When high school senior Destiny Watford learned that state officials had approved a building permit for a giant incinerator that would burn 4,000 tons of trash every day and emit more than a thousand pounds of lead and mercury every year, less than a mile away from her school in Baltimore, she took action. The plan reeked of environmental racism , which occurs when communities of color are burdened with a lop-sided amount of environmental threats, including toxic waste sites, polluting industries, and other sources of pollution.
Watford mobilized her impoverished neighborhood of Curtis Bay, canvassing the area for four years. Her efforts led the state to revoke the permit in 2016. That was a real civics lesson she will never forget.
“The decisions that affect the land that we live on are made behind closed doors,” Watford told Essence magazine. She added that communities are left in the dark “until a development’s built — or until they are dying of lung cancer.”
Students should be fully informed of climate issues, particular those that directly impact them. What good is a curriculum if it’s not relevant? As adults drop the ball, as politicians erode environmental protections, and signs of climate change are too evident to deny, students are forced to speak out against practices that directly impact their environment and contribute to the mounting climate crisis.
Students have eyes; they can see what’s going on. They see the increasing frequency and intensity of California wildfires, of tropical storms and hurricanes. “People thought of our fight to stop the incinerator cute after school hobby,” Watford told Time magazine in 2016. “It was not just a hobby, it was an act of survival.”
In the United States, students are left, for the most part, to their own devices to learn about climate change. In many districts, climate change makes no part of the curriculum; in some, the very idea of instruction on climate change is challenged.
Not only are students betrayed by school officials who don’t teach climate change in lessons, but also by governments all over the world that are facilitating the pollution of the air and the oceans. And this country is among the worst of these facilitators. The Trump administration has reversed or rolled back dozens of Environmental Protection Agency regulations, including emissions and fuel efficiency standards, land protections and U.S. involvement in international treaties that attempt to protect the environment, chiefly the Paris climate agreement.
Watford is one of a growing number of young activists who are teaching the rest of us lessons about the devastating consequences facing our communities if we don’t take action.
15-year-old Swedish native Greta Thunberg was inspired by student activists from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, who protested America’s lax gun laws in the aftermath of the Parkland, Florida mass shooting last year. She started her “school strike for climate,” leaving school every Friday to protest outside the Swedish parliament. Thunberg’s actions led to worldwide protests three days before the United Nations Climate Action Summit in September 2019.
Thunberg received significant media attention, but there are other student climate activists who’ve filled a void created by the abdication of responsible leadership. For instance, 17 year-old Quannah Chasinghorse from the Han Gwich’in and Lakota Sioux Nations in Alaska succeeded in creating protections for the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, which the Trump administration had made available for oil drilling. Change will require the kind of action youth activists exhibited when they confronted Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) this past February, challenging the senator to back the Green New Deal, the congressional resolution that lays out a plan to address the climate crisis.
For the youth, the impact of climate change is not in some distant future. They are addressing environmental racism and climate change not just because the future depends on it, but because their lives are being threatened right now. The plan to build that incinerator in Baltimore ignored the people behind data that showed the black-majority city’s rate of asthma-related hospitalizations was almost three times higher than the U.S. average.
Watford has breathed that air all of her life.
Climate change will undoubtedly affect everyone, but not all neighborhoods will be affected in the same way. For instance, there are more than 1,200 cities in which the share of the black population is greater than 50 percent. These cities hug coastlines, making them susceptible to hurricanes. In addition, because of racism, numerous neighborhoods in which black people live are in low-lying areas, increasing their vulnerability to storms and other natural phenomena. This was demonstrated when Hurricane Katrina made landfall in New Orleans in 2005 — it was mainly black people who lived in the Lower 9th Ward, who not only suffered from the direct impact of the storm, but were also burdened by the discrimination that preceded and followed it.
Places that have high concentrations of black people are also targeted with other forms of bias, such as biased policing, employment discrimination, worse educational options and housing devaluation, all of which restrict opportunities for these communities to build wealth. While the changing climate threatens the existence of all people, people of color in the United States who don’t have the protection of wealth will find it more difficult to cope with the consequences of climate change.
Stopping the buildout of an incinerator, preventing oil drilling and inciting a worldwide protest were accomplished by incredible individual efforts. What else could students accomplish if everyone was given foundational knowledge to take action on these issues?
Italy will soon find out. Beginning next fall, Italian students of all ages will be required to study climate change and sustainability. Italy will become the first country to make the subject compulsory. Education Minister Lorenzo Fioramonti told CNN that school leaders planned to fold climate studies into the current curriculum for civics, geography, math, and physics. The idea is to prepare students to tackle the challenges that will inevitably accompany the coming climate crisis.
In the absence of a national push to teach them about environmental justice issues in school, young people should join organizations such as the Deep South Center for Environmental Justice, an advocacy group that partners with communities harmed by environmental racism. The New Orleans-based nonprofit, which became an invaluable asset in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, trains its members to understand and monitor environmental hazards in their neighborhoods so they can advocate for policies that prevent and remedy unsafe conditions.
Climate change is a global crisis and a matter of national security that students are facing in their very neighborhoods. The absence of relevant curricula is another manifestation of climate denial that’s putting children in harm’s way. Education should arm the policy-makers of tomorrow with the tools they need to protect themselves, and the world, from the coming climate catastrophe.
This story about impact of climate change was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for Hechinger’s newsletter.