By: Libbey Hanson
The children don’t know what’s coming.
That’s the thing that saddens and frustrates Toan Nong, a high school teacher in the small and rural district of Vo Nhai in northeast Vietnam.
Beginning with World War II, and continuing 60 years after, the country of Vietnam was defined by war, violence, poverty, and fear. Since the end of the Vietnam War, that definition has slowly shifted to peace, healing, and rebuilding, and today’s youth holds an optimistic vision for their future. But Vietnam now faces another war, and this time it is with the climate, for this nation of 96 million people is one of the most vulnerable areas in the world to the effects of climate change. And those who educate about climate change say it is heartbreaking to break the news to their hopeful students.
Vietnam’s seas are rising. Its vulnerability lies in 1,800 miles of coastline facing the sea. On the coast, climate researchers believe there will be more tropical storms and typhoons, and in the mountains, more landslides caused by drought and flooding.
And further, it is the responsibility of teachers like Toan to help his students understand what this means.
At Vo Nhai High School, Toan spends a week on climate change with his 10th grade students and another week with the 12th grade.
The sophomores learn about climate change as a whole —how an increase in carbon dioxide driven by human-made emissions has resulted in planet-wide warming. Most of the warming has occurred in the past 35 years. Rapid glacier melting across the globe is putting massive amounts of cold water into warmer oceans, changing currents, impacting weather patterns, and raising sea levels.
“They think they know everything about climate change from 10th grade,” Nong said. “But they do not understand the full story.”
The seniors then get to learn about how climate change will affect them and their country specifically.
According to the United Nation’s Vietnam Assessment Report on Climate Change, around 40 percent of Vietnam’s farmlands could be lost to rising sea levels. Even temporary floods of the salty ocean waters into the fertile Mekong Delta, a rural region of southern Vietnam, could eliminate a large portion of Vietnam’s $37 billion annual income from agriculture
Oanh Le Thi and Truong Le Minh, researchers in the Department of Environment and Biotechnology at Van Lang University Ho Chi Minh City, believe the impact is already being felt as tens of thousands of people are driven out of the delta each year — one of the world’s first large-scale examples of climate refugee crisis. Those number will only increase in the coming years as rural citizens move inland due to loss of land, fresh water, and food.
But for students whose short lives have been defined by increasingly improved standards of living, Vietnam’s climate future can be hard to fully understand and conceptualize. Toan said even his students, after multiple weeks of education, don’t fully understand what will happen, what will ultimately affect their adult lives.
With a few more years of processing the lessons, he thinks, they might begin to see the effects, as he has notified in the past few years. Toan has lived in Vo Nhai his entire life. He has seen what has been projected by scientists actually happen— the hotter and drier summers, the wetter and colder winters, landslides, and floods. This is only the beginning of the cycle, he warns.
Toan’s main hope is that his lessons will “plant a seed in their minds.” Maybe his lessons will help them to realize what will become of their future. Maybe they will realize what must change.
“One community cannot do it all,” he said.
But one community can spark that change.
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Teacher’s like Toan are not alone. Because of Vietnam’s known vulnerabilities, various international organizations have sent help in the form of education with the hope of inspiring the youth to take action.
The United Kingdom’s premier cultural and educational organization, The British Council, began its efforts to teach about climate change in 25 secondary schools in Hanoi, Hai Phong, Quang Ninh, Da Nang and Ho Chi Minh City in 2012. But by the end of that year, the program had grown to include 300 primary schools in Hoa Binh province, southwest of Hanoi.
Two years later, the United States joined the effort with a program from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration aimed at training educators to teach “climate literary” through interactive workshops, and another effort from the U.S. Agent for Internationals Development to help three Vietnamese universities develop and disseminate regionally focused climate change curriculum.
Meanwhile, The University of Hanoi has launched a summer volunteer program in which university students can be trained to teach children the science behind climate change.
Having learned about climate change in primary school —and knowing not all Vietnamese students get this education — university student Mung Le felt an obligation to share what he has learned in both primary school and training with children in more rural areas of Vietnam. He has volunteered for two summers and feels his efforts have made a difference.
“The planet is not something can avoid,” Le said. “Something must change. But I enjoyed doing my work and hope to have contributed to the change.”
Despite the noticeable effects of climate change in Vietnam, there are still many places in the country where it is not a part of the teaching curriculum. For instance, teacher Ellie Ha wishes she had the training and curriculum to introduce her students to the issue that may threaten their futures more than anything else. At least for now, Ha said, many students do not take the issue seriously.
“From my point of view,” she said, “It is not an important factor in their mind.”
But she thinks that it should be.
“I feel worried for their situation,” she said. “Climate change will affect the path they choose.”
In the city of Nam Dinh in Vietnam’s Red River Delta, high school English teacher Nhung Pham has taken it upon herself to teach her students how to be environmentalists.
They talk about the foul-smelling, polluted canal near their school. They also plant trees and other greenery in the nearby areas of their school.
But climate change still feels feels big and unavoidable.
“I feel nervous about their future,” she said. “I don’t know how to help them change things around, but I remain hopeful.”
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With nearly 100 million people, and as a nation still working its way through the challenges brought by more than 60 years of violence, poverty and war, Vietnam still has other issues other than the climate to focus on. Even students who have the desire to save the world can be preoccupied with other issues.
In Vo Nhai, Toan’s 12th graders are broken into groups and given the option to focus on Vietnam’s ever-growing issue of air pollution, especially in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City, or the effects of climate change specifically in their country. Toan said many choose air pollution.
He understands. Pollution is one of the most prevalent and noticeable issues in Vietnam, and in his opinion, it is inextricably from the economic development that has pushed his nation for the past 25 years.
“We do not have all the options that a developed country has,” he said, “We are still developing…right now we must put the economy over environment.”
Nong’s student Nguyen Dieu worries for not only his future, but his family’s. He has already seen what will happen to farmers like his parents, and further, has learned it will only get worse.
“The air has become more dry and hot,” he said. These weather conditions have already yielded less crops. His family’s income has been greatly affected.
Another student, Ma Van Thien, said addressing climate change “is an urgent issue because it directly affects our lives,” he said. “I don’t know what will happen.”
Many students of Vo Nhai have the same worries as Ma. So does Toan.
Maybe, he says, he can convince some of them to help identify solutions, but he doubts that’s enough to save their future.
“My job is to educate them,” he said. “Other than that, that is all I can do.”