A Greenish Curriculum: Desperate Need vs a Stacked Deck

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The facts are in. The global temperature is rising and so are the oceans, accompanied by increasingly frequent and intense fires, droughts and floods, out-of-season melting of polar ice, glaciers and mountain snowpacks (the source of much of the world’s fresh water), all of which are predicted to get worse. In the scientific community, there is no confusion about the cause for all of this. According to the latest report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the major causes are the burning of fossil fuels, deforestation, and modern agriculture releasing carbon into the atmosphere. We also know who is responsible for the majority of this change: 100 producers of oil, gas and coal cause the release of 71% of all greenhouse gases, while livestock farming, using ill-considered techniques, cause an additional 14.5 percent. While climate scientists agree that a certain amount of global warming is now unavoidable, they also continually remind us that if we as a society make changes now, we can limit the worst of it. Specifically, if we stop drilling for oil and natural gas, cease fracking and coal mining, permanently cap all oil and gas wells, stop refining oil to make gasoline and other products, cease widespread deforestation and factory farming and move towards regenerative agriculture), and generally reduce unnecessary consumption, the future will be less awful, and, once stopped, we can focus on returning the planet to a healthier state.

We adults bear responsibility for learning and taking all climate actions that are possible to ensure society changes, but because the predicted climate changes will occur over decades and will have such a devastating effect on today’s children, they too need to be taught what climate change is, what causes it, what changes to expect and, critically, how to adapt to these serious challenges and what they can do to avoid the worst of them. A new study by the Brookings Institution finds that if just 16% of students receive an adequate education about climate change, “we could see a nearly 19 gigaton reduction of carbon dioxide by 2050.”

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In addition, according to a 2019 report in Nature, when children understand the threats of global warming, they can change their parents’ minds about it, creating a ripple effect. Children should know that they have the ability to change the discussion, and they should become familiar with research showing that transformation historically occurs when changing attitudes reach a tipping point of 25%. Part of this instruction should include the methods of changing the attitudes of their peers and elders so as to arrive at that tipping point.

Photo by Annette Olson, CC-By 4.0

Children need this kind of education all over the world, and it is being implemented now in some countries, like Italy. This article, however, focuses on the necessity of developing and delivering “green” curricula to children specifically in the U.S., which does not yet have a national climate change curriculum. There are two reasons we focus on the U.S. here. First, the US has done more to harm the climate over time than any other nation. We caught up to and passed the UK as the worst offender in the early years of the 20th Century, and although China is catching up fast (unless they make drastic cuts to their greenhouse gas emissions), they still have a ways to go to reach the level of damage the US has been responsible for. Put simply, the US owes the rest of the world a much better environmentally educated citizenship. Second, the US has an outsized effect on global policy, and it has not ratified the Kyoto Protocol. The U.S. government’s subsidies for oil keep prices artificially low, which keeps consumption, and therefore emissions, high. If the U.S. shifts away from this policy, it has more power, through diplomacy or even sanctions, to pressure other countries to block fossil fuel extraction, refinement, and burning. If we citizens can get our government to radically change its environmental policies, we have a much better chance of limiting global environmental damage and its consequences.

The Lessons Desperately Needed

We adults have to learn and act, but what will children need to know? Following is a list of possible concepts (in bold) we should consider including.

To start, the 2016 Effective Practice Guide, developed by the Climate Change Education Partnership (CCEP) Alliance, found that:

“In order for future members of the workforce and communities to be prepared to contribute to addressing the impacts and solving the problems resulting from climate change, they must have sufficient contact time with the science behind the causes (National Research Council, 2010). In addition, they need to develop the skills to identify, gather, collect, and accurately discern the credibility of the information with reasoning skills; engage in discourse approaches that enable trust; analyze and draw conclusions from the information and data that they have gathered; develop solutions to problems based on those conclusions; and communicate their findings effectively to others.

Social science research is also clear: acquiring knowledge about climate change does not necessarily move individuals to action (DeWaters & Powers, 2013; Schultz, Gouveia, Cameron, Tankha, Schmuck, & Franěk, 2005). Affective and social forces often influence risk perception and actions around climate change (e.g., Doherty & Webler, 2016; Kahan et al., 2012; Pidgeon & Fischhoff, 2011; Weber, 2006). Thus, knowledge must be paired with affect, beliefs, intentions, and motivation to enact change (Lombardi & Sinatra, 2012).”

[bolding by Climate Step editors]

Similarly, In Measuring What Really Matters: Education and Large-Scale Assessments in the Time of Climate Crisis, the authors argue that in neoliberal cultures where the infinite expansion of the economy is deemed an uncontestable good, where nature is considered to be something apart from mankind, and where individualism is more important than working together for common goals, it is difficult to create a useful educational atmosphere for curriculum that will avert the worst of what lies ahead, and therefore a useful curriculum might need to “unteach” harmful concepts that limit the possibilities of needed change before new, sustainable approaches can be considered.

