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May 02, 2019 Thursday 02:36:31 PM IST


Cover Story

A 16-year-old girl, skipping school every Friday - seems like she is having lots of fun. Well, Greta Thunberg skipped classes every Friday to protest in front of the Swedish parliament, with a home-made sign that read 'SkolstrejkförKlimatet' (School strike for the climate). The sole aim - persuade the government to take responsibility for anthropogenic climate change and convince them to take action.

What a little girl initiated, became part of a global phenomenon, bringing scores of students together who held the government responsible for inaction towards mitigating effects of anthropogenic climate change. As a result of her engagement, on March15,  2019, about 1.5 million young people and their allies did hit the streets, striking in 2052 locations in 123 different countries.

A lot of us, mature and highly educated, constantly whine about the scorching summer. For an average household, this is resolved by installing one more air conditioner, satisfying their private moments but escalating the surrounding heat and moving towards the path of a larger threat. In the end, the villain-tagline would always be given to big corporates and the government for their poor management. We never take responsibility for the causes of climate change andthe burden of tackling its effects are being transferred to the future generation.

In one of her famous speeches, Greta said, "I don't want your hope. I want you to panic". The pain and grievance towards a larger ignorance of the officials have been unveiled by her words. 

The 21st century has brought together the students to be the prime crusaders in achieving environmental justice. Across the globe, there have been several inspiring environment movements led by students

Thoothukudi movement

Another inspiring story has been that of students petitioning corporate companies to reduce their plastic waste. Students from Subbiah Vidyalayam Girls Higher Secondary School in Thoothukudi, India, collected 20,244 snack wrappers and sent them back to the respective companies.  The students wanted the corporates to rethink about packaging and reduce plastic waste. They knew that there are sustainable solutions for packaging that reduce the negative impact on the planet.

Kavya, a 17-year-old from Alappad in Kerala who has been the face of protests against illegal mining, has inspired a lot of people to join the movement. Using the help of technology and social media, she created awareness about the sand mining in her village and its impact. Her efforts paid off with the National Green Tribunal enquiring about the problem and asking for a report from the Kollam district administration. 

Student movements and protests were seen with little or no importance in the past. With increasing awareness and exposure, they do realize the extent of damage we have caused and are now questioning elders, teachers and bureaucrats.

These movements which triggered world leaders and students from across the world is an example of the power individuals have in influencing change.

The health of our environment and the lives of those around the world suffering from climate crisis are not up for debate. A rise in 2 degrees Celsius from pre-industrial levels can be catastrophic, and we are nearing the tipping point. Most of the countries are on course to miss its emissions reduction targets agreed upon to be achieved for 2025. Climate solutions already exist and are scaling, it is just about the lack of will and leadership to take immediate action.

Children vulnerable

Every year with an increase in the number of disasters, more and more children are becoming vulnerable to Climate Change. Scientists warn of irreversible environmental impacts from climate change if aspects of social life are not immediately implemented to limit global warming to acceptable levels. Degradation of primary resources such as water, soil, air, and food iscontinuing. As scientists say, we have got only 12 years left to reverse the effects of climate change.

A degraded and toxic environment affects children the most by causing malnutrition, stuntedgrowth and high burden of diseases. Parents focus on giving the best education and best of experiences, but that itself won't be enough if we leave the planet in bad shape.

Parents and teachers need to take action to motivate and educate students on the environment and the changes. We need to create a conscious crowd who would take the lead in eradicating the problem of human-induced climate change. It may sound impossible, but with the right kind of planning and investment, such a move could be initiated.

Student-led environmental justice initiatives take charge as their awareness about the environment and associated issues increases. For the same, we need to have programmes and projects to engage the children in learning about their own environment and global issues. There have been several successful programmesin this direction, some of whichare outlined as below.

The global school's programmes by UN-SDSN (Sustainable Development Solutions Network) focuses on empowering schools and teachers globally to educate them on sustainable development goals. The aim is to enable schools and teachers to inform the future generation of community leaders, voters, citizens, and responsible consumers about the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) for 2030.  The Global Goals, are a universal call to action to end poverty, protect the planet and ensure that all people enjoy peace and prosperity. The goals are interconnected - often the key to success on one will involve tackling issues more commonly associated with another.

By providing necessary tools and knowledge, a long-term change and environmental justice can be guaranteed, ultimately empowering students to prioritise SDGs in their lifestyle and professional careers. With the help of civil society organisations and individuals, the programme has been able to create awareness about SDGs to a large number of students and teachers from across the globe.

Wetland conservation

A similar, but localized, example is that of a programme called ‘Jalapadom’, conducted by Ashoka Trust for Research in Ecology and Environment (ATREE) in government schools in Alappuzha. Jalapadom is a unique wetland conservation education programme designed for heavily exploited wetlands. Currently, the programme is being organized with the participation of students residing on the banks of Vembanad Lake, the biggest Ramsar site in India. The project enables students to involve in Communication, Education and Public Awareness (CEPA) activities to address wetland degradation issues and to help restore the Vembanad Socio Ecological System.The project has been successful in equipping teachers and students in schools atVembanad with knowledge regarding their own habitat, thus developing a community who would actively involve in the protection of Vembanad.

Passionate youngsters can play a significant role in attaining environmental justice by motivating elders to take action. We need to rethink our measurement of progress based on measuring the wellbeing of our children. They are the inheritors of the future warmer world. Youngsters are taught very less about the environment in the school curriculum. In order to create change, we need more young minds who are aware about the problems and can take leadership in motivating parents to make lifestyle changes and motivate bureaucrats to take action.

Over the years, environmental justice has evolved based on the relevance of the issues and impact on human beings. It is now in a state which has to solve the most fundamental problems associated with climate change for which the whole population is responsible.

Environmental justice can be achieved only when all people regardless of race, colour, national origin, gender, or income live in neighborhoods free of health hazards, can enjoy equal access to safe, healthy places, and participate meaningfully in the planning of their communities.

The recent floods in Kerala devastated lives of many and left people homeless. Children were the worst affected with many having their houses damaged, certificates lost, and schools destroyed. Despite all the hardships, the students coped up really fast and returned to school within 15 days of the disaster. Children around the globe may face similar disasters, and it's time to build a community which is resilient, ready to adapt to future changes and focus on climate change mitigation.

(The writer is a Global School Ambassador, UN-SDSN, and Senior Programme Officer, Ahoka Trust for Research in Ecology &the Environment (ATREE))


The writer is a Global School Ambassador, UN-SDSN, and Senior Programme Officer, Ahoka Trust for Research in Ecology & the Environment (ATREE)

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