‘This Is the Existential Crisis’: A Push for Climate Change Education

Some states are looking to create standards for the classroom.

Students explore the landscape during a student climate change summit at Joshua Tree National Park in California. In several states, policymakers are considering proposals to require climate change education at all grade levels. (Joshua Tree National Park/Flickr)

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When wildfires and smoke swept through Oregon in 2020, Lyra Johnson’s family made plans to evacuate their home near Portland. Johnson, then 14, was told she might have to quickly learn to drive — despite not having a license — in order to get her grandmother to safety.

Thankfully, the danger passed before Johnson was forced to take the wheel, but she came face-to-face with the realities of climate change. Johnson, now 17 and a senior at Lake Oswego High School, was among the student leaders who urged Oregon lawmakers this year to require climate change education across all grade levels in Oregon schools.

“It’s really important to integrate that when you’re young, so you have that knowledge and feel like you can make a difference, rather than having it thrown on you and feel like the world’s ending,” she said.

Johnson serves as president of her school’s Green Team, a student sustainability group, and helped establish a composting program this year to reduce waste.

“It gave me a lot of hope, and it’s important to let students have that kind of hands-on experience,” she said. “When you’re actually doing something and seeing progress, it can diminish a lot of that anxiety. Kids should be able to have that experience wherever they are.”

The Oregon bill did not advance this session, but New Jersey last school year became the first state to incorporate climate change lessons into its education standards for kindergarten through 12th grade. Connecticut will be the second state to do so, starting next month.

Several other states are considering similar measures, while some have provided funding for climate learning opportunities. Most states have adopted standards that include climate change, but education experts say the subject is taught spottily and is usually limited to science classes. Some educators say there’s growing recognition that climate change demands a more comprehensive approach.

“Today’s students are tomorrow’s consumers, workers and voters,” said Glenn Branch, deputy director of the National Center for Science Education, an Oakland, California-based nonprofit. “Increasingly, they’re going to be faced with the need to make decisions about issues related to climate change.”

Efforts to require climate change learning have mostly been proposed in progressive-leaning states. Some observers have questioned whether efforts to set learning standards via legislation could clash with the typical multiyear process overseen by state boards of education.

Meanwhile, leaders in some conservative states say mainstream climate science is an attack on the fossil fuel industry, and some are pushing schools to teach “both sides.”

“What I think is controversial is different views that exist out there about the extent of the climate change and the solutions to try to alter climate change,” Ohio state Rep. Jerry Cirino, a Republican, told Energy News Network.

The Oregon bill Johnson and others supported would have directed school districts to teach climate change with a focus on local impacts and solutions. Backers said lawmakers were generally supportive but wanted to see a more specific plan with guidance and resources to help schools to meet the new directive. The bill did not get a vote in committee, but supporters hope a new draft will pass in the next legislative session.

Breck Foster, one of Johnson’s teachers, serves as a board member for Oregon Green Schools, a nonprofit focused on climate education and sustainability. She’s found ways to incorporate climate learning into her social studies and Spanish classes.

“Kids understand the gloom and doom, and there’s a lot of fatalism in their comments, but they don’t have a lot of the facts,” said Foster, who also serves on the steering committee of Oregon Educators for Climate Education, a group that pushed for the bill. “It was very enlightening to them to connect it to the idea of policies that are being implemented and goals that are being set.”

New Jersey goes first

New Jersey first lady Tammy Murphy led the push for the state’s new standards, which were adopted in 2020 by the state Board of Education. She said kids already see the effects of climate change, citing the wildfires in Canada earlier this month that blanketed the Northeast in smoke.

“Our children are seeing this as much as we are,” she said in an interview with Stateline. “To put our heads in the sand and pretend that the sky is not orange — they understand that.”

New Jersey requires schools to incorporate climate change lessons into almost all subject areas, not just science class, because “students have different ways of learning and every student has a favorite class,” Murphy said.

To help schools meet the new guidelines, the state has created lesson plans and professional development for teachers, and is offering millions of dollars in grants to support hands-on learning. The state established those resources in partnership with groups such as Sustainable Jersey, a nonprofit network that certifies municipalities and schools on sustainability standards.

Those tools, said Randall Solomon, Sustainable Jersey’s executive director, were just as important as the standards themselves.

“You can’t just wave a magic wand and expect 150,000 teachers and 2,500 schools to coordinate to teach climate change,” he said. “To really enable them to do it well requires the development of resources and tools, training and a way to track progress.”

Next month, Connecticut schools also will be required to teach climate change to all grade levels, following the enactment of a state law last legislative session.

“Every single kid I talk to and work with, this is what’s No. 1 on their minds, this is the existential crisis of their lifetimes,” said state Rep. Christine Palm, a Democrat who sponsored the measure, which was tucked into a larger budget bill.

Including solutions

Several other states, including California, Massachusetts and New York, are considering bills that would require more climate change learning in public schools.

“This is a very important topic, and I want to make sure this is happening throughout the state and not only in some regions,” said Massachusetts state Rep. Danillo Sena, a Democrat who has sponsored a bill to include climate change in state learning standards.

Sena said he is hopeful that the bill will receive a hearing this year.

Other states, including Maine and Washington, have provided funding to support professional development and training opportunities for educators on climate issues.

The Center for Green Schools, a project of the nonprofit U.S. Green Building Council that
promotes and certifies sustainable buildings, released a report last week on the importance of climate change education.

Anisa Heming, the center’s director, noted that many youth leaders have become powerful advocates on climate change, and many of today’s students will need to fill jobs in emerging fields such as clean energy.

“Kids have a tendency to disengage if they don’t have a sense that there are solutions, that they have some power in the situation and the adults around them are acting,” she said. “We have to arm them with the solutions, and then we have to act ourselves so they can see that those solutions are serious.”

Climate skeptics

Leaders in some states, though, want to push climate change education in another direction. Cirino, the Ohio lawmaker, has proposed a bill that would “allow and encourage students to reach their own conclusions” on issues like climate change.

Cirino did not respond to a Stateline request for comment.

And in Texas, the state Board of Education directed schools earlier this year to provide textbooks that portray “positive” aspects of fossil fuels and suggest rising temperatures are caused by natural cycles, Scientific American reported. Board member Patricia Hardy, who drafted the rules, told the publication that fossil fuels help fund Texas schools and said teachers shouldn’t “just be presenting one side.”

Hardy did not respond to a request for comment.

Twenty states follow Next Generation Science Standards developed by a consortium of states and education groups, which do address climate change, most often in science classes. Another 24 states have enacted similar standards of their own. But the six outlier states include Florida and Texas, with massive amounts of students.

Branch, with the science education group, said the standards are taught inconsistently, often because teachers themselves have not had courses on climate change. That leaves most students well short of the comprehensive climate change education now required in New Jersey.

Leaders in New Jersey say their first school year under the new requirements has been a success, though some teachers aren’t yet totally comfortable. They hope the state’s standards, along with the resources it’s drafted to help schools adapt, can provide a template for others.

“I am desperate to get other states to join us,” said Murphy, New Jersey’s first lady. “It’s great that the next generation of New Jersey students are going to own this space, but we’re not going to solve climate change on our own.”

Stateline is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Stateline maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Scott Greenberger for questions: info@stateline.org. Follow Stateline on Facebook and Twitter.

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