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Gen Z Voters Are Anxious About Climate Crisis. Can Formal Education on It Help?

A majority of young voters’ awareness about climate change appears to have been formed outside of formal education.

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Over 80 per cent of India’s population lives in districts that are at risk of climate-induced disasters. This comprises nearly 2.63 crore residents who are between the ages of 18-29 and will possibly be voting for the first time in the upcoming Lok Sabha Elections.  

To put it in context, this age group was as young as 10 when the 2015 flash floods ravaged the city of Chennai in Tamil Nadu. These first-time voters have seen an unusual number of cyclones hit the coast along the Bay of Bengal. They were old enough to understand it was not a one-time occurrence in 2023 when they witnessed the capital city of Delhi submerged in a deluge of rains. And have read about Maharashtra spending Rs 14,000 crore, almost one-fourth of the state’s fiscal deficit for the financial year 2020–21, as direct compensation to people affected by extreme weather events.

Thus, it comes as no surprise when the latest survey conducted by Asar Social Impact Advisors and the Climate Education Network reveals that across four states (Tamil Nadu, Maharashtra, Delhi, and West Bengal), first-time voters unanimously expressed that a political party or candidate’s commitment to climate action is among the top three factors that will decide their vote. 
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Climate Education in Our Schooling Systems Largely Inadequate 

The respondents, aged 18–22 and relatively fresh out of secondary school, have further expressed immense interest in integrating positive climate action into their daily lives. This willingness to act, however, remains purely intentional.

It is overshadowed by an overwhelmingly negative emotional response to climate change, with 67 per cent of them feeling hopeless, scared, angry, and anxious about climate change. Only 33 per cent of the respondents showed hope for the future and felt optimistic. This contradiction between intention and action largely stems from the fact that climate education in our schooling systems is largely inadequate or absent.

A majority of young voters’ awareness, across the survey geographies, about climate change appears to have been formed outside of formal education, i.e., from social media, magazines, and news articles. 

A quick scan of the syllabi and responses of those surveyed shows that topics related to the environment, biodiversity, and individual sustainable practices are addressed between Science and Social Studies subjects. However, these are not presented through a climate change lens.

In fact, these chapters are parts of an erstwhile Environmental Science (EVS) syllabus that all boards were mandated to have in the 1990s, post-Supreme Court verdict, reducing it to a perfunctory mention in today's scenario.

Focus group discussions too pointed to a lack of clarity between environmental education and climate change education. This was further corroborated by respondents saying that they did not possess an “in-depth understanding” of climate change or the skills needed to respond to it. 

Reshaping Climate Education in India

“The syllabus content in both schools and colleges lacked in-depth information on climate change and failed to provide comprehensive coverage regarding the causes and consequences of climate change and mitigation strategies,” a participant from Chennai stated.

When asked which topics must be included in climate education at school or college, young voters overwhelmingly stated ‘climate awareness’, showcasing anxiety to understand the changes unfolding around them. 

So, how can India’s youngest and/or first-time voters, who face the realities of the climate crisis, be given the tools and information to support and participate in climate action? 

The direct answer to this question was also given by the young respondents themselves. About 64 per cent of respondents consider climate education a solution to tackle the climate crisis.

But to actually bridge this gap between knowledge, intention, and actual action, curricular and pedagogical approaches will need to shift. Now, more than ever, these approaches will have to ensure that what is taught is relevant to young people’s actions and lives. 

Building on the recommendation we have provided in the survey report, this would mean providing region-specific or place-based climate education to students from their early schooling, vitalising curriculum for action, and an interdisciplinary approach to climate education that is ultimately best if integrated across all subjects taught in school. 

This can be done by picking up local climate change issues and teaching about them through concepts and skills from math and data, earth sciences, physics, economics, and history, to name a few subjects. To enable action and mitigate anxiety and doom, several green skills, such as awareness-building in the community, observation and reporting, engaging local government (especially in high school), etc., can be built through activities, field trips, and play.  

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A Clear Call to Policymakers in Education

Young people want climate education to prepare them for their present and future and in that sense would like less of an inert body of knowledge about climate change. Apart from ‘climate awareness’, ‘climate adaptation’; ‘climate action’; and ‘climate justice’ were considered as important topics that should be part of climate education, according to the respondents. 

This is a clear call, to policymakers in education, by young people, to: 

  • Make environmental education more climate change and people’s/community issues-focused

  • Honour their sense of agency so they can start to deal with feelings of doom and anxiety

-It is proposed that there are two steps to effectively responding to young people’s call for explicit and formal education about climate change. The first is to articulate an epistemology for climate education. 

There is some research, corroborated by responses in our survey, indicating that there are confusions between environmental and sustainability education and climate change education. An epistemology of climate education can put this to rest. We argue that this confusion contributes to young people’s dwindling hope and agency as syllabi pass off individual sustainability practices for climate change knowledge and action. It ultimately does not really answer a question like: Why is the earth still warming at an alarming rate, and what can we do about it? 

This leads to the second step: developing curricula that:

  • Takes a systems view of climate change and is therefore, necessarily, interdisciplinary

  • Develop agency and an inclination for action

A majority of first-time voters surveyed believe that they have the power to make themselves heard so that decision-makers consider their opinion. They are also confident in their ability to impact change with regard to issues that are crucial to them. This confidence comes through in their clear understanding that commitment to climate action will have to be a priority for the candidate or political party they vote for. But to truly ensure that this understanding translates to the right action, coherent, action-centred climate education curricula are non-negotiable.

This can truly help young people engage with the political system and equip them to push for a reimagining of their present and future. 

(Pallavi Phatak is a senior educationist and heads the Climate & Education programme at Asar Social Impact Advisors. Priyanka Thirumurthy is a senior journalist and heads Communications and Engagement at Asar Social Impact Advisors. This is an opinion piece, and the views expressed are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)

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