Climate education is urgent. Simply put, the climate crisis threatens life on Earth. In the ground-breaking curriculum guide A People’s Curriculum for the Earth, Bill Bigelow, co-director of the Zinn Education Project writes, “The destruction of cultures, species, and the lives of millions of people around the world are at stake, not just for those who are alive now, but for all who are yet to be born.” This is a difficult time to be alive, and this is a challenging Earth Day to celebrate.
The burden falls more heavily on each successive generation—as hard as it is for us to act, it will be even harder for our children and our children’s children. Yet many people worry that young people are not able to engage in this complex issue at all until they are already in high school. While they believe in providing early education in science concepts that are foundational to the climate system—like the water cycle, weather, and light—they withhold climate education from students in elementary and middle schools. It is an understandable attempt to protect young people from the stress and strain of a changing climate, but it fails to prepare them for the significant and increasing challenges to come.
Other people, and even the climate movement itself, have placed excessive faith in the power of children to solve the climate crisis for us. They believe that through their energy and innocence alone, young people can single-handedly reverse centuries of ecological damage from deforestation and the burning of fossil fuels. But our children are not magical—they cannot solve the world’s big problems on their own any more than we could when we were their age. We cannot expect them to do more than we did as kids, and yet more must be done.
Climate education is the key to protecting and preparing young people to live in an unstable climate. It will take an intergenerational partnership to address this pressing issue—one in which we begin to educate young people on the climate well before high school as we support them, listen to them, and act with them. In the years and decades and even centuries to come, we will endeavor to “play” climate with our children and with each other. As we teach our children about Earth’s delicate life-systems, we will learn as well, and as we help them to change and grow in their understanding, our understandings will also change and grow. It will be one of the most important games the human race has ever played, and elementary and middle school students have a crucial part to play.
It is true that climate science can be challenging for young students because of its abstract nature. Like wind, the energy that drives climate change can be felt but not seen, and younger children often struggle to understand phenomena that are invisible. However, there are a variety of tried-and-true educational approaches that can be harnessed to appropriately teach climate literacy at an early age, helping them and us build critical foundational knowledge to make climate-positive choices that address this global crisis and begin to secure a livable future.
Children learn best through wholistic study
At many schools, teachers limit their climate education to one or two special projects. They have trouble fitting climate education into the prescribed curriculum. This is because educators and the public often limit their thinking on climate education to science classes where students learn about the carbon cycle, the greenhouse effect, and global warming. This seriously limits the impact of climate education. At Lowell, we use a variety of content areas to strengthen students’ climate literacy. The 6th-grade integrated social studies, language arts, and science classes devote an entire school year to the study of climate change, its impact on people around the world, and the many, varied responses to the climate change challenge.
This points to one of the most important aspects of successful climate education: it is interdisciplinary. Climate literacy requires a strong foundation in life, physical, and earth sciences. It also requires a deep understanding of economics, civics, geography, and history. Contributing to the larger social conversation on climate change requires skills in reading, writing, speaking, listening, argumentation, philosophy, ethics, and art. Every part of life on Earth is inextricably linked to the Earth’s climate system, and so every mental tool and academic area has a role to play in understanding the climate crisis and taking bold action to address it.
For example, when Lowell 6th graders study fossil fuels and the industrial revolution, they explore the chemical process whereby the energy of surplus carbon chains is stored under the earth in fossil fuels and how humans harnessed that energy to power simple machines. Sometimes their social studies classroom looks more like science class. On the other hand, when science teachers analyze the change in government-supported climate websites like NASA and NOAA from one administration to the next, science class can seem more like social studies.
The more connected the learning is across a student’s day, the deeper and more meaningful the experience will be. It’s an optimal way to engage and motivate young people to learn the traditional school skills like math and reading so that they can be put to good use understanding and addressing a real-world problem. And, while we know that the climate crisis will require focused attention for generations to come, the skills students learn through an interdisciplinary study of climate can be applied more broadly to any issue they choose to take up later in life.
Children understand stories
Climate literacy is not just a knowledge of facts and figures, and it is not just an abstract understanding of scientific principles. It is an understanding of how people impact the climate and how climate impacts people. This understanding can be effectively conveyed through stories.
Climate stories are some of the most diverse and inclusive stories available. Around the world and in the United States people of all ages, races, and backgrounds are sharing their climate stories and uniting their voices to protect Earth’s climate. Lowell’s 6th graders study the stories of contemporary young activists, including Isra Hirsi, a 16-year-old Black Muslim American, who is the co-founder and co-executive of the US Youth Climate Strike, and Xiuhtezcatl Martinez, a 19-year-old hip hop artist who first started speaking on climate when he was just 6 years old. Fourth and 5th graders are big fans of the new biography Greta’s Story: The School Girl Who Went on Strike to Save the Planet. The 3rd graders rave about the picture book version of The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind, and our 2nd graders love The Lorax. Even the scientific processes themselves can be made clearer through story and illustration, as exemplified in Molly Bang and Peggy Chisholm’s Buried Sunlight. These are typical of the stories that we feature for elementary and middle school students—stories of agency and empowerment, stories of action and hope.
