State of the Planet

News from the Columbia Climate School


The Biden-Harris Climate Plan Misses a Crucial Element: Education

kids in a classroom
Photo: NeONBRAND on Unsplash

The environmental education community is very hopeful about the Biden-Harris team’s $2 trillion climate change plan. The plan focuses on dream projects like clean energy, climate resilience, environmental justice, and economic growth, and sets a goal of reaching net-zero emissions by 2050. There is a lot of jubilation and expectations of big changes associated with addressing climate change, and it starts with rejoining the Paris Agreement.

However, amongst this enthusiasm, the United States is keeping quiet on something terribly important — something that is sure to have a long-lasting impact on climate change: Education. Education provides an opportunity to shape how people of all ages understand the science behind and social issues surrounding climate change, and ultimately how our society chooses to address these problems.

In a recent report from the Brookings Institution, author Christina Kwauk quotes a study that found that in the United States, “86% of teachers think climate change should be taught in classrooms, yet only 42% actually teach it.” She further states that the majority of these teachers think that climate change education is outside of their subject area. The United States is among the most technologically advanced countries in the world, yet it misses out on some basic education indicators.

It is yet to be seen whether the Biden presidency will fill this gap. If Biden intends to sign the Paris Agreement, he also signs onto the agreement’s Action for Climate Empowerment elements, including education and public awareness. However, nothing has been explicitly said about this in any transition plan.

Below, several educators explain why climate change education is important, and share their ideas for how the new president could go about giving this neglected topic its due attention.

Climate Change Educator Voices

Haein Shin, education adviser at the Center for Sustainable Development, Earth Institute, Columbia University:

While I am hopeful that the industry- and policy-level push can help normalize societal consciousness on climate change and trickle down to what learners observe in their day-to-day lives, intentional cultivation of certain knowledge and practices leading to a new culture is needed through education on climate change. The Biden-Harris administration can be the first to ambitiously implement a national curriculum on climate change with validation of facts and science, highlighting alternatives and linkages between energy and agriculture, transportation, and industries, which are the biggest culprits contributing to global warming. The national climate change curriculum can be publicly available not only to K-12 in the school system, but to national, state, local and community education organizations of all shapes and sizes.

Krassi Lazarova, physics professor at Centenary University:

Many important decisions on matters of scientific nature are made by people without strong scientific backgrounds. Our society is suffering from lack of trust in scientific discoveries. Every issue where the main argument is rooted in science, tends to be politicized and debated, with arguments leading away from its nature. This can only be overcome by education at every level, from the early school age to adult education. Climate change issues are no exception. If we focus on educating the public on the issue of changing climate from the scientific point of view at all levels without politicizing it, we as a society will have a better understanding of the stakes.

kids at a table watching a movie
Eco Ambassadors in Millburn, NJ watch ‘Microplastic Madness’ at the community library, followed by an interactive discussion. Photo: Radhika Iyengar

Tara Stafford Ocansey, education specialist at the Center for Sustainable Development, the Earth Institute, Columbia University:

The urgent nature of intersecting challenges of climate change, racial and social injustice, and COVID-19 requires bold action far beyond undoing the damage of the Trump administration. The Paris Climate Accord, while comprehensive in many respects, pays little attention to the critical role of education for climate action. Educating our young people and our communities to make necessary lifestyle and consumption changes and to take active roles in civil society requires meaningful support at the federal level. New Jersey is the first state in the nation to adopt K-12 climate change education standards to be implemented not only as part of science curriculum, but across subjects. The nation must follow this lead and support education for climate action and practical, solutions-oriented learning nationwide.

Environmental justice must also be a key component in plans for addressing climate change. It is a welcome sign that some members of the Department of Justice transition team have backgrounds in key intersecting areas of environmental law, education, and social justice, and I encourage the president-elect to go further in ensuring that his teams include such cross-sectoral expertise, with experts not only from traditional top-tier professional affiliations and a long history of involvement with federal government, but from grassroots organizations as well, who know their communities’ challenges and needs best. Such engagement will help ensure that action plans to address climate change and environmental justice challenges, including through comprehensive climate change curriculum, are bold enough to make the rapid changes we need to realize.

