Presidents and prime ministers, secretaries and kings are in Egypt for the annual United Nations climate talks. And when world leaders speak about climate change, they invoke one group more than any other: children.
The plight of future generations and the need to protect today’s children from a future made uninhabitable by global warming is at the moral core of international climate negotiations. That United Nations estimates Around a billion children are extremely vulnerable to climate change, whether it be rising sea levels, heavy rainfall, drought or deadly heat waves.
But what is life like for children living on the frontlines of climate change? How is information about a changing planet passed to the heirs of a hotter earth? And where the internet is not ubiquitous, how do young people understand the changes they are witnessing?
We visited a school in the Rolwaling Valley in Nepal and spoke to students and teachers about their experiences, frustrations and hopes for the future.
A school surrounded by beauty and danger
The monastery school Rolwaling Sangag Choling nestles in a steep valley. Below is the Rolwaling River. Behind the school, the rocky cliffs of the Himalayan range rise dramatically to peaks in excess of 23,000 feet. It’s about a two-day walk from the school to the next street. The area only had sporadic solar power until earlier this year.
The school is home to nearly two dozen boys who live and study there most of the year, except for a brief spell in the winter when they return to their hometowns nearby.
It is a life intensely and inevitably connected to nature. And the students, especially the older ones, have noticed that nature is changing.
“We can see a lot of mountains here,” says Mingma Thamang, an 18-year-old student at the school who has hiked to a nearby glacial lake several times in recent years. He says he’s heard rumors that the lake upstream from his school could cause a major flood in the future.
According to scientists, the lake is indeed at high risk of flooding. And the school is very close to the river and would likely be damaged or destroyed in such a disaster.
Bolendra Acharya has been teaching at the school for 12 years and says there are other obvious changes as well. The snow that used to cover the nearby mountains with thick blankets is now patchy and thin. Now even the highest peaks show bare rock. And the rain, which used to arrive on a reliable schedule earlier in the summer, is now more variable.
The unreliable rain is a problem as most of the people who live in the area farm, raise livestock or work in the mountain trekking industry. When the rain comes late or suddenly, it damages crops and makes it difficult to safely cross the river. Domestic yaks and other livestock do not have access to grazing land.
And as the area becomes more popular with local Nepali tourists, flooding from heavy rains and melting glaciers also makes it more dangerous for hikers using narrow riverside trails and hanging bridges.
Acharya grew up nearby and says life in the valley was very different when he was young. “Our lives were safe. We would just cross the river,” he says. “But now it seems like it could just sweep us away at any moment. There’s a kind of fear among us. Anything could happen.”
A desire to learn more about a changing planet
Acharya makes a point of talking to his students about the environment. “From my point of view, it is very important to me to introduce the students to climate change,” he says, “because they live in an area where there is a lot to learn.”
At the moment there is no formal climate change curriculum, although they study general science. The main aim of the school is to train students to become lamas – Buddhist religious leaders. Students study math, history, science and other academic subjects for the first five years, and those continuing the remaining three years focus on religion and language classes.
“We learned about the weather, about different species of animals,” says Thamang.
Lhakpa Sonam Sherpa, who recently graduated from school, says he has learned about the region’s plants and animals and about the larger geography of Nepal.
But students at the school say they know little about where their home fits into the bigger picture of global climate change and would like to know more.
“We want to learn more about the environment,” says Thamang. “Because then maybe we can do something to make it cleaner and safer.”
Teacher Acharya says even though most of his students will later work in religious roles that don’t directly interact with environmental policies, it’s still important to bring climate change into the classroom. These future religious leaders will be the ones locals turn to when trying to understand their changing environment. And decisions to protect local forests or adapt to flood risk will likely involve consultations with religious authorities in this heavily Buddhist area.
To that end, Acharya wants his students to understand that the changes they are observing are being caused by people in other parts of the world.
“We are not the people who pollute the environment. They are factories in cities, especially out in the larger world. It’s not people like us living in rural areas that are contributing to the destruction of the earth,” he says. “Local students need knowledge about climate change to be empowered to make their own decisions and protect themselves.”