Climate Education in the U.S.: Where It Stands, and Why It Matters
Young people across the globe are concerned about climate change. A Lancet study surveying 10,000 young people ages 16 to 25 in 10 countries found that more than half felt sadness, anxiety, anger, and guilt about climate change. They are seeing the impacts of a warming planet in the news and in their own communities, but many feel helpless and powerless. The young want solutions—they want to know what they can do about climate change.
In 2021, at COP26 in Glasgow, the ministers of education and environment committed to including climate change education in all educational institutions, recognizing “the large remaining gaps in providing everyone with knowledge, skills, values and attitudes needed to effectively participate in the transition towards climate positive societies.” However, the same year, a UNESCO study of almost 50 countries revealed that less than half made any mention of climate change in their educational policies. Moreover, only 21 percent of the new or updated plans submitted by 95 countries as their Paris Agreement goals mentioned climate change education; none of them presented it as a climate strategy.
“The time is now to include climate education as a key climate risk mitigation strategy — along with energy transformation, land uses and water — and to make climate education a mandatory part of the national curriculum,” according to Radhika Iyengar, director of the education sector at Columbia Climate School’s Center for Sustainable Development.
In fact, a 2020 study found that if 16 percent of secondary school (equivalent to middle and high school) students around the world in middle and high income countries studied climate change, it would result in cutting almost 19 gigatons of CO2 by 2050. This is because educated youth would develop personal connections to climate change solutions, and change their behaviors accordingly throughout their lives. Climate education was shown to potentially be a more effective way to reduce emissions than many other single solutions.
The need for climate education in the U.S.
Young people recognize that climate change is going to shape their futures—where they live, the work they will do, and their quality of life. They need climate education in order to develop green skills, adapt to the harsh reality of a warming world, and understand how to combat climate change. But they need to learn the basics of climate change before they can do anything about it.
In the U.S., more than 86 percent of teachers and 84 percent of parents support climate change education in schools. Progress is being made in some states, but on the whole students are not learning enough about climate science quickly enough to give them the knowledge and tools they will need to cope with the impacts of climate change.
“The education system is failing the students when it comes to climate change or climate education in the formal curriculum,” said Iyengar. “We really need to pick up speed because otherwise we will have a whole generation of students who will graduate with this climate anxiety and will not know what to do because they have not been prepared by our education systems.”
Science standards in the U.S.
At the start of this year, two measures that would have supported climate change education died in Congress. There is still no national consensus about the importance of climate education, and the U.S. does not have national science standards. Each state determines what its schools teach and this can vary greatly. A public school’s curriculum must follow state education guidelines which dictate what a student should know at the end of a grade or subject. How and what they are taught to get there is up to the individual school districts and teachers.
An early effort to establish science standards in 1996 was largely ignored by states. But in 2013, the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) were developed by the National Research Council, National Science Teachers Association, American Association for the Advancement of Science, the nonprofit Achieve and over 24 states. They recommended that man-made climate change be taught beginning in fifth grade and incorporated into all science classes. However, the standards are voluntary. Forty-four states use the NGSS or have crafted standards based on them; the rest developed their own science standards.
Seven years after the NGSS were introduced, the National Center for Science Education and the Texas Freedom Network Education Fund graded the states’ climate education. Twenty-seven states, including 20 states and the District of Columbia that adopted the NGSS, scored B+ or better. Of the rest, 20 got a C+ or lower, with 10 of them scoring a D. Alabama, Georgia, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Texas, and Virginia received Fs.
While one study from the National Center for Science Education found that 75 percent of public school science teachers do cover climate change, another 2016 survey of 1,500 middle and high school teachers found that they only devoted one or two hours to climate change during the entire academic year.
Progress in U.S. climate education
There are, however, two examples of leadership in climate education: New Jersey and Connecticut.
In 2020, New Jersey became the first state to mandate the teaching of climate change in all subjects beginning in kindergarten. The state budget includes $5 million for grants that will fund technical assistance, professional development for teachers, lesson plans, and evaluation strategies.
New Jersey schools are required to teach climate change across all subjects, including visual and performing arts, health and physical education, science, social studies, world languages, computer science, and key skills. Here’s what that can look like. Kindergarten through second graders can explore artwork responding to climate change from different perspectives. Grades three to five science classes may teach how energy and fuel are derived from natural resources and their impacts on the environment. Middle school students compare the environmental effects of different technologies that tackle climate change issues and evaluate them in computer science class. High school students collaborate with students from other countries in social studies class to develop solutions to environmental justice issues.
The ambition is commendable. However, the reality is that climate education cannot be taught equally effectively throughout the state. In poorer districts, schools may lack the resources to implement the program; these are often communities of color that are most vulnerable to climate impacts.
“I think they are doing their best,” said Iyengar who is a New Jersey resident. “But probably we should have been doing this two decades back.”
