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This summer, Americans have seen severe flooding in Kentucky, droughts spurring wildfires in the West and oppressive heat setting records across the U.S. and Europe.
Yet as they return to school this fall, some 50 million U.S. students will have few opportunities to learn how to advance solutions for the climate crisis, despite living with its realities.
That is unacceptable: Leaders at every level, from teachers in the classroom to Education Secretary Miguel Cardona, must take action to transform the way climate change is taught in classrooms and addressed through school infrastructures and policies. Education about the urgency of climate change and opportunities to advance solutions is essential; students in our generation must be empowered to act.
Growing up with roots in Charleston, South Carolina, and rural Appalachia, we felt the impacts of flooding and fires on our homes and families. Hurricane evacuations caused learning disruptions for days at a time in Charleston schools, and the threat of devastating storms became a sure a marker of the arrival of fall. In rural Appalachia, more frequent fires and flooding have left students unable to make the journey to school for days at a time.
These climate disruptions are not rare : Last year, one million K-12 students faced learning interruptions during the first month of school because of flooding, heat, wildfires and other climate-related events.
The onus shouldn’t fall on students to find the time to save the world in their spare hours between extracurriculars and homework.
Yet in our high school classrooms, even as the threat posed by the climate crisis has intensified, climate change was often deemed “too partisan” to discuss. When it did appear in the curriculum, it was often in a global, scientific context that felt far removed from our lived experience and provided no opportunity to engage with solutions.
We instead took climate actions on our own time, organizing with youth movements to empower student storytelling and combat climate change nationally. We ran activist trainings for middle and high school students looking to learn about climate solutions and supported students attempting to influence decision-making in their own communities.
But the onus shouldn’t fall on students to find the time to save the world in their spare hours between extracurriculars and homework. We all inhabit this world. As each subsequent U.N. report since 1990 has demonstrated, ignoring the issue in schools accomplishes nothing.
A recent survey indicated that almost half of all educators acknowledge that climate change already has or will soon impact our schools. The same survey suggested that more than a third of educators want more information about what needs to be done.
Related: Jump in, the water is rising — it’s time to educate students for a sustainable future
This is where the Department of Education can embrace President Biden’s call for a “whole-of-government approach” to tackling climate change. The department has a unique ability to provide information and demonstrate leadership.
Last September, it took a critical first step by releasing its Climate Adaptation Plan, which recognizes the impact that the climate crisis will have on schools. Now it must put that plan into action and lead by example, supporting schools not only in changing approaches to teaching and learning, but also in modeling sustainability and resilience with new school infrastructure and practices.
With nearly 100,000 schools, some 480,000 buses and 7 billion meals served each year, our public schools contribute to our country’s emissions through energy consumption, transportation, food and more.
School leaders can seek opportunities, including through the recently passed Inflation Reduction Act, to demonstrate for students what sustainability looks like in practice — through renewable energy, electric school buses, school gardens and sustainable meals.
The Department of Education also has an opportunity to add climate action to educators’ agendas.
When Secretary Cardona laid out his top four priorities to reimagine education so that our generation can have “bright futures,” he failed to name climate change education, even though climate change is a significant threat to our chance for a bright future. By naming climate change education as a priority, and supporting the education sector in understanding its role as part of the solution, the department could begin to dismantle the counterproductive culture that for far too long has made environmental education taboo in our classrooms.
Related: Climate change: Are we ready?
Furthermore, as addressing the climate crisis is named by 67 percent of Gen Z as a top priority, taking climate action presents the perfect opportunity for the department to partner with students. For example, in our K12 Climate Action partnership with the Aspen Institute (recently relaunched as an initiative of This Is Planet Ed), we heard from youth leaders in Salt Lake City, Utah, who led the charge for their school board to develop a climate action plan, transitioning their school district away from fossil fuels.
In a Washington Post-Kaiser Family Foundation 2019 survey, 57 percent of teenagers indicated that climate change makes them feel afraid. It is this fear that adults often cite when explaining why schools shouldn’t address climate concerns.
But climate anxiety is only intensified when students feel no sense of agency and control over the problem and are offered no opportunities to conceptualize solutions. By facilitating conversations and modeling solutions, our schools can encourage students to act.
And after years of bearing witness to the power of young people taking climate action, we know that students stand ready to help and ready to lead.
Naina Agrawal-Hardin is a sophomore at Yale University and a former partnerships and political strategist for the Sunrise Movement. Maya Green is a junior at Stanford University and formerly led organizing and strategy at Student Voice.
This story about climate change education was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for Hechinger’s newsletter.
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