Blog: Climate Change Education Starts in Schools

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By: Tonantzin Juarez, MS; Angela Taylor, MPH, Brandon Azevedo, MPH

Across the globe, we are witnessing increasing biodiversity loss, pollution, rising temperatures and more frequent climate induced extreme weather events, all requiring an urgent response and immediate solutions. Experts agree that climate change is the defining issue of our generation with education holding the key to addressing it. Future generations knowledgeable on climate change can represent a powerful tool leading to positive actions and better-informed decisions for our planet. Key to saving our planet requires us to revamp the way we live, consume, produce and interact with nature.

Moreover, this solution has gathered momentum in the last few years with the United Nations calling for climate education to become part of school curriculums by 2050. Students welcome climate education. A global study surveying 10,000 students across 10 countries in 2021 concluded that at least 75% of respondents see the “future as frightening” because of climate change. Data from the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) analyzing 100 countries’ education curricula concluded that only 53 percent of these mention climate change as part of their educational policies. Additionally, only 21 percent of plans submitted by 95 countries as part of their Paris Agreement goals mention climate change education, with none using it as a climate risk mitigation strategy. But few are the countries that have made climate studies mandatory. Italy became the first country in 2020 to make climate studies mandatory in schools. Soon after, New Zealand introduced climate change studies into its secondary school curriculums. Other countries such as Mexico, Argentina, and the U.K. have made important steps too.

What is Happening in the United States?

In 2013, the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) was developed to establish a set of recommendations to teach science in schools. Currently, 45 states and the District of Columbia (D.C.), have implemented NGSS recommendations. One NGSS recommendation is that man-made climate change education begin in the fifth grade and integrated into all science classes; however, this recommendation is voluntary. Further, only one NGSS standard clearly mentions climate change, while 17 standards suggest that states, teachers, and school districts only make connections to climate change in their lesson plans. This has led to climate change education not being widely adopted in the U.S. In 2020, the National Center for Science Education and the Texas Freedom Network Education Fund released a report grading states on their climate change education. Twenty-seven states and D.C. received a grade of B+ or better for their climate change standards, while states in the south such as Texas, Alabama, and Georgia and others received the lowest grade.

There are several barriers to climate change education being implemented in classrooms across the U.S. While the majority of Americans across all political spectrums (78%) support climate change education in schools, there is a political divide to implementing climate change education. Republican led states have often resisted teaching climate change education or restricted how climate change is taught. Another barrier is that teachers often don’t have or receive the necessary training themselves to teach climate change education. A survey by EdWeek Research Center of 538 K-12 teachers found that 76% teachers stated that they had never received training or education on climate change and how to teach the subject. Further, only 6% stated that their school or school district has provided them with climate change education and 3% stated that their teacher-preparation program taught them how to teach climate change. Lastly, misinformation about climate change has entered classrooms as well as personal beliefs and disagreements on how to teach climate change from teachers and lawmakers ties to oil companies all pose as barriers to accurately teaching climate change in schools.

Although new national science standards released in 2013 recommended that schools begin teaching about climate change beginning in middle school, states have been slow to mandate those guidelines via legislation. Currently, there are only two states that require climate change to be taught in schools- New Jersey and Connecticut. To support teachers adopt the standards, New Jersey allocated $5 million for lesson plan and professional development, and launched the New Jersey Climate Change Education Hub, which provides resources for teachers they need to effectively meet the new standards. Further, although 90% of schools in Connecticut already teach about climate change, all schools will be required to teach about climate change starting in July 2023. Other states, such as Oregon, have introduced legislation to require climate education in K-12 schools, but those bills have yet to pass.

Moving Forward

How promising is climate education? Research from San Jose State University showed that if high and middle-income countries were to implement climate change education to at least 16 percent of their cumulative high school students, a 19 gigaton reduction of carbon dioxide could be seen by 2050. In addition, research analyzing 125 countries concluded that if 70 percent of women were to complete lower-secondary school education, by 2050, 60 percent of extreme weather events could reduce globally.

Climate change is the biggest health threat facing humanity. We know that climate change impacts the social determinants of health – clean air, safe drinking water, food security and secure housing while also exacerbating existing health threats. A world where we experience less extreme weather events, reduced pollution and cleaner water will significantly reduce health threats that unfortunately disproportionately impact the most vulnerable populations in the U.S.- disadvantaged communities and groups who face socioeconomic inequalities, including many people of color. A generation of climate change literacy will help us place people both elected to office and in government positions that understand the need to address this, something we desperately need when we currently have lawmakers from various states intended on banning the term “climate change” from state standards for science education. It could also help set future public health practitioners and health providers with resources needed to comprehend connections between health impacts and adverse climate. The world seems to understand the urgency of climate change education; the question is can we in the U.S. do the same to protect future generations and ourselves.