Three Bills Seek to Establish Climate Change Curriculum in Public Schools

Climate change poses a severe threat to New York State, making higher temperatures, rising sea levels, increasing rates of extreme storms, and public health crises the new normal. New York has set ambitious greenhouse gas emission reduction targets in order to mitigate climate change and set an example for other states to follow. To create the next generation of environmental leaders who will achieve these goals, three New York bills are aiming to establish a climate change curriculum for public schools to educate youth about current and future environmental challenges.

The New York Climate Change Education Act (S. 6837 (Kaminsky)) would establish a grant program to support climate change education programs for youth or provide teachers with training and professional development related to increasing climate literacy in students. In 78% of New York schools, climate change education is supported; however, schools are still struggling to incorporate this study into their curriculums. For teachers from eligible schools, this grant program would provide professional development on how to implement climate change learning into their classrooms, as well as resources and tools to successfully deliver lessons.

To help educate young students about climate change, another bill (S. 7341 (Gounardes)) would require the commissioner of education to create a model for a climate change curriculum that could be implemented in all public elementary and secondary schools. Because children today will eventually bear a heavy environmental burden, it is important to get them interested and focused on these issues now by integrating climate change into their daily education in school. This legislation would bring climate change into all subjects including the sciences, social studies, health, and history. It would cover a wide variety of topics including sustainability, pollution, forestry, environmental justice, air quality, and energy. These comprehensive and interdisciplinary lessons would strive to teach children the importance of climate change today so they may lead mitigation and adaptation efforts in the future.

Finally, another bill (S. 6877 (May)) would require the commissioner of education to formulate recommendations to the board of regents for implementing climate change instruction in high schools. This bill strives to help high school students understand the science behind climate change, including greenhouse gas emissions and energy consumption. It would also offer support to educators as they incorporate climate change into their classrooms. With this knowledge, students will be empowered to make informed environmental choices and assist New York in reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

In April 2016, the New York City Council adopted Resolution 0375, which calls on the New York State Department of Education to create a curriculum for K-12 schools that includes lessons on climate change. Resolution 0375 quotes the National Center for Science Education on the importance of climate change education for the next generation; discusses the potential ramifications from climate change on the natural environment, infrastructure, economy, and national security; and argues that children should be aware of far-reaching climate impacts.

Other states across the country have similar programs or bills to promote climate change education as well.

In California, CalRecycle’s Office of Education and the Environment has created The California Education and the Environment Initiative, which is a statewide effort to integrate environmental lessons in K-12 instruction. The program offers a comprehensive curriculum that spans a variety of environmental topics, including climate change; integrates lessons within other subjects such as history and language arts; and offers training for teachers. Also, a bill that is currently being considered by the California legislature (AB1922), would require climate education from 1st–6th grade and make it a graduation requirement for 7th–12th grade students. These changes would be adopted no later than the 2021–2022 school year.

Washington State introduced the ClimeTime initiative in 2018, which allocated $4 million for climate science learning programs statewide. Across the state, K-12 schools have introduced a new environmental and climate change-based curriculum into classrooms, and have applied training and professional development opportunities for science teachers. According to the 2018–2019 ClimeTime Report, the program was very successful, with 99% of participating teachers agreeing that they were satisfied with the new skills that they gained to integrate environmental learning into their classrooms.

The central, unifying theme of these bills and programs is to educate students about the emerging environmental challenges that they will face during their lifetimes. Additionally, many of these initiatives strive to provide educators with new environmental knowledge and analytical skills that they can incorporate into their classrooms. Considering the increasing risks from climate change and the urgent need for adaptation and mitigation efforts, it is important for young people to learn about the issues that they may tackle one day.