Anthropogenic climate change is the driving force behind some of the greatest natural disasters humanity has faced within the last two decades. A record-breaking season of horrific wildfires, droughts, floods, and hurricanes has devastated communities and disrupted countless lives. For the youngest generation, it is imperative that knowledge of why and how these global changes have occurred is communicated efficiently and truthfully. Early climate change education can give children the tools they need to create positive change for the planet’s ecosystems and environments.
Climate change curricula has slowly been introduced into schools across the United States over the last few years. The integration of climate change and sustainability lessons has shown parallels to the early 1920s, when the theory of evolution was still a controversial topic struggling to be integrated into public schools. Although the theory of evolution is now commonly taught across all levels of education in public and private schools across the United States (with a few notable exceptions), it demonstrates the need for state educational standards to change as scientific understanding develops.
In the nation’s classrooms, young children between the ages of five and ten are taught, at the very least, the basics of the environment and ecosystems surrounding them, as well as what deserts, reefs, and rainforests are. Similarly, the earliest introductions of climate science occur at the most fundamental level: “Why is the world changing?”
Explaining climate change to educated individuals can be difficult enough, and breaking down anthropogenic climate change to impressionable children is a daunting task. It requires an understanding of the building blocks of science and the natural world. For teachers in elementary schools, introducing these concepts often comes hand-in-hand with current events. For children who live in California, teachers communicate words such as “humidity levels” and “precipitation” to explain how the environment has become dry and hot enough to incite spontaneous wildfires. For children in Louisiana, teachers have needed to communicate how rising sea levels and barometric pressure have contributed to the destructive hurricanes they have experienced multiple times in a single season.
Schools have also used documentaries and educational movies, such as Leonardo DiCaprio’s Before the Flood, to help visually explain global warming and its visceral effects on different regions of the world. For children who may find it difficult to grasp intangible concepts in written form, especially those in fourth grade and younger, visual education helps make the connection between climate change terminology from textbooks and real life events.
State standards are often set by the National Center for Science Education. As the primary source of guidance for teachers, the Center also stands as the authority on the matter, as most teachers don’t always know exactly how to approach climate change or understand its exact underlying causes. A majority of teachers in elementary schools have never received material or university-level instruction on anthropogenic climate change. As some of the first mentors children ever form relationships with, these teachers are at the frontlines of implementing and integrating successful climate change education and instruction to burgeoning students.
Climate change education varies by region and state, however. Urban students, when compared to rural or suburban students, often don’t have the same abundance of greenery and access to natural environments. However, teachers can often draw correlations of climate change in the classroom to levels of air pollution in the city and prevalent asthma rates among children. For example, some fifth graders conducted experiments during science lab sessions to demonstrate how greenhouse gases build up on the earth’s surface by using plastic wrap and a heat lamp. Students compare two separate cups of water under a sun lamp, one covered with plastic wrap to simulate the earth with greenhouse gases, and one without plastic wrap as the control experiment. The plastic-wrapped cup and its contents will be warmed quicker due to increased heat trapped under its plastic ceiling.
Climate change, its origins, and its consequences have started to be integrated within all levels of public education, from kindergarten to high school. In June 2020, New Jersey became the first state to consolidate climate change curricula across K-12 standards for all public schools. First Lady of New Jersey Tammy Murphy pushed for the change, which will go into effect in 2021 and 2022. According to Murphy, the root of her advocacy is far more than just politics; it’s also about looking towards the future and long-term goals. “We’re going to need to have climate literacy in our civic leaders, policymakers, urban planners, journalists,” Murphy says. “As we change our education standards, [New Jersey] is going to be the first to ensure that our students are prepared.” This type of educational progression also aligns with most states that have moved toward greater sustainable development and transitions to 100 percent clean renewable energy by set dates, by 2050 in New Jersey’s case.
Not all climate change education is equal across the fifty states. In some counties of Texas and Kentucky, climate change is taught in schools, but its origins in human greenhouse gas emissions are not, whereas in counties in New York and Massachusetts, climate change is widely-taught across most levels of public education in school, and anthropogenic origins are openly discussed in classrooms. Despite these inconsistencies across state lines and county borders, public officials have connected the transition in public education with the need for climate-literate citizens.
Climate change curriculum is inevitably tied to political atmospheres. Just as the theory of evolution faced monumental debate, pushback, and outright refusal from public and private figures when first introduced into public school educational standards, the fight for greater inclusion of the origins of climate change, its greatest repercussions, and how to reverse its effects is still being fought out throughout big and small courtrooms and classrooms across the country. Educators must continue to push forward for inclusive, science-based education that puts the tools of the earth’s resurrection in the hands of children.
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