The unwillingness of the education system to design a curriculum around the climate crisis reinforces educational and environmental racism. When climate change initiatives are defunded, so is education, and vice versa. They are economically disposable, and some of the least advocated by voters. Despite the huge political platform that the climate movement seems to have, it does not make or break most candidates' ability to get voted into most public offices in the US (even though it should). The issue of a decapitalized education system helps create an environment where educating American youth about the climate crisis is at best difficult–at worst neglected, and treated as a political issue, rather than as an important concept to help guide learning in America’s classrooms. Understanding the climate crisis and its different scientific and social facets should guide curriculum standards in the US.
Climate Education Implementation
The political, economic, and social aspects of the climate crisis are what makes it so daunting to teach in American classrooms. While scientists work to convince politicians to enact legislation that helps humans adapt to the current crisis, and mitigate any future environmental damage, educators pull on their labor leashes as they struggle to include as much climate education as they can. The tightrope they walk on was purposefully built by politicians to create further denial about climate change, who currently benefit economically from being “friendly” with climate crisis aggravators. While they do not pass direct legislation banning educational content around the climate crisis, they do create a national environment where educators are labeled as manipulative for including their “political ideology” in the classroom. Teachers struggle to explain to parents and communities that the climate crisis is not a two-sided issue, but a detrimental problem that plagues our world.
The social aspect of the crisis is what affects children more than it does their teachers. Children in low-income households are at risk of enduring environmental racist policies, such as oil drilling in their neighborhood; freshwater pollution and water management that favors affluent neighborhoods; and lung illnesses due to the increased chemical and smog air pollution in low-income neighborhoods. Growing up in a low-income neighborhood of Los Angeles, I experienced all of those problems myself for the first 18 years of my life. There are plenty of unspoken consequences of the climate crisis that affect children, and most of the time politicians refuse to blame climate change because it would mean spending more money on sustainable ventures. Children living in poverty in low-income countries with weak governance and poor education systems are the hardest hit by climate change. As the crisis grows larger and gets worse, those children will have to face migration and domestic security issues, as other children in Mexico, Zimbabwe, and Bangladesh have had to. This is why teachers and schools need to invest more time into shaping some of the curricula around climate change, and the first step to doing that is by setting an example on campus.
Rohingya children have become climate refugees in Bangladesh due to flooding and fire.
Methods for Implementing Climate Curriculum
To properly display to students and the community the urgency in responding personally to the climate crisis, schools need to be built in a climate-proof and friendly manner that prioritizes sustainability and waste reduction, as well as multi-hazard resilience. Schools can begin the process of becoming sustainable by developing intricate water reclamation systems to use all available water and developing sanitation systems that are adaptable to the change in rainfall in drought-prone regions. Such changes have the benefit of helping to reduce freshwater usage and decreasing the impact on state irrigation systems, leaving more water for the community. To continue in a climate-friendly direction, the designs and maintenance of campuses need to promote mitigation with policies and technology that work with the environment of the region and do not add to already existing environmental issues. Schools can set a goal of being carbon-neutral so that students and faculty can work together on a climate action plan. To go one step further, communities must be involved in practicing early warnings, simulation drills, and evacuation for expected and recurring disasters. School districts should also invest in green-energy school buses for the following purposes: to encourage more carpooling and emphasize its benefits, to reduce gas consumption in family households, and to help in the case of a climate-related emergency. All of these changes set an example for students and the community on how to properly mitigate and adapt to the climate crisis, but they also need to understand why those changes are important.
The Green School in Bali, one of the most eco-friendly schools in the world, bases its design and curriculum on sustainable living and practices.
One of the reasons for the lack of success with engagement from families in tackling the climate crisis is that the issue can be difficult for students to understand, and even more difficult for them to relay to their households. Climate literature is often a large deterrent for communities because it can be hard to digest for those without a scientific background. For the curriculum to become more impactful, it needs to encompass five main points:
Information has to be new to students (so gauging what they know is essential).
Diverse perspectives must be included.
Students have to feel heard on the issue, no matter their viewpoint.
The curriculum needs to be personally relevant and meaningful to students and their families.
The curriculum has to be engaging, so employing a diverse variety of learning activities and resources is essential.
Setting those standards for curriculum based around climate change can help students synthesize the differing opinions and ideas surrounding climate change socially and politically. They can think about and work to understand the economic push-and-pull that goes on between titans of industry, governments, and consumers, leading to students establishing climate-friendly consumer goals for their own families. In a study conducted on students and their connection to climate education, most felt uncertain about how the knowledge they were getting about the crisis was relevant to their own lives. Educators must connect with them by discussing current issues that impact their community, and their future implications. Due to the increase in climate-related anxiety and depression, helplessness, and demotivation in youth, teachers have to combat overexposure to the climate crisis by guiding students to come up with positive outcomes through problem-solving. Alongside digestible community literature on climate change, educators need to create learning activities that utilize multiple areas of study, including Indigenous knowledge.
