Curriculum Opinion

I Quit Teaching to Become a Climate Activist. Here’s Why

What we’re getting wrong about climate education
By Bryce Coon — November 29, 2023 5 min read
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As I pack my suitcase for Dubai, in United Arab Emirates, to attend the United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP28) this week, I am reflecting that a mere six months ago, I was wrapping up my 11th year of teaching high school social studies. Now, I am attending COP28 to advocate climate education in front of decisionmakers and leaders from around the world. It is an honor to represent my organization and other educators on this stage. But I am guided by the vivid and recent memories of my students as I head off—and their very real fears about the climate crisis.

Have you recently talked to a teenager about climate change? If not, you should. They are either deeply concerned and passionately advocating more action to address the climate crisis—or they have a bleak outlook of the world’s future, which has led them to withdraw.

The statistics on this are startling. According to a 2021 survey of 10,000 young people from across 10 countries, more than two-thirds of respondents reported feeling sad, afraid, and anxious about the climate crisis, and over half said humanity is “doomed.” Both those responses come from a place of climate anxiety caused by a lack of sufficient climate education.

This sense of despair is precisely why I made the decision to leave the classroom after dedicating 11 years of my life to teaching. When I considered the state of our planet and the unrealized potential of climate education, I felt like I needed to dedicate my time to ensuring students receive the education they need not only to navigate but to thrive in the world they are inheriting. This past summer, I became a full-time advocate for climate education.

Climate education provides the knowledge students need to understand the climate, the causes of climate crisis, and to explore the ways we can combat climate change. For students to develop a deep understanding of this and to grow the confidence to become solution-oriented, it is imperative for climate education to be embedded through all courses and grade levels.

Our students are already receiving informal climate education from social media, friends, family, and scary news clips. Sadly, it’s often a random hodgepodge of information that is not always age appropriate or accurate, leaving no time for questions or to process what they’ve learned.

In some ways, it is like the arguments for sex education in public schools. We know young people are also receiving informal sex education from TV, social media, friends, family, and more, so why do we bother to teach it? Because we have a responsibility to provide information that is age appropriate, accurate, and provides students with time to ask questions and process the information.

However, unlike sex education, climate education should not be a stand-alone course; it needs to be embedded throughout all subjects. This would allow students to develop a holistic understanding of the crisis and provide them with the tools to respond to the crisis through whichever medium they feel strongest in or most passionate about.

Currently, if a state has any required climate education, it is predominately in the science standards. By expanding this learning to other subjects, a student who is stronger in art or English may feel more engaged and encouraged to respond through the creation of murals or advocacy letters.

Time—or, more precisely, the lack of time—is at the root of why climate education is not adequately taught in schools today and why we urgently need to embed climate education into our standards.

We all know teachers are constantly asked to do more. I can remember countless meetings in which we were asked to incorporate one more strategy, form, or protocol, but I don’t recall a single meeting in which anything was removed from a teacher’s plate. As a former educator, I do not want to be a voice for “one more thing.”

While every subject holds value for our students, we must acknowledge it is impossible for teachers to cover everything. The decisions made decades ago didn’t account for the climate crisis we are experiencing today, and it is time to reevaluate our priorities.

Do I think it was useful for me to teach my students the structure of the Federal Reserve banking system in their U.S. government class? Yes, I do. But I also think it is more important to explore the climate crisis with them. As states and schools, we need to prioritize climate education through its formal inclusion in academic standards.

The politicization of the climate crisis—and even blatant climate denialism—has aggravated the adoption of climate education in some U.S. schools. Another reason climate education has not received the attention and funding it deserves is because individuals view it as a slow solution to an urgent problem. I believe this attitude is misguided and leads to the underutilization of a tool that could have a significant impact on solving the climate crisis.

Think about this: A student who just started their freshman year of high school will be 41 in 2050, the very year the United Nations has set as an urgent goal for when our planet to be carbon neutral. At 41, one might still be early in their career, but think about the countless remarkable innovations achieved by individuals under 40 throughout history. Our youth have the potential to innovate our way out of this, but we need to give them the best chance at doing so.

Climate education is not a theoretical concept awaiting validation. New Jersey has not only mandated it but also pioneered the nation’s first office of climate education. This sets a crucial framework for other states to develop their own standards and strategies for climate education.

Luckily, teachers do not need to wait for legislation to incorporate climate education into their teaching. EARTHDAY.ORG, the climate organization I work for, has recently developed a climate-literacy lesson guide, enabling teachers to integrate climate education seamlessly into their existing curriculum.

For example, in my government class, I could have met the standard for teaching about the judicial system through an analysis of how Indigenous people are using the court system to protect their land from the construction of new oil pipelines. This lesson would provide students with a real-world example of the judicial system and incorporate principles of environmentalism, advocacy, and climate justice and equity.

When you consider the state of our planet, we must find the space for climate education standards that address the student mental health crisis, explore issues of climate justice and equity, inspire innovation in the green economy, and encourage behaviors to reduce carbon emissions.

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