Lauren Madden, professor of education at The College of New Jersey:

Climate change is the most pressing scientific and societal issue of our time. From rising sea levels to rampant wildfires, humanity experiences these changes collectively. In order to build solutions, environmental education specifically around climate change is essential. Following the lead of [New Jersey] Governor Murphy’s administration, the U.S. should integrate climate change content in instruction across the K-16 curriculum. To see this as a scientific problem alone oversimplifies the magnitude of climate change and more must be done to address the issue from a multidisciplinary perspective. Biden suggested that climate change was among his top four priorities when beginning his term. To truly prioritize this issue, it is absolutely necessary to include comprehensive climate change education in future endeavors.

Christina Kwauk, fellow at the Brookings Center for Universal Education and associate director of the Monitoring and Evaluation of Climate Change Education Project:

The Biden-Harris climate plan rightfully points to the need to support coal miners, power plant workers, and other communities that will be affected by a transition to a clean energy economy. However, such limited attention to the reskilling of a small subset of the American population is not enough to realize the ambitious goal for the U.S. to achieve net-zero emissions by 2050.

Our ability as a nation to accelerate climate action demands a cultural shift and a mindset change at scale around how Americans view and are taught implicitly and explicitly to view the separation of human systems from natural systems, the social from the ecological. Such attitudes are deeply interconnected with those that help to normalize environmental racism, gender inequalities, and social inequities — the domination and exploitation of one by another. To rebalance U.S. emissions we must redress power inequalities among historically and newly disadvantaged Americans, including women, Black, Indigenous, and people of color, and displaced coal workers.

To do so requires a new green learning agenda that at its core upholds principles of fairness, equity, and justice. It must equip learners of all ages to prioritize care and the wellbeing of others, including the natural world. And it must teach, implicitly and explicitly, that unequal relations of power are just as destructive to life on this planet as an imbalance of greenhouse gases. At a minimum this must include education about climate change and the development of sustainability competencies and green skills. If President-elect Biden wants to put America on a course to net-zero by 2050, his plan must ensure all learners — young and old — receive quality education and training for climate action.

Mary K. Blanusa, executive director at the Northern New Jersey Community Foundation:

Years of disinformation and politicization of climate change have clouded public understanding of what is at stake and how actions matter. A focus on science-backed facts must drive not only policy but public engagement and education. Anyone who was around in the 70s remembers the crying Native American looking at the polluted landscape and Woodsy Owl saying “Give a Hoot, Don’t Pollute.” These campaigns pulled heart strings and provided easy action steps that helped launch wide-scale recycling efforts. America needs an effective public engagement campaign for the 2020s that includes effective PSA campaigns and goes further to integrate science-backed climate facts into education at all levels.

New Jersey is at the forefront of climate change education, providing a model for other states to follow. In June 2020, NJ became the first state to integrate climate change education across K-12 education standards. As every educator knows, standards alone are unlikely to have impacts on learning without strong curricular resources and well-trained educators. The Biden administration can support these efforts through allocation of federal funding to support climate change education and teacher professional development at the state and local levels, as well as working with state education agencies to ensure that climate education efforts are scientifically backed.

Carine Verschueren, Ph.D. candidate at Teachers College, Columbia University:

The time has come to present a new report to Washington D.C. entitled: A Planet at Risk: The Imperative for Educational Reform. Our society and its educational institutions have lost sight of the basic purposes of schooling, which include intellectual and economic but also social and civic goals. It is imperative to encourage change to create a fairer and more sustainable planet. Therefore, education should include the dynamics of the physical, social and economic environment, integrated in all disciplines, to shape people’s attitudes and provide them with skills and competencies necessary to address complex issues such as climate change. Federal support in this endeavor is crucial to support an ecological view that views learning as democratic, participative and transformative.

Melissa Hoffmann, graduate of Vassar College:

I believe national climate change education must focus on system change. The current mode of operating economic and social services is unsustainable and must be transformed into new systems that center Indigenous practices and needs, such as giving back stolen land and ending the greedy consumption of the capitalist ruling class. Any climate change education that does not center Indigenous history and colonialism is incomplete.

