Climate change education has been caught in the crossfire of the culture wars. While some U.S. states are boosting climate literacy, others are effectively miseducating children by depriving them of the skills they’ll need to face the biggest challenge of their generation.
Studies show that climate education can help inspire kids to become more resilient, teach them about climate solutions, and prepare them to take jobs in the flourishing clean energy economy ― all while reducing climate anxiety and the carbon footprint of schools. Perhaps more importantly, advocates say that climate education has a positive ripple effect in local communities and across generations.
However, despite the rapid increase in heatwaves, droughts and climate-induced wildfires, K-12 teachers in most states typically devote just a couple of class hours per school year to climate change. And in recent years, several bills supporting climate education have failed in the U.S. Congress.
But behind the scenes, there’s a major push by advocates striving to improve climate education in two major ways: by training teachers, and by doing advocacy work at the state, city and district levels to ensure that climate education is included in the curriculum.
Thanks to these grassroots efforts, climate education is improving in many states. In 2020 New Jersey became the first state to pass a bill adding climate change to its K-12 education standards. Connecticut has passed a similar bill, while California and New York are also considering legislation to support climate education. Maine, Oregon and Minnesota are also taking steps toward boosting climate education.
Despite these advances, a 2020 study found, the education standards of at least 20 states failed to include the basics of human-caused climate change. In addition, advocates tell The Revelator that conservative-leaning states trying to limit LGBTQ rights and outlaw women’s rights to choose, like Florida and Texas, are also censoring climate education.
This partisan divide, coupled with the complex bureaucracy of the education system and a systemic lack of urgency, is undermining climate education, says Elissa Teles Muñoz, coordinator of the Climate & Resilience Education Task Force at the National Wildlife Federation.
“Our youth frankly don’t care about all the bureaucracy that’s going on at the state level,” she says. “They want climate education in their classrooms right now. Those who have received this education feel grateful to their teachers, who have sometimes gone out of their way to teach them about climate. But those who haven’t received it feel slighted. They’re anxious. Some of them are depressed. They feel grief. Climate education is a key solution to these feelings because we need to channel that into solutions.”
Although 20 states have adopted the K-12 Next Generation Science Standards, which cover many climate change topics, climate education tends to be patchy across the United States because educators haven’t been trained to teach about the intricacies of the climate crisis, especially when it comes to attribution and solutions.
“Climate change needs to be taught at all different levels and subjects,” says Katie Boyd, program manager for the Climate Literacy and Energy Awareness Network (CLEAN), which has 800 members. “It’s not just the science — children also need to understand the policy, health, and justice implications. Teachers need tools and resources to dig into climate in a holistic way.”
Boyd says “scores” of nonprofits provide teachers with the skills they need to teach about the climate crisis by organizing workshops and designing courses for educators. Some of these groups receive funding from progressive states.
“California, New Jersey and Washington are great examples,” Boyd says. “They’re doing good work to make climate education more robust by not only adopting the standards but also funding professional development and creating curriculum.”
Washington is spearheading this effort through Clime Time, an initiative sponsored by Governor Jay Inslee that has provided grant money for climate education projects across the state since the 2018-19 school year.
One of the leading recipients is EarthGen, a climate education nonprofit that works with approximately 750 teachers and 50,000 students in Washington every year. EarthGen aims to provide kids with the skillsets to be changemakers within their communities and has a strong focus on the intersection of climate change and social justice.
“This is especially important in a state like Washington, where we have a pretty robust fire season during which kids can’t even go outside,” says EarthGen program manager Becky Bronstein. “Certain communities, usually communities of color, are unfairly and unjustly impacted.”
But BIPOC communities aren’t helpless victims ― they are also agents of change that often use traditional knowledge to safeguard the environment.
“For our professional development, we try to showcase and raise the voice of native Tribes in the Pacific Northwest because they’re doing great climate action work,” Bronstein says. Her team is currently developing a course that highlights how Tribes are restoring the wild salmon population in the Columbia River watershed.
A survey published in April by the Center for Sustainable Futures at Columbia University found that 80% of Americans think that elementary and secondary schools should teach climate education. But the poll’s data shows that liberals are more likely than conservatives to support climate education and efforts to reduce the carbon footprint of schools.
Climate change advocates say this gap is widening amid the culture wars being waged by predominantly red states. The Texas State Board of Education is actively trying to undermine climate education in the state in a bid to include more “positive” messages about the fossil fuel industry. Florida, meanwhile, is waging a culture war against “woke ideology,” including sexual and gender freedoms, as well as the climate crisis.
In Florida, there isn’t much opposition to teaching the underlying science of climate change, says Karolyn Burns, Education and Curriculum Manager at the CLEO Institute, a woman-led nonprofit dedicated to climate education in the Sunshine State. “But you see opposition when you try to talk about causes or solutions,” Burns tells The Revelator. “And of course, the disparate impact that climate change has in certain communities. Bringing up the justice angle is not allowed in Florida.”
There isn’t an outright ban against teaching climate justice, but teachers feel “censored and scared” because they fear that some students may record them and report them to their parents or the media, Burns says.
This hostility is fueled by extremist organizations like Moms for Liberty, a Florida-based far-right group that campaigns against what its members call “woke indoctrination,” and which has supporters at local school board meetings in many states. These groups represent a minority, but they’re “very loud and very hostile,” says Burns.
Although Burns describes Florida as “ground zero for these kind of attacks on education,” the impact of this pushback is being felt across the United States, even in liberal-leaning states like Washington.
“All the time we’re hearing about parents calling and saying, ‘I don’t want my kid learning about global warming,’” Bronstein says. “Or some parents don’t want their kids to learn about critical race theory and how that’s connected with climate justice.” But, she adds, educators show “a lot of bravery” when they teach about the climate crisis in conservative areas.