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Clearly, students in the US will need to understand the relevant science (climatic, ecological, environmental, and human behavior) regarding how the world’s climate and species are connected, and, therefore, how climate change will lead to increasingly horrific natural disasters and crises. They need to learn to expect huge waves of climate refugees fleeing flooded cities, drought and floods, and that those droughts, floods, and changes in temperature will decrease agricultural productivity, leading to occasional famine, adding to the waves of climate refugee migration. They need to understand how and why increased human migration is often met with violent reaction, especially as it strains resources, from fresh water to food, that may become increasingly scarce, possibly leading to war. Additionally, they will need to understand that, even if it’s possible to convince more people to be more compassionate towards those refugees, their huge numbers will create great challenges that children will need to be able to solve: where will these refugees live? How can they be fed?

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Related to this, children will need a thorough understanding of doughnut economics, a theory which details the survivable space between the planetary boundaries, such as the deadly hot-bulb heat and humidity combination on the outside of the “doughnut”, and the lack of social necessities on the inside, like access to healthy food and potable water, that permit a tolerable standard of living. They will need to understand the differences in how hard it is to reach those doughnut conditions for people at various levels of society in different countries, and that the greatest differences are between the “haves” in the global north and the “have-nots” in the global south, including differences of access to medicine, like vaccines against COVID. Some children here in the US are also vulnerable to the dangers of insufficient access to safe living conditions; they tend to be overwhelmingly children of color, and they already know what exposure to unhealthy environments is like. Children in more stable communities will need to understand concepts their peers of color may already know all too well: what are sufficient levels of food, water, shelter and energy as conditions evolve, and the likelihood that these resources will need to be rationed.

At the same time, we all need to develop our understanding of human dependency on all other species, flora and fauna, from the mycorrhizal fungi that connects plants underground to share nutrients, to the pollinators of the bird, insect and mammal varieties that plants need to continue their life cycles, to the dense plant life that influences weather and climate, to the wolves that can improve natural habitat in hard-to-intuit ways. We need to protect other species in order to make our children’s future habitable, and we need to make sure they know how to do the same.

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Native pollinators, by Annette Olson, CC-BY 4.0

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Today’s children, and those that follow them, will also need a sufficient knowledge of planet and human sciences to understand how to improve the likelihood of their future survival and to mitigate the worst possible conditions. For example, while changes in personal consumption of energy can make a significant difference in lowering greenhouse gas emissions if added globally, scientific consensus assures us that fossil fuel emissions must cease, or the conditions will become much worse, and there will be massive casualties – unless we make the changes we’re capable of while we still have time.

Finally, in order to understand the problem and facilitate change, our children need to know why these necessary changes are not already underway and that the clock is ticking. Any decision made in the next few years to decrease the most extreme consequences of global warming may take a few more years to have any effect, and climate scientists tell us we need to cut our emissions in half by 2030. The fact that (1) we need students to understand what global warming is and how to change it, but we do not have such a national curriculum in place, (2) it will take years to train teachers to finally teach students what they need to know, and then (3) students will need time to put their education to use means they won’t have much time to achieve what they must to increase their own survivability, even as we older generations tackle any and all parts that we can.

Therefore, kids will also need to understand what climate denialism is: arguments that climate change is not real, that it is not caused mainly by burning fossil fuels, and/or that it is not serious. Additionally, that for the most part denialists will not willingly cease operations, and they have spent huge sums in an attempt to obfuscate the truth. For some, profit is still driving drilling and refining oil, especially since governments like the U.S. are still subsidizing it, and coal production is increasing globally. But children must be taught how to fight these types of profit-driven behaviors that counter logic.

Related to this, teachers should show students that national governments have the power to force an end to continued fossil fuel extraction, refinement and distribution, and the children who have to live through the coming changes have a right to know what methods citizens have used historically to challenge government policies and how effective those challenges were. But just as important is teaching them about the shortcomings of our current representational politics:

Professors Martin Gilens (Princeton University) and Benjamin I. Page (Northwestern University) looked at more than 20 years worth of data to answer a simple question: Does the government represent the people?

Their study took data from nearly 2000 public opinion surveys and compared it to the policies that ended up becoming law. In other words, they compared what the public wanted to what the government actually did. What they found was extremely unsettling: The opinions of 90% of Americans have essentially no impact at all.

Children need to understand what kinds of activities have historically resulted in governments reluctantly doing what their citizens want them to do.

Therefore, at the most basic level, students need to learn logic. They need to learn the logic of systems ecology, of planning and prioritizing scientific results in order to take action, and especially of critical thinking. Additionally, they need to recognize the rhetorical fallacies that they will no doubt encounter, such as ad hominem, a response to an argument that attacks the source rather than the content of a statement, or “bandwagon,” the idea that if many or most people believe in an idea, it must be true.

