Our Climate Crisis Is an Education Crisis

By the editors of Rethinking Schools

Illustrator: Erik Ruin

Illustration: Erik Ruin

In 2007, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) wrote, “Warming of the climate system is unequivocal, as is now evident from observations of increases in global average air and ocean temperatures, widespread melting of snow and ice, and rising global average sea level.” According to environmentalist Bill McKibben, unless we immediately begin to change course and dramatically reduce the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, we may “lose forever the basic architecture of our planet,” with unimaginable consequences.

How well are schools equipping our students to confront the climate emergency?

Unfortunately, major social studies and science textbooks are, at best, inadequate and often propagandistic. For example, the widely used Physical Science: Concepts in Action (Prentice Hall) fails to address global warming until page 782. The few paragraphs Physical Science offers seem designed more to sow doubt than to alert students to the urgency of the issue. The section begins: “Human activities may also change climate over time.” In bold face, as the key to the section, the text tells students: “One possible climate change is caused by the addition of carbon dioxide and certain other gases into the atmosphere.” Possible? This line could have been written by the coal industry. The section continues in language dripping with equivocation: “Carbon dioxide emissions from motor vehicles, power plants, and other sources may contribute to global warming.”

This ambiguity stands in stark contrast to the seriousness of the situation: What the earth experienced in 2010 affixed an exclamation point to the 2007 IPCC report, offering glimpses of a grim future. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, 2010 tied 2005 as the warmest year on record, capping the warmest decade on record. Last year, 19 nations set all-time climate records—the most ever. Asia saw the hottest temperature ever recorded there: 128° F in Pakistan.

Although no single weather event can be ascribed to climate change, the scientific consensus is that rising global temperatures increase the risk of catastrophic weather. The record heat wave in Russia in the summer of 2010, with its accompanying wildfires, killed 15,000 people. The floods in Pakistan, following unprecedented monsoon rains, submerged 20 percent of the country, affecting 20 million people. In Niger, severe drought followed by flooding left more than 100,000 people homeless. And these examples represent just the tip of a melting iceberg.

At the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Cancun, Mexico, in November, island nations like Tuvalu and Nauru pleaded with delegates to create binding greenhouse gas emission reductions, and described how climate-induced rising oceans are literally drowning their lands. And a special New York Times report on climate change and the oceans depicted science fiction–like scenarios of what will likely happen this century if the oceans continue their inexorable rise.

On a recent Democracy Now! broadcast, Dr. Paul Epstein, associate director of the Center for Health and the Global Environment at Harvard Medical School, warned about the dire public health consequences of climate change. For example, he attributes the doubling and even tripling of childhood asthma rates in the United States in part to climate change, as pollen counts skyrocket in response to the rising concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. Epstein warns that warming and extreme weather are putting us at greater risk for infectious diseases and respiratory ailments, and are disrupting crops, forests, and marine life.

If the purpose of education is to serve humanity, then this climate emergency should be accompanied by widespread rethinking and revision of the curriculum—a massive undertaking to equip children to understand the causes of the climate crisis and the enormity of its potential consequences. But this is not happening. We detect little sense of urgency among educators—even among many who consider ourselves “social justice” educators—to address the climate crisis. In 2010, major journals like Educational Leadership and Phi Delta Kappan did not include a single article about schools dealing with climate change.

Where Is Climate Change in Our Curriculum?

Educators need to begin to treat the climate crisis with the urgency it deserves as arguably the most significant threat to life on earth.

We’re not suggesting that we adopt a shrill doomsday curriculum, but every educator at every grade level in every discipline has a role to play. In early childhood, teachers can nurture an ecological disposition, as Ann Pelo writes in Rethinking Early Childhood Education, aiming “to give children a sense of place—to invite children to braid their identities together with the place where they live by calling their attention to the air, the sky, the cracks in the sidewalk where the earth busts out of its cement cage.” These dispositions can be deepened and expanded throughout the elementary grades, as teachers help children become “citizen scientists,” as Lynne Cherry and Gary Braasch propose in How We Know What We Know About Our Changing Climate. Children can learn about “observing, measuring, and describing the natural world, and figuring out how it works.”

The Need for Science Literacy

So much of the climate change deniers’ disinformation depends on a widespread scientific illiteracy. “Global warming is just a theory” is tossed around as if a scientific theory were simply a synonym for hunch or guess or belief, rather than a widely accepted explanation supported by existing evidence. Gravity is also “just a theory.” Nurturing a foundation of scientific literacy can inoculate children against the ersatz “science” pushed by energy corporations that pollutes our culture. For example, see the material churned out by a coal industry front group like the American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity.

The role of schools in establishing science literacy has deteriorated in the era of No Child Left Behind, as schools have often left science instruction behind in an effort to boost test scores toward making “adequate yearly progress.” And, of course, students’ grasp of the climate crisis is not all that suffers from schools’ failure to lay a foundation of scientific literacy. Such a lack also leaves students ill prepared to think clearly about everything from evolution to stem cell research to nutrition.

In middle and high school the climate crisis is a kind of curricular hot potato that no discipline wants to claim as its own. Social studies teachers—and a number of Rethinking Schools editors count ourselves in this category—often bump up against their own shaky scientific understandings, trying to recall what they learned about carbon dioxide, methane, or nitrous oxide in high school and college chemistry classes. And science teachers may feel that analyzing the social causes and consequences of climate change is beyond the scope of their curricula or of their own knowledge. Or they may simply feel overwhelmed. One longtime science teacher recently wrote us: “We see the problem clearly, but we can’t figure out how to do more than scare our students.” Teachers in language arts, mathematics, world languages, business, physical education, or art may wonder, “What does this have to do with my class?”

Challenging the Barriers

But in this moment of crisis, it’s imperative that we challenge these artificial barriers between disciplines—and maybe our own despair. Educators across the curriculum need to collaborate to develop students as the scientist-activists they need to be. And despite the looming risks to the planet—or perhaps because of these—this can be exciting and joyful academic work. Confronting the climate emergency requires us immediately to begin constructing a fossil fuel–free society built on principles of ecology and justice, rather than profit and endless growth. This endeavor demands that young people exercise their utopian imaginations to consider alternatives of all kinds. And it invites them to “talk back” to those interests that promote and benefit from endless consumption—including the publishers of their own textbooks.

We can do a lot in our individual classrooms—but not everything. We need our professional organizations and school districts to provide professional development that is cross-disciplinary and that deals forthrightly with the climate crisis. We need administrators and educational policy makers to recognize that “skills” can and must be taught in the context of a curriculum about things that matter, including the climate. We need our districts to demand curriculum materials, including textbooks, that are honest and that equip students to understand what’s at stake. And if the corporate giants continue to produce woefully inadequate texts, like the Prentice Hall text mentioned above, then they should be boycotted, publicly and loudly.

For education activists this work is part of a broader struggle to critique and oppose the equation of academic achievement with scoring well on tests. That schools seem to be sleepwalking through the climate crisis is one indication of the overall lunacy of the data-chase that became institutionalized in No Child Left Behind and embraced with gusto by the Obama administration. In the introduction to her influential book, Other People’s Children, Lisa Delpit laments: “We have given up the rich meaningful education of our children in favor of narrow, decontextualized, meaningless procedures that leave unopened hearts, unformed character, and unchallenged minds.”

The fight for a climate-relevant education is part of the broader fight for a critical, humane, challenging, and socially responsive curriculum. It’s work that belongs to us all.