Walking the talk on climate change

“The thing about climate [change] is that you can be overwhelmed by the complexity of the problem, or you can fall in love with the creativity of the solutions.”

Environmentalist Mary Heglar’s quote is NUS Arts and Social Sciences and NUS Environmental Studies third-year student Cassandra Yip’s favourite, and arguably a key tenet in her environmental philosophy as she rolls out ground-up initiatives to address the problems plaguing our planet today. The effervescent environmentalist, who credits her love for nature to her parents, sees huge potential for youth like herself to ignite change, and isn’t wasting any time. Already Cassandra is doing what she can by founding Earth School Singapore – Singapore’s first non-profit school for environmental education – and co-founding the NUS Chapter of Student Energy – Singapore’s first chapter in a global network of youth energy organisations working to accelerate the world’s transition to a sustainable energy future.

A passion for the environment seeded during childhood 

Growing up, Cassandra spent a fair bit of her childhood near or in water. She recalled, “I have many pictures of baby me running around in a bikini in pools, boats or beaches, digging sand pits, playing in the waves with my parents, and even posing with fish twice my size in aquariums all over the world.”

It was clear that her parents’ love for the ocean had seeded her passion for the environment. “My parents met while scuba diving, when my mum was incidentally still an NUS Economics undergraduate. They have never given up their passion for the water…not even to this present day. They are currently at the beach windsurfing as I share this,” she quipped.

A holistic education provides the foundation for Cassandra’s environmental initiatives

Fast forward to adolescence, and it was Cassandra’s memorable experience championing environmental awareness as the president of a polytechnic wildlife and marine conservation interest group that convinced her to enrol in the NUS Bachelor of Environmental Studies (BES) programme.

“I knew that once I graduated [from polytechnic] that I wanted to further my education in something that I love and am passionate about and that’s why I chose the NUS BES programme,” she recalled. The programme seeks to imbue young environmental professionals like Cassandra with strong cross-disciplinary knowledge to contribute solutions to modern environmental issues.

For Cassandra, the NUS BES programme was an eye-opener. Classes were insightful, and she learnt a lot; she particularly relished the dynamic of cross-learning and knowledge-sharing among her classmates and teachers. Even as Cassandra’s environmental classes informed her of how the natural world was changing, she thought it vital to take up minors in Global Studies and Economics to understand the way the social world was structured, like the piecing together of a jigsaw puzzle.

She revealed, “I felt the need to tackle the larger underlying causes for the degradation of marine life. Hence, I became interested in issues such as the global governance of environmental resources, and the international political economy and the environment. Combining both, I can see how the social world affects the natural world, and vice versa.”

Earth School Singapore and Student Energy NUS

As Cassandra learned more about the climate crisis, she felt the growing need to contribute and identified an existing gap in environmental education in public schools. She said, “I believe that I am incredibly privileged to have an education in environmental and energy studies, and so this is my way of using my privileges to contribute back towards a greater good – a sustainable future for all.”

She thus founded Earth School Singapore (ESS) – a non-profit environmental education school that creates sustainable impact in environmental conservation through education, action and inspiration at the community-level.

Since its February launch, the ESS team has grown to 13 members and counts some 24 local eco-organisations as collaborators. Following the three pillars of Learn Green, Experience Nature, and Act & Impact, the School reaches out to the wider public in many ways. It created a community library with open access lessons on environmental conservation and sustainability, and is working with environmental group LepakInSG to offer an environmental calendar for people keen on participating in green activities islandwide. It also collaborates with other local environmental organisations to review eco-shops that sell green products, and is currently working to curate environmental-based volunteering opportunities.

To reach out to the young, Cassandra and her ESS team are working with some primary schools in the eco-stewardship programme of the SG Green Plan to help develop their sustainability initiatives, green their infrastructure and incorporate environmental knowledge into their operations. They are also organising a nationwide environmental programme titled Student Heroes in Environmental Leadership Development (SHIELD) for primary school students next year. In December, ESS will be collaborating with NUS SAVE, an NUS environmental student group, to organise guided nature tours for underprivileged children from non-profit organisation Budding Minds’ tuition programme.

Cassandra’s long-term plan is to develop an after-school curriculum for children to learn about activities such as upcycling plastics or ways to grow food in classes co-organised with ESS’ eco partners. As it is, ESS’s value and potential to contribute to environmental efforts have not gone unnoticed. It recently received the NUS Enterprise’s Venture Initiation Programme (VIP) Award; this provides the initiative with some financial support and access to NUS Enterprise’s entrepreneurial ecosystem.

Equally intent on tackling environmental challenges on the energy front, Cassandra co-founded the NUS Chapter of Student Energy. Student Energy NUS, which seeks to empower the next generation of leaders in the transition to a sustainable, equitable energy future, is currently working on an Energy Model United Nations next semester. It also plans to run an education innovation programme for students, with tours of energy plants and R&D labs, as well as discussions with established energy industry individuals and academics.

The group had also recently contributed to the COP26 Singapore Youth Statement as the 26th UN Climate Change Conference of the Parties (COP26) talks take place in Glasgow, Ireland – providing recommendations on how Singapore could address the climate crisis. Cassandra shared that ESS is in support of the statement as well.

Cassandra credits her multidisciplinary education with giving her a solid foundation when it came to her work in ESS and Student Energy NUS. She revealed that “it has given [her] a better understanding of regulatory policies, sustainability roadmaps, opportunities and constraints that inform the environmental space that ESS operates in, more so for developing content and programmes for Student Energy NUS.” Her goals for both initiatives are clear – they “prepare young persons via education and opportunity to find solutions to the climate crisis.”

Hope for COP26 and the future

Asked about her views on the ongoing COP26 talks, Cassandra pointed out that the summit would be considered successful when countries have “produced competent climate goals and laid out definite roadmaps with specific milestones and supporting policies on how they each aim to accomplish them.” Expressing optimism, she added, “COP26 could be the beginning of the future – and if so, then it will be my greatest hope that initiatives such as ESS and Student Energy NUS will cease to exist.”

“I hope that my peers will take courage and join us in being part of the solution. The environment can really use all the protection it can get, from as many people who can speak for it.”