In 2022, Connecticut passed a law requiring public schools to incorporate lessons on human caused climate change into their science curriculum in line with the NGSS beginning this July. Ninety percent of the state’s schools already teach climate change, but the new law ensures that climate education will not be subject to political or budget changes. Students will learn about man-made climate change, its impacts on various communities, and potential solutions. Fifth, eighth and 11th graders will be tested on their understanding of climate change.
Oregon educators have drafted a bill that would require climate education across all subjects in grades K through 12. They are currently seeking support for it.
Massachusetts, a science and biotech center, ranked very low in a study of climate change curriculum policy. The state’s science framework does mention climate change, but not what districts must teach, and climate change is not included in the state’s elementary learning standards. Students may learn about weather, but not necessarily how it relates to climate change. There are outside efforts to expand climate education, however, such as Change is Simple, a nonprofit based in Beverly, MA, that provides climate change and sustainability programs to elementary and middle schools.
“The current state of climate education in the U.S. is fast evolving, and actually it’s very promising,” said Iyengar. ”It’s fast evolving at the policy level, but the current practice of climate education in the schools has yet to see the light. It is a slow and evolving process.”
What is slowing progress?
A 2021 report found that 78 percent of registered voters support climate education, including liberal to conservative Democrats, Independents, moderate Republicans, and even 46 percent of conservative Republicans. But while most blue states have good climate education standards, the quality of climate education in red states varies.
The Republican party platform in Oklahoma, a top natural gas–producing state, where 43 percent of Republicans support climate education, reads: “We oppose the teaching of the theory of anthropogenic global warming without providing equal time for instruction in the complex systems of geo-physics [sic] that cause observable climate change, such as solar variations, plate tectonics, and volcanic eruptions.” It does not mention that 99.9 percent of scientists are in agreement that human activity is warming the planet. While state boards of education and school superintendents are not bound by party platforms, it may be difficult for them to avoid political influence.
Other red states undermine climate education by ignoring it or sowing doubt about the scientific consensus. In Florida, the term “climate change” is absent from the education standards for elementary and middle school, which haven’t been updated since 2008. South Dakota introduced legislation calling for the “balanced teaching of global warming.” And Kentucky introduced a bill that encourages teachers to teach “the advantages and disadvantages of scientific theories,” such as global warming. In 2009, the Texas Board of Education said that teachers must present both sides—the impacts of human activity and natural causes—when discussing global warming. Many teachers recognize that climate change is a political issue, so teaching “both sides” of the issue is a way to avoid controversy.
The 2016 study found that 30 percent of teachers taught that recent changes in climate were due to natural causes, with 12 percent not emphasizing human causes at all. Data shows that what teachers understand about the scientific consensus on climate change largely aligns with their political ideology.
Because climate change has been politicized, textbook publishers often use ambiguous language that avoids controversy to secure approval for their books by the boards of education of the large markets. Texas, the top oil- and natural gas–producing state in the nation, is also the largest market for science textbooks for K-12 and has its own science standards.
A recent study of 57 college biology textbooks published between 1970 and 2019 found that in the 2010s, coverage of climate change decreased. The high point was an average of 52 sentences about climate change in the 2000s, but it dropped to 45 sentences in the 2010s. Moreover, solutions to climate change, which had comprised 15 percent of the climate content in the 1990s, fell to three percent. Information about climate change was also left to the last two percent of the text, making the topic easier to shortchange if teachers run out of time.
Fossil fuel educational resources
The fossil fuel industry directly provides educational resources. “There’s been a multibillion-dollar campaign [by the fossil fuel industry] to make the American public doubt climate change, and some of it has been specifically targeted at children,” according to Katie Worth, author of Miseducation: How Climate Change is Taught in America. This takes the form of fossil fuel– friendly educational lessons created by the fossil fuel industry, as well as professional development seminars for teachers. Worth found educational programs funded by the fossil fuel industry in 25 states. For example, the Oklahoma Energy Resources Board was found to have spent almost $40 million on pro-fossil fuel industry educational materials over the past 20 years. Pro-fossil fuel programs promote the idea that energy regulation will hurt the free market and that renewable energy is unreliable.
In one Arkansas classroom, a visiting oil and gas industry representative from Arkansas Energy Rocks told students about problems with renewable energy, how access to reliable electricity could be a matter of life and death, and that if the U.S. shut down all fossil fuel use tomorrow, it would make a minuscule dent in global warming. Arkansas Energy Rocks provides classroom speakers, K-12 lessons, and free summer workshops for teachers.
The need for professional development
Fossil fuel industry-sponsored professional development workshops for teachers are insidious because many teachers feel they themselves don’t know enough about climate change to teach it. Even schools where there are climate education standards may fall short because their teachers need more training.
The executive director of the Smithsonian Science Education Center said that teachers need better training, complete guidelines, and instructional materials to teach climate change. Teachers themselves recognize this. One survey reported that the two biggest things teachers said they wanted to address climate change more effectively was information about what to do and the resources to do it.