Creating Climate Curriculum
Most science and social science classrooms in America prioritize research above all else, which is beneficial in introducing young learners to higher education. However, those classrooms neglect to include Indigenous climate information in their lesson plans. While some believe that scientific knowledge relating to the climate crisis needs to be enhanced by education policy-makers and climate researchers, I believe that they need to focus on including more Indigenous input in curriculum design. We have the science to back up claims relating to climate change, we just need better activities for learning about them, which I outline further below. But the complete absence of information on Indigenous land management, water conservation, livestock and wild animal practices, and agricultural methods continues the government-sanctioned mistreatment and oppression of Indigenous students and their families. By equalizing scientific and Indigenous knowledge in the classroom, educators can establish a more inclusive space for Indigenous students who have a difficult relationship with the public school system. It can also increase Indigenous students’ engagement with scientific concepts, creating more pathways for them in STEM. Once this kind of information is equitably introduced into the classroom, educators can then juggle teaching mitigation and adaptation as necessary equals.
Due to the gaps of knowledge in America’s youth, most do not give much thought to the difference and equal importance of mitigation techniques and adaptation solutions. Discussions are often one-sided on social media, as most individuals discuss how to mitigate the climate crisis. And while humanity can certainly halt many of the activities that accelerate climate change, we are also at a point of no return according to most environmental scientists, so we must now accept and adopt adaptation methods to prepare communities for a warmer and more chaotic environment. Teachers not only have to teach and gently dissuade overconsumption, but they must also serve as an example to students who may not have climate-friendly representations at home. It is a difficult tightrope to walk on, but educators must be committed to helping students understand that their personal lifestyle choices (including their economic ones), and the greenhouse-gas-dependent society their livelihoods are based on, must change to sustain habitable conditions on the planet. They must outline how their choices in the free market can influence companies to adopt sustainable practices; however, they must also combat misconceptions from said companies about greenwashing their “eco-friendly” practices.
When educators are not battling politicians, unrealistic and harmful policies, unruly parents, overzealous religious leaders, watered-down textbooks, and an over-demanding education system, they must also fend off misinformation (which often comes from those aforementioned groups). Sometimes that misinformation, outdated or false knowledge comes directly from the teacher. To give true and accurate information to students, teachers should review the information they plan to share in their lesson plan and ask the following questions:
Does it portray climate change as a genuine phenomenon? (Excluding false information that is meant to encourage discussion and synthesis among students).
Does it hold human activity accountable for the global change in climate?
Does it hold the overall theme that climate change is a negative force that affects and will continue to affect nature and society?
Am I, as an educator, comforting their feelings towards climate change, and instilling hope in my students in mitigating and adapting to climate change?
From there, educators can start to tackle any misconceptions students come with by asking about their prior knowledge of the crisis. Teachers can then begin to untangle any incorrect or outdated facts brought forward by students while avoiding using terms that may be too technical for the audience at hand. When designing group discussions and projects, they can distill the content to focus only on key ideas in order to encourage new ideas from the students themselves. With the right resources, climate change can be a fun and easy concept to understand and engage with.
Lesson plans have to be diverse in every subject and classroom they exist in. One singular type of learning does not work for all learners and certainly can turn off students from engaging with content. The following themes should guide lesson plans:
Discussion-based activities to help students understand their own and differing viewpoints.
The opportunity to engage with scientific and Indigenous knowledge (literature and research); as well as scientists themselves, with consideration of equitably including Black and Indigenous researchers of color.
Learning and researching policies relating to the climate crisis, especially those relevant to their community.
Hands-on outdoor activities relevant to the climate crisis, particularly in school and the community.
Addressing misconceptions while being supportive of student thought processes, backgrounds, and opinions.
Once educators have laid out the necessary guideline for their curriculum, they can begin to utilize a whole host of tools now available to them thanks to the internet and increased global sharing of educational content. The diagram below outlines what is at an American educator’s disposal.
Educational resources, like the animated video and game site “BrainPOP” help to educate children on different topics, and they have extensively covered issues relating to the Climate Crisis.
The UN has outlined the following reasons for developing a more comprehensive curriculum around climate change:
Education can encourage people to change their attitudes and behavior.
It also helps them to make informed decisions.
In the classroom, young people can be taught the impact of global warming and learn how to adapt to climate change.
Education empowers all people but especially motivates the young to take action.
Increasing climate literacy.
The intersectional bonds between the climate movement and the education system need to be strengthened if we are to adapt to and mitigate the consequences of the climate crisis. It is the education system’s duty to prepare America’s children for a future, and in this case, an ever-evolving cataclysmic fate that they have the collective power to change. As voters, we should not leave it up to paid-off political choices or chance on whether students become properly educated on the crisis and its consequences. The education system time and time again neglects the children in its care by feeding them half the information it should. Our schools are another weapon to strip opportunities from disadvantaged students. The neglection of climate change as an educational focus is irresponsible to low-income families who are most at risk of being victims of the climate crisis. The search for and retainment of information should include active engagement in local problems because youth are not just the future, they are our one last hope as a species for the next 100 years.
For more information on how to make a curriculum that is climate-friendly, the United Nations Education, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) has designed a roadmap called the “Education for Sustainable Development” that outlines how curriculum can better teach the climate crisis.
For more information on how a campus can properly plan for climate disasters, see the guidelines by the Inter-Agency Network for Education in Emergencies (INEE) that outline a set of standards for education preparedness, response, and recovery.
To learn more information about how each state fairs when it comes to teaching about the climate crisis using the different national standards, read the report “Making the Grade? How State Public School Science Standards Address Climate Change” from the National Center for Science Education and the Texas Freedom Network Education Fund