The result is surprising, given what climate scientists say is increasing danger of environmental catastrophe if countries around the world do not take immediate steps to slow the warming of the planet.
A new U.N. report says that if more nations do not pursue comprehensive plans, the planet could be put on a path to warm by 2.7 degrees Celsius (4.9 Fahrenheit) by the end of the century, with each fraction of additional warming bringing increasingly extreme weather.
A crucial global climate summit is scheduled in November in Scotland, where presidents and prime ministers will meet to see whether they can act together — and quickly — to take action to slow global warming. So far, they haven’t.
“Whether teens realize it or not, climate change is indeed a major threat to their generation. Furthermore, many of the other threats on the list — cost of health care, terrorism, and immigration — will be worsened by climate change,” Glenn Branch, deputy director of the nonprofit National Center for Science Education, said in an email.
“The best way of equipping today’s youth to cope with the challenges of a warming world is through improving the quality of climate change education in the public schools, where the majority of Americans receive their science education.”
This post looks at a new way to approach climate change education — one that does not relegate the topic solely to science class. According to the authors, Patricia Bromley and Sebastian Andrews, the topic should be embedded in lessons of other subjects as well.
Bromley is an associate professor of education at Stanford University and co-director of the Stanford Center on Philanthropy and Civil Society. Her research specialty is in the content of civics and history textbooks. She has published multiple peer-reviewed articles related to nonprofits, and education for sustainable development, human rights and minority rights.
Andrews is a youth environmental policy activist and undergraduate student at Stanford University. In 2020, he served as the youngest member of a Denver climate policy advisory board alongside representatives of major groups such as the Sierra Club and BP Energy and campaigned for a municipal sales tax increase to raise money for climate action.
By Patricia Bromley and Sebastian Andrews
When it comes to teaching young people about the climate crisis, it’s not just a matter for science courses. Climate change is also a social, political, and economic issue, and it brings fresh urgency to reimagining how we teach young people to participate in civic life. Growing awareness of the threats of inequality, racial injustice, and misinformation have generated long-overdue calls for a new approach to civics and history education. But current proposals ignore a crucial fact: We cannot have a flourishing society without a healthy planet.
For many decades, investment in civics, social studies, and history education has languished behind attention to science, technology, engineering, and math. According to the 2018 Brown Center Report on American Education, civics received relatively little federal attention. Federal policy — including the federal K-12 No Child Left Behind law and its successor, the Every Student Succeeds Act — treats civics as a “second-tier” academic subject.
Recently, many laudable civic education initiatives have emerged. The polarization of American politics, the spread of “alternative facts,” and a flood of student-led protests have drawn attention to the need for more well-rounded learning.
A recent statement by six former secretaries of education calls for more “plural and complete” history and civics education. And the Biden administration’s new priorities for the American History and Civics Education grant program aim to fund the inclusion of Black Americans’ contributions in history curriculums and increase students’ information literacy skills.
But these calls for a new civics disregard the role of future citizens in addressing climate change. In the much-celebrated 34-page road map outlined by the former secretaries of education, the environment appears in only one sentence.
And the recommendation belies the severity of the problems, suggesting civics should “take up the question of our interaction with and responsibility to the natural world.” Our responsibility to the natural world is not a question, it is a central imperative of our everyday lives if we are to correct the existential threat we have created.
The absence of environmental education in civics and history curriculums is shocking. Our research shows that there is almost no attention to the climate crisis in two of the country’s largest states — Texas and California — in either the state standards or in their widely used textbooks. Given the outsized weight of these two states’ markets in textbook production, this means that most high school graduates have little, if any, exposure to the history of the climate crisis in the context of their responsibilities as citizens.
When the environment is addressed, the content is frequently misleading about the extent of scientific consensus. For example, one common history textbook in Texas has a handful of skeptical sentences about climate change, stating:
At the heart of the controversy were the substantive questions of global warming: Was the earth’s climate really getting hotter, and were human actions responsible? Mountains of data gathered over decades by thousands of scientists suggested that the planet was indeed warming and that human production of greenhouse gases was responsible. But the data and the models the scientists employed weren’t definitive or irrefutable.”
This year alone, we’ve experienced extreme flooding in Europe, devastating drought and heat waves in the Western United States, and destructive storms in the Midwest and South.
The recent U.N. Climate Report shows a shocking increase in these and other extreme weather events in recent decades — now occurring at rates that outpace most earlier expectations for the trajectory of climate change disasters. These result in deaths and destruction of livelihoods and property, contaminate food and water supplies, create electricity failures, and more. These are social issues, not just scientific ones.
Therefore, the climate crisis is not just a matter for science education. It exacerbates existing social problems and creates new ones.
In America, the effects of racially discriminatory housing practices that began in the early 1900s persist today as environmental racism, where people of color are burdened with more exposure to air pollution than White people and experience higher rates of respiratory disease and deaths.
Vulnerable citizens suffer the most from the effects of climate change and from pollution. And generations of marginalization can create social barriers to implementing solutions, as seen in resistance to tree planting in Detroit or the incursion of illegal coffee farming in Indonesia’s rainforests. Science and geography classes help students gain a technical understanding of climate change. But civics and history classes drive home the social causes and consequences of environmental destruction and what we can do about it through our political institutions.
The concept of sustainability can be easily woven throughout the narrative of American history and civics. As a start, the celebration of American progress needs to be balanced with discussion of the long-term environmental consequences of development and issues of institutional racism.
Climate justice needs to be a key facet of the turn toward pluralism in civics and history education. Environmental narratives should reflect scientific consensus that climate change and global warming are human-made, rather than asking students to debate the issue.
The United States emits the second-most carbon dioxide of any of the world’s countries. But as a country we struggle to believe that the climate crisis is real (28 percent are unsure or don’t believe climate change is happening) and struggle even more to believe that the climate crisis is caused by humans (only 57 percent believe climate change is human-caused).
Without a more serious effort to educate citizens about protecting the environment, support among policymakers and business owners will remain lacking.
Climate change education cannot be left only to technical discussions in the sciences, to optional electives, or to the private initiative of individual teachers. It needs to be integrated into mainstream history and civics courses that are requirements for all students.
National content standards or requirements of a semesterlong course on environmental studies are unlikely. But state and local activism and reform of existing courses can generate the needed change and may eventually lead to national standardization. For example, the Portland Board of Education passed a groundbreaking resolution in 2016 revising their curriculums and requiring that all their textbooks correctly and openly address climate change.
Providing children with a well-rounded education on climate change is essential to their future.
Absent this, in the words of Franklin D. Roosevelt: “A nation that destroys its soils destroys itself.”