Climate & Social Justice

Teaching Climate Literacy Helps Prepare Students to Deal with Their Inheritance

Bills pending in the Rhode Island General Assembly support teaching students about climate change. (Joanna Detz/ecoRI News)

Two Rhode Island lawmakers, like many others, have been inspired by Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg. The teenager’s efforts have reinforced the importance of teaching students about climate change, climate justice, and sustainability.

The problem, though, in Rhode Island and in public schools across the country, is that these topics are often at the periphery of student education. One of the best options to combat the biggest challenge facing humanity is to educate the people who will charged with addressing it, but this opportunity is slipping away.

This General Assembly session Rep. Terri Cortvriend, D-Portsmouth, and Sen. Valarie Lawson, D-East Providence, have introduced bills in their respective chambers that would address the environmental-education gap.

The Climate Literacy Act (H5625 and S0464) calls on the Rhode Island Department of Education to work with environmental and climate educators and educational leaders to develop key learning concepts about environmental, climate, and sustainability principals that would be incorporated into science and social studies curricula in grades K-12.

“The kids want this. They are talking about these issues,” said Cortvriend, who was a Portsmouth School Committee member for 10 years. “You can argue politically about what we do to address climate change, but you can’t argue the facts, the science.”

Fifty-one years ago this April, the first Earth Day helped define the environmental awareness movement. The 21st-century equivalent is the climate crisis, and awareness starts with education at an early age.

The impacts of climate change are being felt everywhere. Children hear the terms “global warming” and “climate crisis,” see images of emaciated polar bears and calving glaciers, and listen to climate deniers belch nonsense.

This bombardment of fact and fiction leaves kids searching for answers. Educators can explain the changes happening in the world and provide students with information to make informed decisions.

A 2019 survey by the Kaiser Family Foundation found that 61 percent of U.S. teenagers say the issue of climate change is very or extremely important to them.

Among the lessons that the country’s students need to learn include understanding the planet’s climate system, knowing how to assess scientifically credible information, and understanding the impacts of a warming world.

The Rhode Island Environmental Education Association supports the Climate Literacy Act. The organization’s executive director, Jeanine Silversmith, said educators want to teach climate change and sustainability. She pointed to a survey the Providence-based collaborative conducted three years ago that found teachers and administrators believe environmental education should be considered a K-12 priority.

Survey respondents said it’s important for teachers to integrate environmental issues into their teaching, and that school districts should develop and implement an environmental education curriculum.

Teachers indicated that “infusion” — blending environmental concepts into existing lessons when the opportunity arises — was the most common way in which they incorporated environmental education into their instruction.

It’s a concept the Climate Literacy Act embraces. The lawmakers behind the bill said it’s important that schools teach students about the nature of science and help them build connections with the natural world around them.

Today’s students are the next generation of stewards and we need to educate them so they can address the issues associated with climate change, said Lawson, who teaches social studies at East Providence High School. She noted that it’s imperative that Rhode Island students are provided accurate scientific information about climate change and that they understand what it means for their future.

Lawson said the bill isn’t about stuffing more information into an already-crammed curriculum. She said it’s about providing teachers with appropriate resources, incorporating climate-related subjects into student readings, having conversations about the issue, and sprinkling environmental education throughout the school day, since it touches so many subjects.

Cortvriend said it’s also about getting students out of the classroom and into the natural world, to engage their natural curiosity. Silversmith said professional development for teachers would need to be part of the climate-teaching equation.

They all noted that the changes would be implemented over several years.

“We want to support our teachers and not burden them — that’s not helpful,” Lawson said. “They care deeply about their instruction. The idea is to assist them in teaching these important topics.”

The Rhode Island Department of Health agrees about the importance of addressing climate-related issues in the classroom.

“It is essential for all Rhode Islanders to have a general understanding of the influence climate and weather has on human society, and how human actions influence climate and weather patterns,” according to the department’s website.

Silversmith said the Climate Literacy Act has the support of more than 40 organizations, including the National Education Association Rhode Island and the Rhode Island Federation of Teachers and Health Professionals.

The House Education Committee held a hearing on the bill a few week ago. No Senate committee hearing has yet been held.

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