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Climate Change in the Educational Process

December 25th, 2008 · 1 Comment

To a great extent, Americans are climate-change illiterate as exemplified by the continued success of the global warming denier disinformation efforts in confusing people about the science and about the realities of what is going on around the planet, humanity’s role in driving the change, and the opportunities for humanity to address these challenges both for mitigation of and adaptation to climate change. A key gap, of course, is the scientific (energy and otherwise) illiteracy of the American public. With gaps in ability to absorb and interpret scientific views of the world, there is a reliance on interpreters (journalists and propagandists) whose last science class might have been ‘science for poets, 101’ as a college requirement or maybe 7th grade biology.

In the face of this challenge, around the country, members of the Youth Climate Network are seeking to work within their communities to foster a stronger scientific education program within the school systems. A stronger science program that would incorporate climate change as a core element of studies. But, this would not mean a stovepiping of climate change studies as some form of subset of science education, but as an issue that crosses across all subject arenas, whether ‘civics’ (civil responsibility in the face of human-driven climate change) or science.

Today’s Boston Globe published an example of this effort, Put Climate Change in the Curriculum, an OPED by a Boston high school student (Queen Arsem-O’Malley) working to make climate change part of the Boston and Massachusetts educational program.

Let’s walk our way through this OPED, which is both strong and, sigh, perhaps overly optimistic in some ways.

ENVIRONMENTAL consciousness is sweeping the nation. Politicians, vacation destinations, and college campuses all try to attract people with talk of carbon footprints, carbon offsets, and carbon neutrality. And the movement has been fueled by the SIGG-carrying, bike-riding portion of the population – in other words, by young adults.

Is “environmental consciousness” truly “sweeping the nation”? Perhaps this is an ageism issue, perhaps. In the face of economic challenges, far more Americans seem concerned about employment today, paying the bills, and the dissolution of their 401(k)s into 101(k)s. While President-Elect Obama calls for centering the upcoming stimulus package in a green direction, most Americans remain caught into the fossil-foolish disinformation concepts that place the economy against the environment, rather than the reality that it is the economy and environment.

Yet, “green” is the color of advertising and promotion – whether that is greenwashing or substance. The question, perhaps, is the depth of the ‘consciousness’ associated with “green” as the new Red, White, and Blue.

But while environmental responsibility has become a top concern for colleges, the time has come to make climate change a more prominent subject of earlier schooling as well.

Again, perhaps an optimistic statement about the extent to which, writ large, environmental responsibility has penetrated across the entire university-level educational system (definitely a growing focus, but “top concern for colleges”, writ large, unsure), definitely true that “climate change” should become a “more prominent subject of earlier schooling”. It is the challenge of our times and represents the opportunity for choosing paths toward much stronger societies or utter catastrophe moving into the future. For the moment, at least, humanity seems to have control over its destiny and, as such, this must be a greater part of the educational system for forming the citizenry.

The point of climate-change education isn’t that students should be able to spout carbon-emissions facts as they hug trees and recycle everything within reach (though they may do much of that after learning the facts).

No, the education required isn’t some form of nerdy, Birkenstock-wearing environmental movement aside from the center from society.

As climate change becomes more and more dire, it affects every aspect of our lives: social, political, physical, and economic.

The impact is not somehow stove-piped, physically or economically isolated from our daily lives. What is isolated, in a sense, is our ability to translate the seemingly incremental movement of climate change (ever so slow when measured in human terms of our daily lives, with changes measured over years and not minutes, but at near light-speed in geologic terms) into our understanding of how our daily activities and our own choices (as individuals, groups, and society) are controlling our own destinies.

Recognizing this, the G-8 summit culminated in a commitment by the major industrial nations to a 50 percent decrease in greenhouse gas emissions by 2050.

Now, let’s take a pause for a moment. To be clear, the 50 percent “commitment” is almost certainly inadequate a change to enable avoidance of massively catastrophic climate change. A 50 percent reduction might (might) enable stabilization of CO2 (and equivalent) levels of about 550 parts per million, roughly double the pre-industrial level. We are, today, at about 389 ppm. James Hansen, NASA’s lead climate-change scientist, calls for a reduction to 350 ppm, at a minimum, to stabilize the climate in a way favorable for human civilization. Note that minor gap between limiting growth to 550 ppm, which will already be a difficult target to achieve, and reducing atmospheric concentrations to 350 ppm.

But how can we ever achieve that change if today’s secondary- and elementary-school students lack the tools to understand the problem and build solutions?

In many ways, this question mirrors the calls for improved science and math education that have been a near constant chorus since, perhaps, the 1960s and the end of the space race’s appeal on the mass of American youth for a dedication to science and scientific achievements.

On the broadest level, students need to understand the science behind climate change and recognize that although the science continues to become more refined, we can act now with the information we have. Students need to become more familiar with the general strategies we will use to lessen the impacts of climate change. Perhaps most importantly, students need to learn to think creatively about climate change, since innovative solutions will be necessary for one of the most challenging problems of our time.

