Climate Change Education: Shifting Perspectives of Teachers

Why Aren’t All Teachers on Board With Climate Change Education if It’s So Important?

By Beth Rush, Managing Editor at Body+Mind

Despite increasing temperatures, melting ice, rising sea levels and more severe natural disasters, climate change education in the United States remains limited. Even with its urgent relevance, many perceive it as a distant issue. However, if ignored, these impacts will only continue to escalate, affecting both the planet and the future of younger generations.

If climate change is a global emergency, why aren’t all educators integrating climate change into their curricula? Shouldn’t these community leaders be at the forefront of combating climate change? Discover the obstacles hindering their involvement.

How Important is Climate Change Education?

Global warming remains one of the most prominent natural and man-induced environmental problems. It all started when society began to industrialize how people lived and worked has dramatically impacted the increasingly warming temperatures that the Earth is experiencing today. Since 1900, the planet’s average surface air temperature has increased by about one degree Celsius, which may seem irrelevant at first glance but can pose an alarming threat on a global scale.

Fossil fuels, deforestation, transportation, solid waste and overconsumption contribute directly to greenhouse gas emissions. As the number rises, so does the global temperature. With each person generating an average of 4.51 pounds of municipal solid waste (MSW) and without definite alternatives to fossil fuels, you can only expect the following years to be warmer than the previous years.

This is why climate change education is crucial. As melting glaciers, rising ocean levels and frequent extreme weather events threaten the planet’s life, the next generation will be more equipped with knowledge to minimize the risks of natural and man-made disasters. Education empowers the youth to understand and innovate solutions that can decelerate the harmful impacts of climate change.

Why It’s an Urgent Need

Education has always been an essential tool for change and innovation. When used as an avenue to raise climate change awareness, it’ll empower students to actively participate in protecting the environment. The youth can learn how to incorporate sustainable practices into their everyday choices in the classroom.

A study found that if each student minimizes their carbon emissions by 2.86 tons of carbon dioxide and climate change education boosts from less than 1% in 2020 to 16% among all secondary students by 2050, it could significantly reduce emissions by 18.8 GT of carbon dioxide.

Despite the significant positive effects of education, many educators still have yet to educate the youth — the most vulnerable to the impacts of climate change.

Why Don’t All Teachers Teach It?

On a nationwide lens, Americans prioritize climate change less than other national problems. While they believe global warming is a significant problem, they would instead prioritize addressing economic issues and rising health care costs.

Though the global crisis is impacting the environment rapidly, changes are happening slowly inside classrooms. As school years get hotter, this occurrence will soon become a new normal within the following years if the government continues to ignore these challenges:

Lack of Training and Resources

Insufficient access to training programs and teaching materials contributes to the lack of climate change education. While there’s a wealth of information online, it isn’t easily accessible According to Sarah Bodor, the director of policy at the North American Association for Environmental Education (NAAEE) via Education Week, many teachers don’t have enough resources and time to create developmentally appropriate and effective lesson plans.

A study by the NAAEE found that only 21% of educators feel “very informed” about climate change, either because they lack resources or because they specialize in other subjects that rarely touch on environmental issues, such as Math and English.

Complicated Nature of the Topic

The same research found that the concepts of global warming might be too advanced for primary-age students, especially for students with disabilities. Coupled with a lack of resources, teachers find it challenging to create a lesson plan that can simplify the topic for the students. Although teachers know the importance of climate change education, many educators still need to be more informed to teach about it.

Political Gaps

Around 78% of registered voters support schools teaching children about the consequences of global warming, including conservative to liberal Democrats, moderate Republicans, Independents and conservative Republicans.

There’s a stark difference between how Democrats and Republicans discuss climate change. Around 59% of Democrats believe climate crisis is a top priority, while only 13% of Republicans regard it as such. These partisan differences make it challenging for teachers to discuss the growing global concern about climate because there’s a disconnect between perceptions of climate impacts.

Decreasing Prevalence of Climate Change in Textbooks

Since climate change has become political and divisive, textbook publishers have resorted to ambiguous language to avoid controversy and speed up the approval of their books. A study that analyzed 57 college biology textbooks published between 1970 and 2019 found that passages citing climate change decreased. Solutions to the global crisis peaked in the 1990s and comprised 15% of the climate content, but it fell to only 3% in 2010 to 2019 books.

