Critics argue that the current education system still falls short of adequately emphasising climate change education among students at the primary and secondary levels. Illustration: Chaitanya Surpur I
n a survey conducted by Bath University in September 2021, 60 percent of respondents said they felt worried, sad, helpless, angry, powerless, and guilty about climate change. These respondents were not adults, environmental activists, or policymakers. They were children between the ages of 16 and 25 from 10 countries, including India.
In the next decade, India will have the highest population in this age group, according to UNFPA, “and they will have to face the brunt of climate change”, says Mala Balaji, researcher-environment and climate action at Citizen Consumer and Civic Action Group (CAG), a Chennai-based non-profit working towards protecting citizens' rights in consumer and environmental issues.
“Middle school students are at an impressionable age where they are developing their critical thinking and decision-making abilities. Working towards introducing the right kind of environment education can help develop a sense of responsibility towards sustainability,” she adds.
While recent initiatives at various educational institutions and policy levels have started to integrate climate change education (CCE) into the curriculum, critics argue that the current education system still falls short of adequately emphasising CCE.
Two steps forward, one step back
As an effort to introduce CCE to students, in June 2023, the University Grants Commission (UGC) mandated all undergraduate programmes to include environmental education as part of their syllabus. This move is in accordance with the National Education Policy 2020 which recognises the importance of climate change education.
“But it won’t help unless you catch them [students] young,” says Urvi Desai, co-founder of EkoGalaxy, a platform for climate education and engagement.
It was in December 2003 that the Supreme Court made it mandatory for schools to include environmental education in all grades of formal schooling.
Despite the move, “even today, a majority of teachers or students are not in a position to explain what climate change is all about because environmental education is treated as a cursory subject”, says Albert P’Rayan, an education columnist, teacher-educator, and English language teaching resource person. "We do not give much importance to the environment because we [the education system] are not eco-conscious," he adds.
Making matters worse, in June 2023, the National Council of Educational Research and Training (NCERT), a public body under the Ministry of Education (MoE) that develops the Indian school curriculum, eliminated chapters on climate change and the monsoon to ease the load on students caused due to interruptions from Covid-19. Other topics such as Darwin’s evolution, the periodic table, the Industrial Revolution were also omitted.
This impacts all Central Board of School Education (CBSE) schools in India or about 134 million children between the ages of 11 years and 18 years, says Desai of EkoGalaxy. “It is surprising, bewildering, that fundamental topics such as the Industrial Revolution, which created the world's first fossil fuel economy, that many argue contributed to the Anthropocene, were omitted," she adds. “It is perhaps not the direction we should be going in. It widens the gap rather than closing it.” Forbes India also reached out to MoE and UGC for comments but did not hear back at the time of publishing this story.
Holistic and fun: The need of the hour
While experts say that making environmental education mandatory is a necessary step, they also feel its implementation remains fragmented and lacks depth.
“Climate education needs an integrated approach and without the guidance on how to do this, neither the students nor the institutions can give the seriousness it deserves,” says Harini Nagendra, director of the Research Centre and Centre for Climate Change and Sustainability at Azim Premji University.
Some subjects like literature do a good job of incorporating climate change and connecting it with languages, but other subjects lack this approach. For instance, learning about crops in Geography should be related to climate change, Nagendra says.
“Unfortunately, it’s not taught like that. The curriculum is not interconnected and that needs to be worked upon given how climate change affects every aspect of our society, from education to gender dynamics, and even the economy. It is a game changer,” she adds. Also read: Investing in our future: The need to get climate finance right for India
P’Rayan also attributes the lacklustre implementation of CCE to inadequate training among teachers. He feels teachers are hardly equipped to teach a complex subject like CCE in a manner that’s educational as well as fun.
For Desai too, the problem is that the subject is not taught in an engaging or action-oriented manner. “The climate crisis is moving very fast, and our syllabus and research can hardly keep up with it,” she says. To address problems like these, startups like hers are narrowing the gap between theory and practical education, as well as training teachers.
