California should mandate climate change education now

Climate education, image by Lightspring

OPINION – Evidence of climate change is everywhere: higher temperatures, coastal erosion, extreme weather, drought, and wildfires are now part of California’s “new normal.”

In response, Sacramento is implementing a slew of bold environmental laws and regulations. However, these much needed changes are unlikely to succeed without buy-in from the public. We need to raise the public’s comfort level with the drastic changes needed to combat climate change. People need to be convinced that a future in which their cars, houses, stoves, and garden equipment run on electricity–and that they will need to live sustainably – will not mean a decline in their quality of life. Otherwise, there is going to be a political backlash that will undo these vitally necessary policies.

This effort begins in school. That’s why California should mandate climate change education in grades K-12 right now.

Ideally, the federal government would take the lead on fostering climate change education. Unfortunately, that’s unlikely. Legislation that would have encouraged teaching climate change died in Congress. Also, don’t look to the presidency for climate initiatives. Now that the Inflation Reduction Act is law, other pressing problems, such as the war in Ukraine and the economy, will top the Biden Administration’s legislative agenda.

Nor should we expect climate action from a Republican president, should one be elected in 2024.At the last GOP debate, the candidates – with the exception of Asa Hutchinson – demurred when asked if climate change is caused by humans. Vivek Ramaswamy echoed Donald Trump by claiming that climate change is a “hoax.”

Despite California’s climate leadership, and despite overwhelming support from teachers, parents and students, CA does not require climate change education in its curriculum. Italy and New Zealand do. New Jersey and Connecticut also mandate climate education from kindergarten onwards. New Jersey even allocated $5 million in funding to ensure the success of this curriculum.

Despite California’s climate leadership, and despite overwhelming support from teachers, parents and students, CA does not require climate change education in its curriculum.

Meanwhile, similar efforts (AB 1922, AB 1939) introduced by Assemblywoman Luz Rivas (D) which would have required climate education in K-12 failed. Her latest effort (AB 285) “modifies the course of study for science, in grades [K-12] to include content regarding causes and effects of, and methods to mitigate and adapt to, climate change and requires that appropriate coursework be offered to students no later than the 2024-25 school year.”

AB 285 strives to ensure that K-12 students across California receive education on climate change as part of their core curriculum. (How this is done is up to the teacher.) Imagine students delving into climate science during science class, discussing the social and economic impacts of climate change in social sciences, exploring climate-related data in math, and expressing their concerns and ideas through arts and literature. This approach does more than just inform; it empowers young minds to think critically, make informed decisions, and become advocates for a sustainable future. It will also, according to the bill’s author, help “cultivate a new generation of climate policy leaders in California as we educate, help prepare, and give our next generation the tools to shape their futures in the wake of our current climate crisis.”

When students comprehend the science behind climate change, the role of human activities, and the interconnectedness of ecosystems, they are better equipped to engage in constructive conversations about solutions. By exposing young minds to climate-related challenges and fostering critical thinking, we cultivate a generation that is passionate about environmental stewardship.

AB 285 needs to be passed by the legislature and signed by the governor right now. Education is key to addressing the climate emergency.

Fred Smoller is the President and CEO of the Orange County Sustainability Decathlon. Khang Tran is a research assistant for the Orange County Sustainability Decathlon.


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