Time Constraints

No matter how passionate teachers are about teaching about the global crisis, there isn’t enough time in a day. Between creating lesson plans, tests, meetings with parents and teaching in classrooms, educators always face time constraints and deadlines — all in eight hours or more. Balancing these demands while learning about climate change may require significant time, making it challenging to fit it into their already jam-packed schedules.

Students watching birds at Nador Lagoon
- Climate Change Education: Shifting Perspectives of Teachers
Students watching birds at Nador Lagoon
Credit: Kokopelado

4 Ways to Improve Climate Change Education

Discover how nation leaders and educators can collaborate to provide students with quality climate change education.

  1. Connect Climate Change to Existing Curriculum

If you’re a teacher, integrate global warming-related topics into the course curricula through topics you specialize in. For instance, stories for literature subjects can tap into climate change and paint a world impacted by it. You can also infuse social elements, such as climate justice, poverty and public health. This would ensure a more holistic approach to effective global warming education.

  1. Teach Actionable Ways to Save the Environment

Hands-on learning gives students a deeper understanding of nature and how to save it. Organize trips to nature reserves, local parks and eco-friendly communities where they can engage in sustainable activities. Studies show that children who engage in community service are 34% more likely to have good health and 35% less likely to have behavioral issues. By learning how to save the planet, you can also help them boost their overall wellness.

Here are some student-friendly approaches to teaching about climate change:

  • Litter picking: Picking litter in a local park or community center helps kids feel proactive in the battle against climate change. Encourage them to look for common trash, like candy wrappers and papers, and then teach them proper waste segregation.
  • Tree planting: Trees are essential for releasing energy and absorbing carbon dioxide. It’s a meaningful way to teach student the importance of giving back to nature, allowing them to get their hands dirty.
  • Carbon footprint tracking: Have students brainstorm ways to reduce their carbon footprint. Encourage including actionable tasks they can do at home, such as turning off lights and biking whenever possible.
  • Outdoor classes: Conduct classes outside the classroom every week or month. This helps students appreciate the health benefits of being outdoors and provides them with a first-hand experience of the impacts of global warming, in case it’s too hot outside.
  • Field trips: Visit establishments that support climate education effectiveness, such as farms, landfills, renewable energy plants or an eco-friendly company.
  1. Make Climate Change Topics Mandatory

The government should mandate climate change education to push schools to adopt climate education in their curricula. Three states are already leading the change against this movement — New Jersey, Connecticut and New York.

Schools in New Jersey are required to incorporate climate change in all subjects, including physical education, science, computer science and visual arts. However, the lack of resources in poorer districts hampers effective communication. The government should also provide proper training and materials for teachers to increase their knowledge base and confidence.

In 2022, Connecticut passed a law mandating public schools incorporate lessons on human-caused climate change into science subjects. The lessons should include climate change’s impacts on communities and potential solutions.

New York introduced climate change lessons to public schools. Multiple bills related to global warming are also being considered, with one proposing climate change education across all grades and subjects. The state is also considering adding a curriculum mandate that promotes decarbonized school establishments, composts lunches and prepares students for career opportunities in the clean energy industry.

  1. Partner With Different Sectors

Climate change anxiety disorder can affect anyone, including students. The symptoms might feel similar to regular anxiety, but the root cause is unique. This happens when someone perceives climate change as something they cannot do anything about. Help manage this eco-anxiety by having professionals from other disciplines engage with students.

For example, an environmental lawyer could discuss how law contributes to climate policy-making, or a journalist could share the importance of raising environmental awareness in the news.

Promote Climate Change Education Today

Climate change is an undeniable reality, with children being the most vulnerable victims of its impacts. Unfortunately, teachers often need more resources to effectively educate about it, leading to decreased confidence in their ability to teach the subject.

The first step toward a greener future is to provide educators with proper support. This will enable them to empower the youth with knowledge and inspiration, instilling a sense of urgency about their roles in addressing climate change and paving the way for a safer future.

About the Author

Beth Rush is the Managing Editor at Body+Mind and a lover of all things health and wellness. She is a well-respected writer in the personal wellness space and shares knowledge on a variety of topics related to nutrition, fitness, holistic health and disease prevention. In her spare time, Beth enjoys cooking healthy recipes and trying out new fitness trends.