Teaching climate crisis in classrooms critical for children, top educators say

Oliver Milman
·4-min read
<span>Photograph: Frederic J Brown/AFP/Getty Images</span>
Photograph: Frederic J Brown/AFP/Getty Images

Joe Biden’s efforts to tackle the climate crisis need to extend to American classrooms with routine lessons on the threats posed by global heating, two former US education secretaries have urged.

In a letter to the Democratic president-elect, the former top education officials – John King and Arne Duncan – said the education of more than 50 million children in US public schools provides a “critical opportunity” to prepare them for a world transformed by climate change, as well as the opportunities afforded by renewable energy and other potential solutions to the crisis.

“Supporting students today in learning about climate change and providing the opportunity to explore and consider climate solutions will increase the resilience of our society as well as our competitiveness in a green economy,” states the letter.

The statement was also signed by Christine Todd Whitman and Gina McCarthy, both former administrators of the US Environmental Protection Agency, Sally Jewell, the former interior secretary, and a dozen other climate activists, education specialists and teacher union representatives.

Biden has vowed to use the breadth of the federal government to address the climate crisis, from state department diplomacy to the levers of economic policy. But the letter urges Biden to not overlook the department of education in this quest, suggesting emissions could be cut from sources such as school buses as well as encouraging the uptake of climate-themed lessons.

“The education secretary could use the bully pulpit to talk about the importance of climate change education, which would be useful to leading the way,” King, who was education secretary in Barack Obama’s administration, told the Guardian.

“There are a lot of students not learning about climate change at all when the science is quite settled on this. Young people will have to navigate a world deeply impacted by climate change so they need to learn about that, not just the science of it but the social and economic consequences,” King added.

In the US’s decentralized education system, individual school districts, or schools themselves, decide upon classroom curriculum rather than the federal government. But King said federal investment to provide more science teachers, shift school buildings to renewable energy or supply locally grown food would help spur climate discussions in schools.

“We need school districts to understand we need to teach climate change and issues of environmental justice,” King said. “We have a collective responsibility to let students know.”

This summer, New Jersey became the first state to mandate climate change lessons at every grade level. Even though the edict won’t come into force until next year, several New Jersey schools have already started on work that includes seventh graders writing a climate change essay based on America the Not So Beautiful by Andy Rooney and ninth-grade students learning about rising temperatures and how people are being displaced by climate change.

“Our state is warming fast, our shoreline is vanishing – we are in the middle of a climate crisis as we speak,” Tammy Murphy, New Jersey’s first lady and architect of the climate education policy, told the Guardian. “If we don’t give children the tools to critically think about climate change and the green economy, we are being negligent. Young people are yearning for this.”

Murphy said Biden’s climate plan was “incredibly exciting” and she said the president-elect should use his office to prod reluctant states to embrace climate education. “It’s not a challenge we should shy away from,” she said.

A majority of US states have either signed up to the next generation science standards, a set of guidelines on what students should know about science, or close equivalents. The standards include teaching of climate change, such as the consensus understanding that burning fossil fuels causes the planet to heat up.

Still, many American students are still not being taught about climate change due to teacher discretion or, in some cases, a concerted effort by state lawmakers discourage climate lessons. A resolution by Virginia legislators last year accused teachers of attempting to “indoctrinate” children with disputed science, with similar bills and motions put forward in Arizona, Maine and Montana, where lawmakers claimed “nature, not human activity, causes climate change”. Climate scientists have repeatedly made clear that climate change is occurring due to human activity.

Lobby groups, in some cases funded by fossil fuel interests, have also sought to intervene. In 2017 the Heartland Institute, a conservative thinktank, sent science teachers across the US a book called Why Scientists Disagree About Global Warming that falsely states there is major disagreement and bias among scientists over climate change.

An NPR poll from last year found that while the teaching of climate is still not widespread, an overwhelming majority of both teachers and parents agree that it should be a standard feature of classroom learning. Meanwhile, agitation is growing among students, with many younger people deeply alarmed over how their future will be strafed by soaring heat, wildfires and flooding.

“Increasingly we will see students putting pressure on school boards to take up the topic of climate,” said King. “That’s a good thing.”