Tuesday, January 30, 2024

The Issue of Their Lifetime

            I am not an expert on climate change education. I am, however, a veteran teacher and a citizen of this world. And it seems clear to me that we owe our students more discussion of climate change in the classroom.

            It is the issue of their lifetime, and we are not talking about it – not in most classes, and not in a lot of places. Even though 2023 was far and away the warmest year on record, even though the 10 warmest years on planet Earth have all occurred in the past 10 years, and even though we experienced the warmest June, July, August, September and October in history this past year, we are still not really discussing it.

            In a representative survey of more than 1,000 adults conducted by the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication and the George Mason University Center for Climate Change Communication, researchers found that 65 percent of Americans say they rarely or never talk about global warming with family and friends, while 35 percent said they discuss it either occasionally or often. And yet, 65 percent of Americans said they are somewhat worried about climate change, with another 29 percent saying they are very worried about it. On top of that, more than 10 percent of Americans said they are feeling down, depressed or helpless because of climate change.

            We see stories about climate-related crises all around the planet, and we notice things that just don’t seem right in our own region, such as being able to go for a run in shorts multiple times in January – in New Jersey. We hear people refer to climate change as an existential crisis, which doesn’t really make anyone feel better about it all.

            But for many of life’s most difficult questions, we can find hope in the classroom. New Jersey was the first state to provide state climate change instructional standards, and no, the standards are not geared toward indoctrination. They are geared toward analysis, evaluation, collaboration and solution-seeking – in other words, student-centered learning. These standards offer teachers and students the chance to learn together, and to prepare to take leadership roles in addressing this issue.

            The Yale and George Mason climate change communication programs provide a wealth of resources for educators and for all of us. One of Yale’s educator resources is titled “Five Facts, Ten Words,” and the lesson breaks down climate change in five two-word phrases: “Scientists agree. It’s real. It’s us. It’s bad. There’s hope.” Many of the additional Yale sources connect data to storytelling, which is in many ways what scientists are trying to do as they examine our changing climate. Resources such as these pull away from the existential dread and move more toward honest discussion, concern and solution-seeking.

            I look forward to seeing more and more schools follow guidelines such as these, and offer students the guidance and exploratory space to seek out the solutions their generation will need to lead us forward. I hope to see additional professional development offerings so that teachers feel prepared to do this work. This is not about pushing an agenda; it is simply about doing right by our students. As they explore climate change more with their teachers, our students will gain the language and the confidence to look this crisis in the eye and talk about it in ways that genuinely help them, and us.

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