Environmental Literacy for Indiana’s K-12 Students

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The world’s leading climate scientists have spoken. If left unchecked, the current rate of greenhouse gas emissions not only endangers the health and security of future generations, but could bring major environmental and social crises as soon as 2040. The landmark report issued in October by the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change predicts climate-related risk to natural systems as well as to human health, livelihoods, food security, water supply, and economic growth. Authored by 91 scientists from 40 countries, the report found that we need to limit global warming even more than previously thought. Volume II of the Fourth National Climate Assessment released last week narrows in on U.S. risks and impacts. Written by 13 governmental agencies and dozens of scientists, this report details how our country can choose a safer path forward.

This scientific consensus that global warming is happening, and is human-caused, is undoubtedly concerning to America’s youth. When it comes to the health effects of climate change, children are the most vulnerable population. And after decades of American policymakers’ kicking the can down the road, Millennials and post-Millennials will inherit the very real harm that climate change has caused. Students in today’s K-12 classrooms must be prepared to engineer solutions and advance public policies that will allow global society to adapt to and mitigate the effects of climate change.

A report by the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication found that Americans overwhelmingly agree that schools should teach children about the causes, consequences, and potential solutions to global climate change. But how—or whether—public school students are taught the science of climate change, and its impact on natural and human systems, varies across the country.

NGSS and State Standards: A Political Battlefield

Released in April 2013, the Next Generation Science Standards include global climate change as a core idea in science education. Nineteen states and the District of Columbia (representing over 36% of U.S. students) have adopted NGSS standards, while twenty states (representing 29% of U.S. students)—including Indiana—have developed their own standards. 

In the 2014-2015 academic year, the National Center for Science Education found that while about 75% of public school science teachers taught some component of climate change, students received mixed messages about its causes. Of those educators who taught global warming, 31% emphasized that climate change is the result of both human and natural causes, and 10% emphasized that global warming is solely a natural phenomenon.

As climate change skepticism abounds within the Trump administration, state lawmakers have used school standards as a platform for political showmanship. Recent political showdowns over the inclusion of climate change in state standards have taken place in New Mexico, West Virginia, Texas, and Idaho.

In Indiana, Republican state Senator Jeff Raatz co-sponsored a successful resolution in 2017 urging the Department of Education to “support teachers who choose to teach a diverse curriculum.” This kind of “academic freedom” act is the most common measure that state legislators have pursued when it comes to protecting teachers who cut against the grain of scientific consensus when teaching controversial topics like climate change and evolution. Since 2004, academic freedom acts have been introduced more than 50 times in 20 states.

But key teacher organizations have taken a stand for established climate science. The National Science Teachers Association (NSTA) issued a position statement in September acknowledging the “overwhelming scientific consensus” of human-caused global warming, and likening the solid scientific foundation of climate change science to that of plate tectonics and planetary astronomy. NSTA asserted that “any controversies regarding climate change and human-caused contributions to climate change that are based on social, economic, or political arguments—rather than scientific arguments—should not be part of a science curriculum.”

Teaching Climate Change Beyond the Science Classroom: Environmental Literacy Across the Disciplines

Cultivating environmental literacy should not be limited to the science classroom—it should also be nurtured in humanities and social studies classrooms. Educators have the opportunity to enrich their curriculum by discussing climate change in a diverse array of classes, including history, social studies, economics, and health.

Momentum is building around the country, and in the Hoosier state, for professional development opportunities on teaching climate change. The Environmental Resilience Institute, which is part of Indiana University’s Prepared for Environmental Change Grand Challenge, and the WonderLab Museum of Science, Health and Technology have partnered in summer programming that helps Indiana educators effectively communicate climate science to their students and empower the next generation of scientists and policymakers. 

With Americans becoming more worried and less hopeful about global warming, it is important to remember that people who remain hopeful about the environment are consistently more likely to report that they will act to address global warming. Climate change education programs are effective in fostering environmental literacy among students and equipping them to make informed decisions about future social and environmental challenges. Indiana’s K-12 students need these resources now, and for the years to come.

  • Perspectives

    • Richardson is a practice lead with Centric Consulting.

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