Soo Park, director and early childhood specialist at the Young Scholars for Sustainable International Development:

Climate change education must start early in young children’s learning and development. Young children are both affected by environmental changes and increasingly aware of the changes around them. As children form habits and their understanding of the world, we begin to involve them as “participants” in our society. We must therefore prepare them as the next generation of change-makers with accurate knowledge and problem-solving skills to care for our environment in a rapidly changing world. Thus, offering children adequate and effective education on climate change is essential.

To accomplish this goal, we need 1) a developmentally appropriate curriculum that focuses on climate change across disciplines; 2) well-prepared educators to teach the curriculum; 3) active modeling of sustainable practices in schools and on campuses; and 4) education for students’ families on the importance of climate change education. Ultimately, climate change education should start early and continue throughout adulthood, and theory and practice must come together to evoke world-changing actions. New Jersey has already made strides this year by requiring climate change education for K-12 students. As the first state to move towards such a significant goal, New Jersey’s climate change curriculum and standards should serve as an effective, evidence-based model for other states as they seek to take the next steps toward climate change education.

Susan Haig, founder of CivicStory:

My concern is lack of connection between science and humanities; in a diverse democracy, words resonate in many ways. The standardization of language and ‘calcified’ reductive framing of complex physical phenomena as an “issue” called “climate” is problematic — logically and educationally. People should be encouraged to clarify their terms of reference. [S]lowing, stopping and reversing “warming” is what we all must do, on individual, local, organizational, regional, and national levels. “Fighting or defeating” climatic change, as scientists know, is a non-rational idea, but this notion persists in our discourse.

Janna Goebel, graduate of the Educational Policy and Evaluation program at Arizona State University:

We know that one of the key culprits of climate change and the rise in average global air temperature is human dependence on fossil fuels. Any Biden-Harris climate change education initiatives must be accompanied by the administration’s divestment from fossil fuels. Continued overconsumption and complicity render our education efforts futile. Sustainability education in this context is nothing more than a bandage on a hemorrhaging wound. Education in general, and climate change education specifically, must focus on reconfiguring our human-Earth relationship and dismantling the logic of human exceptionalism which has led us into this crisis.

Radhika Iyengar, director of education at the Center for Sustainable Development, Earth Institute, Columbia University:

My story begins from the Bhopal gas tragedy in 1984. The night of December 2 of that year, 2,000 people in my city died instantaneously and more than 300,000 people were physically injured in the aftermath. Many climate injustices occurred with the disaster, with an international lawsuit that continued for more than a decade. Fast forward to 2020, and still people breathe poisonous air in many parts of the world. People have adjusted to the new normal of floods, hurricanes and out-of-control forest fires. What is the missing link here? The missing link is Sustainable Development Goal 4.7, which sets this ambitious target:

By 2030, ensure that all learners acquire knowledge and skills needed to promote sustainable development, including, among others, through education for sustainable development and sustainable lifestyles, human rights, gender equality, promotion of a culture of peace and non- violence, global citizenship and appreciation of cultural diversity and of culture’s contribution to sustainable development.

The target clearly states that sustainable development should be promoted through education. Yet we live in a world that is indifferent to climate change. A full, justified implementation of SDG4.7 has not happened yet. Climate change education is a very contested subject, and the topic has not percolated in many classrooms here in the United States. In order to “build back better,” we need to bring back the United Nations’ Education for Sustainable Development (ESD) program in our classrooms. We need to put a soul into the ESD teachings in classrooms. ESD needs to  be transformative. Here are a few pointers for what “transformative” could mean:

–Education that is not a dump of knowledge.

–Education that connects with the community and makes us all citizen scientists.

–Education that doesn’t get lost between grades, but continues throughout a lifetime.

–Education that has music and storytelling that travels intergenerationally.

–Education that uses both sciences and social sciences to talk about climate change.

A good place to start will be to start working toward SDG Target 4.7 to make our planet livable. Will the Biden-Harris team include this agenda in the transition plan and beyond?

Banner featuring a collage of extreme heat images.

Recent record-breaking heat waves have affected communities across the world. The Extreme Heat Workshop will bring together researchers and practitioners to advance the state of knowledge, identify community needs, and develop a framework for evaluating risks with a focus on climate justice. Register by June 15

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