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Climate Change Education Spreads As Other Curriculum Battles Rage On

Several states have moved to enshrine climate education in standards.

Young students with backpacks walking down hallway of elementary schoolThomas Barwick/Getty Images

Amid fierce fights over state educational standards and curricula, one mainstay of the culture wars – climate change – has shifted largely to the sidelines. 

Though some states continue to block the teaching of climate change, the overall trend is toward increasing rather than decreasing state support for bringing climate into the classroom. What was once a dominant culture-war issue for education has been eclipsed by pitched battles over restricting the teaching of race and racism, gender and LGBTI issues, and various parts of American history.

Over the last few years, state lawmakers have introduced dozens of pro-climate education bills have been introduced, with some success shepherding them into law. Meanwhile, PEN America tracked more than 80 bills restricting teaching of sexuality and gender, race, and similar issues in only the first couple of months of this year.

“We are seeing slow, incremental, and uneven improvements in the treatment of climate change in state science standards,” said Glenn Branch, deputy director of the non-profit National Center for Science Education. “Part of that is we're coming from a pretty low standard — 20 years ago there was practically nothing about climate change in state science standards, so any inclusion is likely to be for the better.”

In and out of the crosshairs

What can or cannot be taught in schools is a raging issue in many parts of  the country. A small sample: 

  • Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, a Republican, has pushed a variety of changes to state curricula, including last year’s so-called “Don’t Say Gay” bill that restricted teaching of gender and sexuality. 
  • Texas’s Senate Bill 8 would give parents more oversight over school curricula and also pare back teachers’ ability to discuss gender and sexuality issues. (The Texas House offered a pared down version, drawing Republican Governor Greg Abbott’s ire.) 
  • South Carolina’s House Bill 3779 would ban teaching anything at all “about persons who owned slaves.” 

Notably, while scientific topics like evolution used to be in the middle of such wars, today they tend to center more around history, race, and other social issues.

Climate change has starred in similar conflicts over the years. For example, a protracted battle in Idaho kept climate off the state standards from 2016 through 2018. But even there, eventually the science won out and climate change made it into the classroom. 

Now, while Republicans in Florida, Texas, and elsewhere work to limit teaching of other subjects in various ways, lawmakers in several other states are now trying to enshrine climate science into state standards. Three separate pro-climate bills are on the table in Massachusetts this year, including one that would revise the state science standards so they “will provide students with a deeper understanding of anthropogenic climate change.” Similarly, New York’s  Senate Bill S5661 would require climate curriculum to be taught in grades 1-12.

New York state Sen. James Sanders (D), the bill’s sponsor, represents some low-lying parts of Queens which were among the hardest hit by flooding from Superstorm Sandy in 2012. He calls his district the Lower 9th Ward of New York City, in reference to the part of New Orleans that was badly flooded during Hurricane Katrina, and warns that rising seas thanks to climate change are a direct threat to his and similar areas. “Given the scientifically-based threat climate change poses to us all, it is imperative that the science of climate change is taught to students,” he told The Messenger.

Varied approaches 

The bills proliferating across primarily blue states — including Connecticut, Minnesota, and Rhode Island — take a number of forms, Branch said. Some are symbolic resolutions simply expressing support for climate education. Others would change state standards, like those in Massachusetts and New York. A third group focuses on allocating resources for teacher education on climate change — a clear necessity when many teachers themselves never received much instruction on the issue.

A fourth category focuses on climate action and justice, changing standards to include education on how to fight back against climate change and how it disproportionately affects some groups, like people of color or those in poorer rural areas. A bill under consideration in Minnesota would require the creation of “a climate justice model program for elementary and secondary school students aligned with current scientific research.”

But legislatures aren’t the only branches of state governments taking up the climate education mantle. In New Jersey, as part of an effort led by Tammy Murphy, wife of Gov. Phil Murphy, the state adopted unique standards that require the teaching of climate change across all subject areas, rather than just in science curricula.

“If you take a German class in New Jersey, now, you're expected to learn how to make chit-chat about ‘klimawandel,’” Branch said. Those standards went into effect this school year.

Lingering attacks

While in general the trend is toward more rather than less climate education, the topic is not entirely immune from attacks designed to prevent it from being taught in schools. In Utah, a set of amendments to the state curriculum was narrowly voted down this month; one would have removed climate change from the curriculum. In Ohio, a wide-ranging education bill categorizes climate change as a “controversial belief or policy,” and would require educators teach “both sides” on the issue. The bill, introduced by Republican state Senator Jerry Cirino, passed the Senate on Wednesday and now heads to the House.

There is a chance that the increased focus on other educational topics may simply be drawing attention away from climate as a curriculum issue. “I think there's some connection and interplay,” Branch told The Messenger. He added that some of the same groups that used to attack evolution in schools have now moved on to things like race. “I don't think it necessarily means that they've given up on the hope of going after science. But it does mean at least that they're paying less attention to science currently.”

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