They also need to learn how to work with humans to yield action, and to that end, they may need to understand human psychology. For instance, , they could learn the discipline of labor organizing, specifically, the strategy of “agitate, educate, organize.” Most people are so overworked and over-stressed that it is hard for them to find the motivation to work even more for change. Motivation can be created, though if people first become agitated about what is wrong with our current situation and why it’s unfair, then educated about how change can happen, despite various forms of resistance, and finally organized to take action. The action(s) themselves not only benefit the environment, but provide positive feedback that often can help alleviate climate anxiety.

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Children also need to learn hope. Climate change predictions can be terrifying and depressing, and, to the degree that young people are aware of them, they are often overwhelmed by them. A recent poll of young people, age 16-25, found that:

Respondents were worried about climate change (59% very or extremely worried, 84% at least moderately worried). Over 50% felt sad, anxious, angry, powerless, helpless, and guilty. Over 45% said their feelings about climate change negatively affected their daily life and functioning, and many reported a high number of negative thoughts about climate change.

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Therefore, we have to not only teach students what to expect and how to adapt in order to survive, we also have a responsibility to make sure they understand that the worst changes are not inevitable. Our teachers must strike a balance, showing clearly that the danger is quite serious, that some consequences are unavoidable, but others can be avoided if everyone acts as soon as possible. Our teachers will have to be brave to walk that line, to teach this narrow path without giving into despair themselves, but instead to show the possibilities and help all they teach to act for change.

The Curricula and Training the Teachers

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In order for students to acquire this kind of knowledge, the adults in charge of their education must not only have the knowledge and training necessary to prepare students for the challenges awaiting them, but they must also be aware of the necessity of that training and willing to deliver it. This, of course, requires that the universities that train teachers must be interested in providing appropriate postsecondary and graduate-level curriculum and training and for experts to develop high-quality teaching materials. It further requires the acceptance of K-12 grade materials by school boards and other state offices and/or a clear national standard for this training.

Unfortunately, the deck is currently stacked against teachers and children. There are sufficient educational materials from a variety of sources about the science behind global warming, what it is and what causes it, including how to test the natural systems near schools to allow students to see the damage that is evident every day. There are useful books, movies, and other materials created by scientists and educational experts for use in primary, secondary and post-secondary classrooms. We provide some examples at the end of this article.

From the Public Health Image Library from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), #gsRi9cWCIB0.

But getting the climate science curriculum into the classroom, especially into K-12 classrooms, is difficult. Regressive state standards, recalcitrant school boards, out-of-date or misleading textbooks, and ignorant or obstinate school faculty can block effective curricular change. Consider:

In 2016, a committee of parents, teachers, students, and activists in Portland reviewed 13 textbooks and found none of them to be adequate. Many included some information about climate change, but framed all consequences as conditional (“global temperatures ‘may be affected’”), and therefore subject to doubt, and too many avoided the subject completely.

A 2020 review of 32 textbooks used in California, Texas, Oklahoma, and Florida discovered textbooks that misled about the causes of global warming and that suggested the topic was controversial.

Textbook publishers defend their texts by saying they reflect state standards, and often that they have better coverage in new textbooks that will be published “soon”.

  • Although new standards developed in 2013 by stakeholder committees, often led by state delegates, mandate essential coverage of global warming, not enough states have adopted them. Ten states in the US have not updated their science standards to reflect the dangers of climate change at all.
  • School boards blocked necessary pedagogical reform using various aspects of climate change denialism in Pennsylvania and Los Alamitos.
  • Available textbooks either treat the subject too lightly, not revealing its seriousness, or deliver mixed messages about whether global warming is actually taking place, what’s causing it, and what our response should be.
  • Most teacher colleges don’t offer or require future educators to take courses on climate science or on the kinds of pedagogical approaches that will train students to become critical observers of rhetoric, culture, the media and government, and to become active participants in efforts to avert the worst of the coming calamities.

Even when the curriculum gets into the classroom, the results have been mixed. For instance, individual faculty members may undermine lessons in their classrooms out of ignorance or politically inspired opposition. Additionally, according to the report “Roadblocks to quality education in a time of climate change” from the Center for Universal Education at Brookings,

“At a micro level, school leadership may recognize the magnitude of the issue, but because taking action (e.g., condoning student participation in climate strikes) would likely run counter to existing policies (e.g., violating school attendance policies) or jeopardize assessment outcomes (e.g., lost instructional time), no action for climate is often the result. At the meso level, where there have been collective efforts by NGOs and social justice campaigns to move the education sector to action, most efforts have been either at a scale too small to change the system meaningfully, or at a large enough scale but with through action too low-impact to make a difference.