Co-founded with Shreyas Sridharan, an entrepreneur in the field of solar thermal technology, EkoGalaxy's vision is to make climate education accessible and engaging to all students. For instance, their theory is supplemented with experiential games, outdoor activities, music, drama, debate, and more. EkoGalaxy, an early-stage startup, currently has operations in Telangana, Andhra Pradesh, Tamil Nadu, and Karnataka, along with European school collaborations.
"Students are concerned about the climate crisis, but it isn't being fully addressed by the existing school curriculum. When it is addressed, it is very anxiety-inducing as opposed to sparking critical thinking and offering actionable steps,” says Desai. “Hence, we work with schools and colleges to develop curricula that sparks that curiosity and keeps it alive,” she adds.
Going further, Mala of CAG feels there is no learning continuum or progression of content related to climate change across school education.
To help solve this issue, in February 2023, CAG curated a curriculum on climate change education that included thought-provoking lessons, activities, and illustrations. The pilot was implemented in two Chennai-based schools with a total of 47 students from grades six up to eight, both from affluent backgrounds and those that were first-generation learners.
The results showed that 75 percent of students gained a basic understanding of the causes and impacts of climate change, as opposed to 55 percent before the curriculum was introduced. The teachers' perception of climate change also showed significant improvement with their understanding of the subject going up from 60 percent to 85 percent, notes Mala.
She informs that they are now in the process of translating the English language book into Tamil and introducing it in five government schools in five districts in Tamil Nadu. Their plan is also to urge the government to include climate change as a standalone subject in the school curriculum.
In addition to these steps, experts such as Nagendra and Desai feel that it is also important to localise the curricula.
“We don’t have enough that is produced in our context. For instance, children in Ladakh versus those in Karnataka should be learning about how climate change affects their region and what kind of action they must take keeping that in mind,” says Nagendra. “We hope that publishers take notice of this and start bringing books in different languages,” she adds.
Desai, on the other hand, feels that instead of studying only a syllabus that comes from the West, we can have a curriculum that is rooted in the local. We can look at our rich, indigenous culture and communities who have protected the environment, and if we learn from them, we could go a long way, she says.
A new wave
While institutions such as IIT and IISc have had modules on climate education for many years, other universities have also developed innovative programmes in recent times.
Azim Premji University introduced a BSc major in environmental science and sustainability. Launched in August 2023, this programme aims to offer students a holistic education that encompasses scientific, social, and humanistic perspectives on climate change, along with practical skills to enact change.
"We need more programmes that bridge the gap between science and social sciences, creating climate-aware graduates who can drive change across various sectors," says Nagendra, the director of the centre. Also read: How can we protect the Mahadayi / Mandovi river?
Anant National University launched the Anant School for Climate Action in July 2022. The school currently offers two foundational courses—a four-year bachelor of technology programme specialising in climate change, and a one-year fellowship for climate action.
Students will learn to build technology solutions for mitigating or adapting to climate change, use specialised software for simulating climate impact, and be part of live industry climate projects. They will have the chance to specialise in using climate technologies for business or policy, as well as a deeper specialisation in climate technology itself.
"We decided to start an engineering degree programme so that the students come out with very tangible skills for solutions rather than focusing more on just the problems,” says Miniya Chatterji, founding director of Anant School for Climate Action and CEO, Sustain Labs Paris.
The candidates with this degree can get jobs in both public and private sectors as well as academia. “There is a surge of demand for climate engineers, yet the supply of talent is very little,” says Chatterji.
Ashoka University’s Ashoka Centre for People-Centric Energy (ACPET) was launched in March 2023 and is currently prioritising projects such as renewable energy, energy efficiency and conservation, and more.
“All the research that we do in the centre is clearly oriented towards bringing about change and causing an impact in the desired direction,” says Leena Srivastava, director and head, of ACPET.
She adds that while we have seen a rapid increase in the number of courses offered on climate change and sustainability across several well-renowned institutions, it is a subject that needs to be incorporated in every university of the country. “But we still have a very, very long way to go,” she adds.