“Think creativity” seems, sadly, to be one of the growing weaknesses of the American educational system or, well, perhaps more broadly American society. Engrossed in the latest Bachelor in Hawaii and American Idol, too many Americans (of all ages) seem divorced from substantive engagement and interest in substantive knowledge.
Another gap, reflected in these words, is the need to have the tools to understand the complexities and interactions of how climate change is a cross-cutting challenge and opportunity, not easily stovepiped into a simple ‘shoe-box’ to be worried about by some small segment of society. As with ‘energy’, climate change requires holistic understanding of systems-of-systems interactions and opportunities.

Climate change is a quickly evolving phenomenon, so instructional materials and specific curricula may become dated quickly. Some groups, such as the National Wildlife Federation, have compiled materials for teachers to use within their existing curriculums, which is the only feasible way to approach climate-change education: to incorporate it into a variety of subjects.

A benefit of the speed of information movement, we have the ability to move new educational materials with the speed of light. The reality of educational processes: just like all of us, educators are the product of their own education and formation, with differing ability to assimilate rapidly new information and new educational requirements. And, educational systems are bureaucracies which do not adapt and evolve curricula at light speed.
Again, the reality that climate change education shouldn’t be stove-piped as some three-day section of fourth-grade science, but part of the entire educational process.

Here in Massachusetts, the Youth Climate Action Network (a group in which I participate), made up of schools and groups from all over the state, is organizing a public hearing on climate-change education. The network is made up of students, educators, community organizers, and others. Members are working together to define the specific lessons and skills that could become part of the state-mandated curriculum.

Simply put: bravo to those involved.

I suspect that many states and communities have similar efforts underway.

Environmental responsibility has become such a hot topic for college-bound high school students that the Sustainable Endowments Institute has published the “College Sustainability Report Card” for the past two years. It grades 200 schools’ policies in categories such as green building, transportation, food services, and recycling. (“Sustainability leader” Middlebury College offers locally grown berries.) In August, Congress passed the Higher Education Sustainability Act, providing grants to colleges and universities to encourage academic programs that address sustainability, and to help campuses become more energy-efficient.

Even March Madness has greened … at least a little.

Not to forget, ‘greening’ has multiple benefits, not just somehow reputational. Studies and experience to date suggests that “greening the schools” (at all levels) might be the most cost-effective pathway to improving educational achievement.
A “green” university is a stronger position for recruiting students, perhaps an important attribute in an economic environment with fewer students who can pay for their education. And, by the way, “green” is a real advantage in business recruitment (perhaps less important in a period where people are desperate for any position which can provide an income).

It’s not just the attraction of “green” campuses that motivates high school students, it’s also the desire to be prepared for green jobs. The growth of the “green-collar” job market makes climate-change education a necessity. With the creation of the state’s Clean Energy Technology Center, more than $2 million is being invested in workforce development in the clean-energy sector. Boston alone is spending a quarter of a million dollars on local green-collar training.

Amid our economic travails, the reality of green jobs are that they span the entire economy in terms of opportunity and the entire skill set of humanity in terms of requirements. “Green Jobs” can range from ‘low skill’ manual labor planting trees under guidance to advanced scientific work developing a renewable energy technology and every imaginable skill level in-between (Thus, the ‘blue-green collar’ and ‘white-green’ collar economic futures working together to foster a prosperous and climate-friendly society.)

But the need for environmental education goes way beyond green-collar jobs.

Absolutely. Education is not, simply, a training program for the work force.

The Boston City Council’s Committee on Education sees climate-change education as a critical step toward shaping students into responsible citizens, and crucial in the switch to a green economy. There is the No Child Left Inside Act, a bill now waiting for a vote in the US House. The measure would authorize $500 million in grants to states for professional development and programs in environmental and outdoor education.

The number of hours that America’s youth spend outside have plummeted in recent decades, with increased attraction of interior entertainment (television, computers), increased societal fears outdoors (child molesters and risk of kidnapping), and reduced physical education within most school systems. All of these (and other developments) conspire to divorce America’s youth experience from the natural world.

Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley has already jumped on the solar-powered bandwagon, announcing in April that he would be creating the Children in Nature Partnership to advise him on creating a statewide plan. So where’s ours?

If Maryland, why not Massachusetts? If those two, why not the other 48 states?

Among all proposed educational reforms, climate-change education is a time-sensitive issue that needs to be acted upon immediately.

The stimulus package will be “green”. A core part of this will, we can hope, will be a massive movement to “green the schools”. This creates a true opening for a movement to not just ‘green’ the physical infrastructure but to, as well, green the entire educational system.

For example, some portion of the infrastructure funds can be put aside for monitoring and analysis, with some fraction of that set aside for students (perhaps in science and math classes) to be collecting and analyzing the data as to how energy efficiency programs are working. Students can be employed (literally, for cash, at older ages) in helping to install and maintain green roofs.

Kudoes to Queen Arsem-O’Malley for working to incorporate climate-change into the Massachusetts educational program and for writing this Christmas Day call for accelerating this change.

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Tags: climate change · Energy · Global Warming

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  • 1 Pages tagged "favorable" // Dec 25, 2008 at 3:00 pm

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