We are living in the midst of a climate emergency with the expectation that conditions will significantly worsen in the near future. In January, NASA and NOAA confirmed that 2023 was the hottest year ever recorded. In New York State, climate change is impacting on the environment, society, and economy as extreme weather events increase in frequency and intensity. Floods are more frequent and the growing season for crops is changing. Climate disasters have cost the Northeastern United States over $80 billion since 1980.
In response to the threat of a climate catastrophe, there is a renewed push to include climate awareness in the K-12 school curriculum. New Jersey was the first state to mandate climate change lessons in its public schools. New York State Senate Bill S278A would amend the state education law “establishing a course of instruction and learning expectations on climate education in all public pre-kindergarten, elementary and secondary schools.” There is also a companion bill in the State Assembly, A1559A.
Over 200 educational professionals and organizations representing tens of thousands of members have signed a letter in support of the New York State legislation (See below for text of the letter and a link to sign). The National Wildlife Federation is already asking teachers to pledge to teach at least ten hours a year to promote climate change awareness. Its website includes a guide for teaching about climate and climate change. The Climate and Resilience Education Task Force offers a Toolkit for supporting climate action and education.
While New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, and California want to expand student understanding of the threat of climate change to the world as we know it, a number of states governed by Republican Party climate change deniers, including Texas, Virginia, and Florida, are committed to ignorance and obfuscation. In Connecticut, Republican State Representative John Piscopo is demanding that lessons on climate change include unsupported challenges to the scientific consensus that human action and the emission of fossil fuels into the atmosphere are the primary engine of global warming. He charges that scientists and teachers who want a climate awareness curriculum are trying to indoctrinate students.
The New York City Department of Education is not waiting for legislative action. Last summer, thirty-nine New York City elementary school teachers participated in a four-day training on “Integrating Climate Education in N.Y.C. Public Schools.” The workshop included children’s literature that teachers can use in their classrooms at different grade levels. Rain School (Houghton Mifflin, 2010) by James Rumford is a picture book for grades K-3 about children living in the town of Kélo in the Central African country of Chad. Every year their school must be rebuilt because the building is destroyed by powerful storms. Monica Pagan-Guzman, who teaches third grade at Public School 83 in East Harlem and participated in the summer program, started a lunch club where students discuss climate change and animal welfare. This month the Department of Education and the United Federation of Teachers are co-hosting a climate change training session for up to 500 educators.
Since the start of the Industrial Revolution, human-caused climate change has impacted the globe with the burning of fossil fuels. The debate in classrooms and the political realm should not be whether climate change is happening or how much it places human civilization at risk but over how societies and individuals should respond. On my website I have high school level lesson material aligned with my book Teaching Climate History: There is No Planet B (Routledge, 2022). The package includes documents for use in both science and social studies classes.
Letter to New York State Legislature
We write this letter as scholars and professional educators who specialize in climate change and environmental education in New York State. We are calling for the establishment of comprehensive, state-wide climate change education for all P-12 school children across the Empire State.
New York State has set ambitious climate change adaptation and mitigation goals under the Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act (CLCPA). This Act commits the state to 100% zero-emission electricity by 2040, and a reduction of at least 85% below 1990-level GHG emissions by 2050. The CLCPA implementation plan recognizes that actions to address climate change will be needed at scale and across all sectors of the state, including "the need for P-12 curricula to include climate change education," as well as "a coordinated effort on outreach and education across all sectors of the economy" (p. 427). Addressing climate change is an educational project, and we stand ready as educational professionals to assist New York State as it addresses the challenges and opportunities presented by the rapidly changing climate.
We know that a majority of Americans support climate change education. However, teachers report feeling unprepared to teach climate change. We also believe that youth have the right to high quality climate change education, as climate change is one of the dominant forces shaping the rest of their lives. Young people want a sound and holistic climate education that establishes reverence and care for the natural world. They deserve to understand the causes and effects of climate change, including increasingly dangerous flooding and wildfire patterns. They need an education that trains them for the rapidly emerging industries that are helping to decarbonize our energy system, as well as an education that prepares them to work toward the common good of all New Yorkers.
New York State students are currently at risk of being inadequately prepared with climate change knowledge and skills compared to our neighbors. New Jersey, Connecticut, and Maine have all passed climate change education bills in recent years, and New York currently lags behind in our educational response to the climate crisis given its lack of a comprehensive plan. SUNY has begun taking steps toward implementing climate change education across its institutions under Chancellor John King’s leadership, and many of the private higher education institutions in New York State now offer robust programs in climate change education. Our P-12 institutions should follow suit. New York State students are increasingly demanding an education that adequately prepares them for a rapidly changing world, and they are pressuring our leaders to provide such an education.
The New York State Legislature is about to consider Senate Bill 278A/Assembly Bill 1559A, introduced by Senator Andrew Gounardes and Assemblymember JoAnne Simon and co-sponsored by elected representatives from across our diverse state. Adapted from an earlier version of the bill, the current bill has been drafted by an intergenerational and geographically diverse committee of high school students, teachers, parents, professors, and other educational professionals from Buffalo to the Adirondacks, and down to New York City: truly a state-wide effort. If passed, it would represent the first holistic and interdisciplinary climate education bill in New York State. It would establish an Office of Climate Education and Workforce Development, provide professional learning opportunities and ongoing support for educators across a variety of disciplines, as well as establish Green Career & Technical Education programs across the state. Importantly, the bill would also center equity and justice, as the effects of climate change are not shared equally across our state, necessitating different kinds of social, cultural, and geographic responses.
We have some of the finest teachers and schools in the nation, and the support of a majority of New Yorkers. We believe that now is the time for New York State and its elected leaders to step up and ensure that our education system can properly address the urgency of the global climate crisis.