators and curricula designers could find ways to better integrate CCE with the social sciences. As with all subjects, classroom study is more effective when we are clear on the critical role teachers play, and empower them with the right teaching tools and materials.

Our experience has shown that when teachers have access to the right teaching tools for the right student demographic, students do understand the challenge climate change poses and can even navigate the dangers of eco anxiety much better. By using tools such as podcasts, videos and even free university-level MOOCs created by global universities such as the University of Edinburgh , educators and teachers can integrate climate change themes into existing curricula and deliver customised lesson plans with far greater success.

In India, there is scope to evaluate the approach to CCE in schools – not just in the metros – but also in the vast network of schools beyond tier 1 and 2 cities. Greater understanding and awareness is generated if, for topics related to sustainability and the environment, students are engaged through real life experiential projects where they can learn through action and project based decision making. This approach makes these important topics more real, students are more engaged and keeps children and students in the classrooms.

A hybrid model where the arts, drama, documentaries and workshops on climate change could become part of the formal curriculum alongside the formal classroom subjects.

The key then must be to explore innovative and collaborative teaching methods that create the right kind of impulses and empathy, and a sense of curiosity, excitement and critical thinking in children in what could then truly become a transformative journey of awakening to the real dangers of climate change and the role that as the country’s future they can play in averting a climate crisis.

One way could be to take an approach that makes climate change education, like science for instance, a far more exciting and collaborative experience for young people. The popular documentary, “David Attenborough: A Life on Our Planet 3 ”, is a fine example of educating young audiences through moving storytelling in digital mediums such as audiobooks and Netflix.

In this very exciting and engaging documentary, the legendary English broadcaster, natural historian and author Sir David Attenborough, who was also the UK’s People’s Advocate at COP26, draws from 60 years of tracking the planet’s biodiversity to underline the importance of the choices we make today, and offering hope when he says: “Life cycles on, and if we make the right choices, ruin can become regrowth.”

(Author of this article is Barbara Wickham OBE, Director India, British Council. Views expressed here are personal.)

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