Engaging with climate change

Thousands of schoolchildren demonstrated on the streets of Australian cities at the end of November. They were protesting against their government’s lacklustre response to climate change. Their protest march coincided with the G20 summit in Argentina. The summit showed no consensus on climate change, proving the point the children in Australia had made — that political leaders are not serious about the environmental crisis.

Official reaction

Over the recent years, Australia has experienced dire consequences of global warming. By dropping their school routine on a working day, the children were making an additional point. They were conveying the feeling that natural catastrophe would make academic attainment meaningless. Their collective anger was neither politically engineered nor unruly. That is why it elicited a quick, though disapproving, response from the Australian Prime Minister. On his way to the G20 summit, he said students should focus on learning and avoid activism.

Resources Minister Matt Canavan’s response was sharper. He said students should be learning about geology and mining rather than protesting on streets. He was referring to the coal mining projects some of the children specifically mentioned.

An important thing about the protests in Australia is that many parents and teachers had given their consent. Some had encouraged children to go out on the streets. The deeper inspiration had come from similar plans reported from Swedish schools. Like children in various other parts of the world, Swedish and Australian children have been studying environment science in their regular curriculum. It specifically refers to the dangers of global warming and the impending disasters associated with climate change. But in addition to the curriculum, direct experience of endemic forest fires impelled adolescent minds in Australia to mount public protests. Several students spoke to the media, articulating specific demands. These included the closure of a new coal mining projects.

How important such projects are to Australia’s continued economic prosperity is clear from the sharp reaction that children’s mass protest received from the Minister. Mr. Canavan is in a vast company of popular politicians of different countries. American President Donald Trump is one of them. Leaders like him see climate change as an irritating discourse. They think it has no substance or truth.

Moreover, they feel it confuses and distracts the public. These leaders believe that no goal should override high industrial and economic growth. As for the threat of climate change, these leaders deny it and blame activist scientists for creating and spreading a myth. A vast section of people in otherwise educated countries, such as the U.S. and Australia, agrees with politicians like Mr. Trump and Mr. Canavan.

Concept formation

Why people think that climate change is a myth is easy to explain. A basic lesson in geography in elementary schools across the world concerns the distinction between ‘climate’ and ‘weather’. The two concepts are typically explained as being different in terms of changeability. Weather changes from day to day and season to season, according to standard geography texts. Climate, on the other hand, refers to a permanent frame within we study change in weather conditions. So, the term ‘climate’ is used for classifying the world and each country in zones. These zones constitute the permanent lore of learning. In India, for example, an educated person is expected to know that there are six climate zones. Many of us recall the different colours we used to fill up the Indian map to show these zones in an exam. Concepts formed in childhood become stable frames of mind.

It is intellectually challenging for many people to reconcile this notion of climate with the idea of climate change that the UN is using to warn people against terrible environmental disasters. Another idea that the UN is doing its best to promote is that of ‘sustainable development’.

Interestingly, the UN’s promotion of these ideas is based on a global consensus which gave birth to these concerns in the first place. I recently participated in a study mooted by UNESCO’s Delhi-based Mahatma Gandhi Institute of Education for Peace and Sustainable Development. Its report, “Rethinking Schooling for the 21st Century”, presents an analysis of curriculum policy documents from over 20 Asian countries. The analysis shows that the sustainable development goals promoted by UNESCO have been included in the school syllabus across Asia, but their presence is merely nominal in most countries. Policy documents include environmental concerns, but prioritise economic growth. In the context of globalisation, most countries propagate competitive nationalism. It is used as a major ground for regimentation of children’s bodies and minds in order to ensure that they become proud, loyal citizens.

These messages are hardly unique to Asian countries. The Australian children who registered their protest on city streets receive similar lessons at school. Yet, they feel more sensitive than Australia’s political leaders to the threat of climate change. The reason perhaps lies in the nexus between politics and economic interests. As Sunita Narain demonstrates in her book, Conflicts of Interest, all environmental struggles are caught in sharply divided goals of popular politics and people’s right to live in a safe and sustainable environment. Those who espouse environmental causes are often seen as romantics while people who support fast economic growth based on rapid industrialisation are perceived as practical realists.

Australian children have rejected this view. They have figured out that the term ‘climate change’ means little to their political leaders. A new UN report, released just when the G20 summit was starting, says that the window of opportunity for taking meaningful steps to avert climate change will close within a decade or so. Who can understand the implications of this better than children? They have no financial investments to be redeemed by deeper mining for coal or building taller apartment blocks.

Krishna Kumar is a former director of the NCERT and the author of ‘Education, Conflict and Peace’

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Printable version | May 12, 2021 9:45:53 PM |

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