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At a macro level, leadership has failed to translate high-level working groups, agenda-setting declarations and commitments, and splashy logo-filled websites into meaningful action for the environment. Scholars have critiqued UNESCO’s leadership of the education sector as turning a robust field of environmental education into a 21st century simulacrum of education for sustainable development (ESD) detached from reality—or more precisely, untethered to the planet.”

Teachers and students need to be aware of the shortcomings of these efforts in order to avoid them. Additionally, federal requirements to “teach to the test” eat up time training students to master skills that, while potentially useful for service-industry jobs are harmful; they do nothing to increase the likelihood that students will be able to either divert the course of their future away from disaster or adapt to survive it.

When you add them up, these obstacles can seem insurmountable. But humans, along with most other higher-order animals on the planet, have an instinctive tendency to go to extreme lengths to protect their children. We’ve been slow to move in this case for understandable reasons, from the lack of obvious immediacy (It’s freezing out today; how can the planet be warming?), to the lies and distractions from those in power. But as our awareness grows, so does our sense that we have to do something and that we must do it now.

What to do?

The responsibility to increase the likelihood that our children can survive and hopefully live full, meaningful lives falls to concerned citizens and their children, who need to determine which of these obstacles to confront and then take action. Most people were never taught how to challenge the status quo, and there has rarely been any cultural expectation that they should try. But how, and what are we supposed to do?

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The main roadblocks to implementing or improving K-12 green curriculum seem to be: 1) getting the universities to prepare future teachers; 2) getting states to change their education standards; and 3) getting local teachers and administrators on board. Regarding your local universities, find out if they include education departments, the department that teaches teachers. If they do, what sort of training are they providing for future teachers? If that’s good, check it off your list. If not, you can write to your state representative and/or a local paper, explaining why we need teachers trained in climate change curriculum in our schools to prepare our children. You should talk also to the education deans about your concerns and the university’s community liaisons, if available. If those steps don’t work, you can organize a protest at the university, demanding that they add such classes and make them mandatory.

You could try a similar approach, writing to your state representatives and your local paper, about changing state education standards. Another tool you have for that goal is the referendum: Instead of voting for candidates that will write the kind of legislation you want, get a referendum on the ballot in favor of changing the state standards to include a green curriculum.

Contact your principal and teachers at your local K-12 school district first, but if the administration and faculty resist teaching climate change, again, write to your local paper and attend school board meetings to let them know how important this is to you. If possible, don’t go alone; bring your friends!

In addition to advocating green curriculum, we can also attempt to change US policy towards a national green curriculum by contacting our reps, either directly or through open letters written to national publications. We can vote for candidates who seem like they’re sincere in wanting to mitigate climate change as quickly as possible, or we can promote and support referendums that directly call for the policies we need, although they’re much more likely to get on ballots for municipal, county and state election ballots than federal ones. And we can promote, support and attend protests against continued pollution.

Portland’s Vision 2030 Program

All of this takes time, most of it will require follow-up. If you’re like most Americans, you’re overworked, stressed out and exhausted. You have little free time and little energy. However, this problem, our warming world, isn’t going away. And we do live in a time of increasingly common progressive protests and strikes, of meeting with and voting for government representatives who demonstrate concern about our children’s climate future, as well as for referendums demanding the policy changes we want to see. We have more recent examples of ordinary people taking successful action to create necessary change than we have had in a long time (See https://www.forourkids.ca/about and Portland’shttps://wearesage.org/vision2030/ program – see the document above about their activities for 2020-2021). It won’t be easy to give students what they need to alter their futures and adapt to the changes that are or will be locked in, but we’re in a period of upheaval that creates new, hopeful possibilities. Let’s add to those possibilities by doing everything we can to make sure students get the climate education they need.

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Climate Change Educational Resources

2 thoughts on “A Greenish Curriculum: Desperate Need vs a Stacked Deck

  1. I love how detailed this article is & y’all realizing that it’s difficult when people are confused, stressed, tired, et al.
    My belief is that if we can implement animal/civil/environmental/human civil rights globally we’d make more headway as all things are connected.
    It’s very discouraging when trying to encourage collaboration, conversation, ideas to get things happening I may get some”likes” but no dialogue.
    Am so in favor of environmental education starting from the beginning for little ones & reinforced Kindergarten through graduation from whatever level (high school, college, university) as well as the media if it weren’t so politically, corporately controlled.
    Will be trying to save this for future reference. Thank you for the info.

  2. You’re so welcome, Cooki! Actually, Annette Olson, the editor and a friend of mine, gets a fair amount of the credit for the hopefulness in the article. I was angry and upset as I was writing and wanted the article to be shocking. She reigned me in a bit.

    I hope you’re right about increasing the legal coverage for the rights of animals, rivers, mountains, etc.

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