Studying climate stories helps children practice a host of important social and emotional skills. Climate stories promote empathy and perspective taking, and help students see the cause and effect connection between the choice to burn fossil fuels and real people’s struggles with sea-level rise, drought, and extreme weather. The stories promote critical thinking, as students consider who is harmed and who benefits from the burning of fossil fuels.
Climate change is an issue that affects everyone, but it does not affect everyone equally, and so it is a great lens through which we can reflect on our values of diversity, equity, inclusion, and justice. Individuals and groups with less social power because of racial bias and economic disadvantages have fewer resources for dealing with climate crises. Ironically, they are also the least responsible for the carbon emissions that are driving extreme weather, as they consume less than people with wealth and privilege do. They drive less, fly less, shop less, and use less energy in their homes. How should society address these disparities? What individual actions can we take in our lives and our communities to promote the well-being of the most vulnerable members of the human family?
In her book, This Changes Everything, Naomi Klein says that “we need to plan and manage our societies to reflect our goals and values.” Reading and studying real climate stories helps students recognize the costs of continuing to burn fossil fuels. They learn that diversity, equity, inclusion, and justice are integral to addressing climate change.
Children love interacting with technology
Recent advances in digital technology have opened new opportunities for early climate education. For example, through our partnership with Mobile Climate Science Labs, Lowell School has access to long-wave and short-wave infrared cameras that allow students to see the infrared that exists around them which is invisible to the naked eye.
This infrared light is commonly described as warmth or heat, because humans sense infrared by touch rather than by sight. By interacting with the cameras, young children learn that the heat we feel from each other and from objects in our environment is actually infrared light. This is a critical understanding in climate literacy, since carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases in the atmosphere trap much of the infrared light that we generate on the Earth, energizing the Earth’s climate system.
The cameras are also helpful in promoting energy efficiency. To the human eye, incandescent, high-pressure sodium, high-efficiency fluorescent, and LED light bulbs seem to emit about the same amount of light. It can be hard for children to understand why high-pressure sodium and incandescents use two or three times as much energy as fluorescents and LEDs, because they can’t see the wasted energy. When the infrared cameras are on, the students can immediately tell which bulbs are efficient and which are wasting energy by emitting invisible infrared light. The additional infrared light from incandescent light bulbs pulls energy from the grid, but doesn’t help us see better at all.
With these cameras in hand, 7th graders have identified which lights at Lowell have already been upgraded and which need to be put on a replacement schedule. On a field trip to the National Art Gallery, students also audited the museum’s lighting system and were proud to realize that Lowell is ahead in its commitment to energy efficiency.
We cannot be silent on climate
No matter how carefully we protect our children, climate anxiety is pervasive in our society. Even if we are able to avoid discussing it in our homes or teaching it in our schools, children will overhear snatches of news and catch the ominous mood from classmates, neighbors, or media. And there is so much climate news to worry about! As our climate system becomes more energized, extreme weather is becoming more frequent and more damaging. In 2019, the California wildfires, midwestern and southern flooding, and Hurricane Dorian caused almost $50 billion in damage combined. So did flooding and typhoon events in China, India, and Japan. This was far outstripped by the approximately $100 billion in damage caused by the Australian wildfires.
While we want to protect our children from the strain of this overwhelming news, it’s important that we give them the basic knowledge and foundational tools in climate literacy that are appropriate for their age and stage in life. This can help them handle the worry and anxiety that they naturally feel when climate disasters are in the news, and it can help them take appropriate action individually and organize with others collectively to begin to address the root causes of the crisis.
Teachers, parents, and students all agree that climate literacy is important. In an April 2019 poll, NPR found that more than 80% of parents across the United States supported teaching about climate change in schools, and 86% percent of teachers believed that they should be teaching it.
According to a paper published in 2019 in Nature Climate Change, children who are educated on the issue of climate change are very likely to raise their parents’ climate awareness. Climate-educated children have the power to question those things which we take for granted, and they can make us reconsider our decisions to power our homes with fossil fuels, fly across the US or around the world on a family vacation, and drive gas-powered vehicles.
In the 21st century, climate education is as important for students as literacy and numeracy skills—students need a deep understanding of the Earth’s climate system, the processes of climate change, the impact it has on individuals and society, and climate-positive ways of living and working in this new era. Through an intergenerational effort, we can begin to understand and mitigate the worst effects of climate change in our world.
Bigelow, B., & Swinehart, T. (2015). A peoples curriculum for the Earth: teaching climate change and the environmental crisis. Milwaukee, WI: Rethinking Schools.
Klein, N. (2015). This changes everything: capitalism vs. the climate. London: Penguin Books.
Lawson, D.F., Stevenson, K.T., Peterson, M.N. et al. Children can foster climate change concern among their parents. Nat. Clim. Chang. 9, 458–462 (2019). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41558-019-0463-3
9 Youth Climate Activists to Follow on Social Media
Jerome Foster II—USA: Follow Jerome on Twitter @jeromefosterii
Leah Namerwa—Uganda: Follow Leah on Twitter @NamugerwaLeah
Eval Weintraub—Argentina: Follow Eyal on Instagram @eyalwein
Lilly Platt—The Netherlands: Follow Lilly on Twitter @lillyspickup