Responding to the need for more professional development, many organizations are providing resources. To name a few, Subject to Climate, staffed by teachers, scientists and climate activists, provides lesson plans that integrate climate change for K-12 in all subjects. Clime Time offers science teacher training, linking NGSS with climate science. Globe.gov, an international science and education program, offers hands-on interdisciplinary activities and inquiries into various Earth systems. Teachers can access educational resources focused on K-12 students, including Earth science storybooks, lesson plans, and activities for children of all ages.
The NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies, which works closely with the Columbia Climate School, offers the NASA Climate Change Research Initiative for teachers and graduate students. It is a year-long opportunity to work directly with NASA scientists and lead research teams on a NASA research project related to climate change. Matthew Pearce, NASA education program specialist, said, “The teacher has to be teaching a course that is relevant to the project, and has to have subject matter competence in that field. And what we try to do is align the teacher’s experience in this program with their immediate regular school needs.” In the summer, a high school and undergrad intern are added to the project team. Teachers are then challenged to translate a component of their NASA research topic and experience leading the research teams into a unit plan to implement in their classrooms, and to integrate NASA‘s many educational resources into that plan while performing community STEM engagement events.
Approximately 160 teachers, graduate students, and interns have gone through the program, which takes place at NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies in New York City or NASA Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, MD. “The teachers that come through this program end up being very substantial ambassadors for us going forward,” said Pearce. One such example is Sarah Slack, an eighth grade science teacher in Brooklyn, who is teaching hands-on climate science with the help of NASA’s resources—innumerable tools, platforms, programs, and teams NASA offers for teachers.Many of the teachers have also been successful in publishing their work through NASA and other scientific journals. Pearce said the goal is also to “Try to create strong pipelines and STEM ecosystems for their students and communities to apply to our internship program or engage with our other education and citizen science programs, such as NASA’s Science Activation Program.” The Science Activation Program puts together teams from across the nation to engage learners with NASA teams, science experts, andcommunity leaders on a variety of science projects.
“I feel very positive about climate education,” said Pearce. “The teachers I’ve worked with are deeply impassioned to learn more and share that with their students, and try to be part of the solution. I see students in elementary school, teachers, and community members really learning to contribute and really yearning to make a difference.”
The Columbia Climate School offers free climate and sustainability webinars for K-12 students, educators, and the general public. These Climate Live K12 webinars are monthly one-hour videos featuring experts from the Columbia Climate School, and are geared towards students in grades 3 to 5, grades 6 to 8, and grades 9 to 12. In addition, educational resources for teachers are provided. The videos are accessible on the Climate School’s Youtube channel. The Columbia Climate School also offers educator training on single environmental topics and Saturday workshops for educators.
“The goal is to help teachers gain knowledge for themselves as educators, and as lifelong learners, and then to implement it in their curriculum, even if the standards aren’t requiring them to teach climate change,” said Laurel Zaima-Sheehy, program manager of all the K12 and continuing education programs at the Columbia Climate School.
Beyond just the facts
Young people have many feelings and emotions about climate change; these often stem from their connections to and feelings for nature. Teachers need to acknowledge this.
“The element of caring for each other and caring for the planet needs to be integrated [into climate education],” said Iyengar. “If you’re not emotionally connected with your environment, it’s very difficult to save it.“ And what helps students deal with their feelings are solutions, so teachers need to offer opportunities for collective action and problem solving.
Iyengar believes social emotional learning is key. Social emotional learning refers to the skills people need to be successful in life, such as self-awareness, goal setting, managing emotions, cultivating empathy, social awareness, relationship skills, problem-solving, and making good decisions. In climate education, incorporating social emotional learning might include recognizing that humans are part of the web of life, promoting understanding of environmental justice issues, fostering collaborative problem solving to help develop solution, and also introducing a spiritual connection with nature.
How to advance climate education
Parents and students do not need to feel helpless about the state of climate education in their communities because there are actions they can take. Concerned parents can talk about the need for climate education with other parents and identify like-minded people with which to join forces. Parents and communities should also support teachers who want to teach climate change, but face political pressure.
Local school boards have the power to shape the curriculum, so parents and students can attend school board meetings to push their school districts to adopt science standards that incorporate climate change. They can also request meetings with the principal of the school or individual school board members.
“Students have a lot of power,” said Iyengar. “There’s a lot of advocacy and community mobilization to be done. Students can be a big part of raising these issues. They can form collectives and ask the Republican or Democratic candidates running for election what their climate agenda is and hold them accountable.” Everyone can write to their representatives in Congress and urge them to mandate climate education.
“There is a lot that can be done at a big scale, at a small scale in your own classroom, and in your own homes—climate education is not only what we do in the classrooms,” said Iyengar. “I think we need to be looking at it much more comprehensively. We are all in this together.”
From February 23 to 25, the Center for Sustainable Development at the Columbia Climate School and the Sustainable Development Solutions Network USA will host the online the US Summit on Transformative Education 2023. The Summit will bring together organizations, state departments of education, academics, teachers, schools, school principals, university leaders, the private sector, and youth to share ideas and best practices, and discuss and showcase research, case studies, and more about transforming education, including climate change education. It is open to all.