Educators and the Climate Crisis

By RS Editors

Illustrator: Jenna Pope

Jenna Pope

Jenna Pope

On Sept. 21, 2014, 400,000 people poured into the streets of New York City for the People’s Climate March. As Democracy Now! reported: “With a turnout far exceeding expectations, the streets of midtown Manhattan were filled with environmentalists, politicians, musicians, students, farmers, celebrities, nurses, and labor activists—all united in their demand for urgent action on climate change. Organizers arranged the People’s Climate March into different contingents reflecting the movement’s diversity, with Indigenous groups in the lead.”

And teachers were well represented. One contingent was led by our colleagues in the New York Collective of Radical Educators. Rethinking Schools editors marched, too.

The climate is an issue that belongs to everyone, but especially to educators. We’re the ones charged with teaching the young about the character of today’s world. We’re the ones who think about the knowledge and values that children will need to create a world that works for everyone. And we’re the ones who help impart the activist skills and sensibilities that will enable young people to make the world more just and sustainable.

Educators need to be part of the climate justice movement—in our classrooms and in the streets. In her new book, This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate, Naomi Klein urges us to see the climate crisis as a

catalyzing force for positive change . . . the best argument progressives have ever had to demand the rebuilding and reviving of local economies; to reclaim our democracies from corrosive corporate influence; to block harmful new free trade deals and rewrite old ones; to invest in starving public infrastructure like mass transit and affordable housing; to take back ownership of essential services like energy and water; to remake our sick agricultural system into something much healthier; to open borders to migrants whose displacement is linked to climate impacts; to finally respect Indigenous land rights—all of which would help to end grotesque levels of inequality within our nations and between them.

As Klein insists, this movement is less about carbon than it is about capitalism—about challenging an economic system that has not only allowed for but has fueled a planetary crisis of unimaginable dimensions. The world’s energy industry sits on $27 trillion—that’s trillion, with a t—worth of fossil fuel reserves that they fully intend to profit from, regardless of the impact on the Earth. This is five times more carbon than can be burned if we are to keep the climate from warming two degrees Celsius, already a catastrophic target that ensures the annihilation of island peoples and other, unpredictable calamities. Capitalism-as-usual is hurtling us toward the biggest science experiment in world history.

Globalization and Global Warming

Widespread awareness of global warming developed in the late 1980s at the same moment that the world’s elites were turning free market economics into a religion. Corporate-driven free trade arrangements, like the World Trade Organization (WTO) and the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), led to vastly increased global trade, creating higher carbon emissions (especially as so much production moved to coal-fired China). This era’s laissez-faire ideology simultaneously undercut the collective responses needed to address climate change, as government and regulation became dirty words; and, as Klein documents in her book, local government initiatives to address the climate crisis were deemed illegal trade practices by unelected WTO tribunals.

The same “let the market work its magic” ideology that has superheated the climate crisis and hobbled attempts to vigorously regulate the fossil fuel industry has legitimated privatized approaches to education along with the defunding of public schools. TIME magazine’s recent “Rotten Apples” cover story attacking teachers is just the latest salvo.

So, when activists call for “system change, not climate change,” part of this is a demand to protect and revitalize the commons—which includes our atmosphere, the air we breathe, the water we drink, the infrastructure to generate clean energy, and the schools we depend on. The climate crisis offers an opportunity to build a movement that challenges the reigning free market ideology at the root of so many of today’s social and environmental problems, and to insist on more equality and more democracy.

Climate in the Classroom

We especially need to address the climate crisis in our classrooms. Rethinking Schools just published A People’s Curriculum for the Earth: Teaching Climate Change and the Environmental Crisis, edited by Bill Bigelow and Tim Swinehart. As with other Rethinking Schools books, A People’s Curriculum for the Earth focuses on stories from classroom teachers about how they imaginatively engage their students to ask critical questions and to think of themselves as change makers.

By contrast, corporate-produced textbooks continue to bury the climate crisis in a few misleading paragraphs scattered here and there. According to the National Center for Science Education (NCSE), the McGraw Hill 6th-grade textbook World Geography and Cultures suggests that scientists do not agree on the cause of climate change. The book includes a section that contrasts the views of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change with those of the libertarian Heartland Institute, as if each has equal standing on the issue. Writes the NCSE: “This misleads students as to good sources of information, pitting an ideologically driven advocacy group that receives funding from Big Tobacco and polluters against a Nobel Peace Prize-winning scientific body.”

We believe that A People’s Curriculum for the Earth has the potential to dramatically influence the teaching of the climate crisis in North American classrooms in the same way that, in the early 1990s, Rethinking Columbus changed the curricular conversation about the so-called “discovery of America.”

In the book, we offer guidelines for teachers as they approach climate change and the broader environmental crisis:

  • Our curriculum must confront the false dichotomy between the environment and people. The same system that trashes the planet also exploits people. “Saving the Earth” is not just about salmon and redwoods, it’s also about workers, farmers, and fisherfolk.
  • Everyone on Earth is affected by the environmental crisis, but we are affected unequally—based on race, class, nationality, and location. When it comes to the climate crisis, the people least responsible for carbon pollution are the first to suffer its consequences. This fundamental inequality needs to guide our thinking about how we respond to this crisis and how we teach about it.
  • We should help students recognize the inadequacy of responding to the environmental crisis solely as individuals. For example, Whole Foods has a slogan: “Improving lives with every purchase.” Corporations are all too happy to encourage us to think that we can consume our way to justice. We can’t.
  • Our curriculum needs to confront the myth that private property is, in fact, private. In society, as in nature, everything is connected. We need to encourage students to consider the ways that decisions about allegedly “private” property affect us all.
  • We need to engage students in thinking about the nature of global capitalism. Our environmental predicament is inexplicable without recognizing how our economic system rewards the consumption and destruction of the Earth. Teachers need to name and critique capitalism with our students.
  • Despite the dimensions of the environmental crisis, students can engage this frightening content in ways that are lively and playful. Responding authentically to the environmental crisis needn’t be grim; it can be collective, hopeful, and joyful.
  • This curricular work highlights the way a deep response to any one crisis—for example, how we will feed the world with perhaps a billion hungry people—addresses other social and environmental crises. When students grasp these interconnections, they can sense that fundamental change is not only desperately needed but also possible.
  • In this moment of crisis, it’s imperative that we reject artificial barriers between disciplines. Too often, the climate crisis has been a curricular hot potato. No discipline wants to claim it as its own. In fact, the crisis belongs to us all. Addressing it holistically nurtures the kind of cross-curricular ties that can revitalize schools.

For our part, Rethinking Schools will continue to publish stories that feature the many ways teachers engage students in probing the causes and consequences of the climate crisis—and how we can turn things around. We are teaming with the This Changes Everything project to gather examples of teaching that are both critical and hopeful. We urge you to join this essential curricular work, but also activist work that moves from the school to the community.

Naomi Klein writes: “Climate change isn’t an ‘issue’ to add to the list of things to worry about, next to health care and taxes. It is a civilizational wake-up call. A powerful message—spoken in the language of fires, floods, droughts, and extinctions—telling us that we need an entirely new economic model and a new way of sharing this planet. Telling us that we need to evolve.”

As educators, let’s do our part.