Recently, NASA’s former chief climate scientist, James Hansen, blasted U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson for supporting the development of the Cumbria Coal Mine, calling it a “contemptuous disregard of the future of young people and nature.” His angry missive illustrates the long road that lies ahead for climate change activists and educators globally. Perhaps if Johnson had received a better education during his primary school days we wouldn’t find ourselves in this antagonistic situation, where scientists and most politicians agree that the climate crisis is real, but can’t agree on how we should go about addressing it.
The solution is the integration of environmental education in k-12 and higher education systems. Our youth must understand today’s most pressing sustainability issues from multiple perspectives, be able to facilitate discussion about them, and take action to address them. Imagine an environmentally literate citizenry where adopting environmental reach codes for your city is a no brainer and there aren’t any climate deniers, because everyone learned the scientific basis behind climate change in 6th grade. We’ll understand the interplay between the natural and social sciences in natural resource and pollution problems. Everyone will be able to apply rational criteria for deciding which of many existing options can be used to get us the energy we need while at the same time protecting our natural environment and not breaking the bank.
Promoting climate change understanding, skills, and pro-environmental behavior in our children are key to obtaining the popular support needed to turn policies into action. And while there are many individual stand out programs and educators, most of these wins have been highly localized and tend to take place in more affluent, white communities. Charles Saylan of UCLA, an environmental educator himself and author of The Failure of Environmental Education (and How We Can Fix It) laments that environmental education programs often emphasize building knowledge and awareness over action and advocacy. Another challenge he identifies is that “the standards on which public education is[sic] based don’t include environmental education.”
With better integration of environmental education into public education standards, the k-12 and higher education system we can create a citizenry that’s ready to handle the coming extreme weather events, socioeconomic inequities, and damage to natural resources that climate change will inevitably bring. We can foster the development of critical thinkers who understand that today’s economy takes place within a finite physical system that possesses finite natural resources known as the Earth. They will know that environmental justice is social justice.
An environmentally literate populace will understand that modern environmentalism isn’t just about calling out the Girl Scouts cookie manufacturers because they use palm oil in their cookies whose growing practices destroy orangutan habitat and use child labor. Efforts like these are certainly laudable, but they are not the full story. Holistic climate and environmental education includes talking honestly about the unhoused population living along our local creeks and how to balance keeping our waterways clean with respecting people’s humanity. It’s about acknowledging the history of racism and lack of diversity that dominates the environmental studies field and changing it to both acknowledge thought leaders of color and create a welcoming culture where all students feel welcome. It means preparing a diverse student body for good-paying full-time jobs in the new green economy. It means providing students with regular environmental instruction, not just spirited platitudes on Earth Day.
Impossible you say? I beg to differ. There are hundreds of free interdisciplinary lesson plans on the environment and climate change for students in grades kindergarten through high school that already align with Next Generation and state science standards, for example those developed by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the U.S. Geological Survey, and NASA. The Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education, the organization that developed standards for assessing sustainability in the curriculum for colleges and universities, has over 1,000 universities that are actively measuring how integrated sustainability is in their curriculum.
At Arizona State University for example, more than 14% of courses include or focus on sustainability. At San Jose State, more than 90% of our departments have at least one class that includes sustainability. And if k-12 lesson plans need tweaking to make them more hands-on and localized, we have thousands of local university students and faculty with the expertise to customize the learning experience to individual schools.
As an educator with over 25 years experience working in public and private universities, trust me when I say that college students would jump at the chance to do this work. In short, we actually can reach everyone in the k-12 and college system with resources that exist today.
We need to support better integration of holistic environmental education from the time our kids enter kindergarten to the time they graduate from college. By doing so we help cultivate a world where future generations will be able to live in a cleaner, greener, more just, and safer world. The climate crisis took generations to create and it will take a generational investment in our children’s education to fix.
The Biden Administration’s appointment of John Kerry to a newly created position, Special Presidential Envoy for Climate, as well the re-entry of the U.S. into the Paris Climate Accord, are tangible evidence that national political leadership considers the environment a priority. The problems are big, requiring what UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres describes as “fundamental transformations in all aspects of society — how we grow food, use land, fuel our transport and power our economies.” These high level moves are promising, however action and education from the ground up is equally essential for tackling this looming existential threat.
Dr. Katherine Cushing is a Professor of Environmental Studies at San Jose State University and a Public Voices Fellow with The OpEd Project.