By Peter Crownfield and Devon Jewell
Editors note: This essay is adapted from the Alliance summer internship report on Climate Change Education, for which Devon was the lead author, and from a longer article on environmental justice written that Devon and Peter wrote for the upcoming State of the Lehigh Valley report.
Why do some serious, widespread problems persist year after year, decade after decade, generation after generation? One reason is that the problems are shrouded in myths and half-truths, reinforced by the government and the media. Could these problems have been solved decades earlier if our schools didn’t perpetuate those myths and false narratives that help maintain the status quo?
Too many schools proudly proclaim a commitment to critical thinking, but continue teaching half-truths and myths while glossing over issues that could engage students in real critical thinking. We think schools have an obligation to teach the truth—pleasant and unpleasant—about the real world. When they fail to do this (whether because of state-imposed standards or local policy) they are making school less relevant to students’ lives and failing to prepare them for the world they will face.
Despite all the nice words from politicians and agencies at both the federal and state levels, it seems clear that the powerful forces of racism, elitism, and economic self-interest by those with power continue to block even the most basic levels of human rights and equity. It’s way past time for all schools to help students learn about all these difficult topics instead of sweeping them under the rug!
What do students learn about environmental justice and the movement that has continued since the 1960s, when it became clear that governments and industry treated poor and minority communities unfairly when it came to siting polluting or disruptive projects? Do they learn about the Flint Water Crisis and discuss the task force findings that it was a classic case of environmental racism, where “… regional EPA officials and state officials in Michigan responded first with a cover-up, and then defensively—either trying to avoid responsibility or minimizing the extent of the damage”?
After a Minneapolis police officer murdered George Floyd, bringing police brutality and racism to the fore, a number of schools heard from graduates, asking why their schools hadn’t covered these widespread patterns of police violence and racism in school. We could point to dozens of key issues that cry for some real critical thinking, issues dealing with the justice system, healthcare, human rights, militarism and cover-up of war crimes, foreign policy, economics, and many more. For now, though, let’s look at just two areas that are especially important in terms of teaching the truth and climate education.
One key area is the failure to teach truth about Indigenous people, past and present. The Indigenous cultures preceded the settler-colonial movement by 10,000 years or more, and continue to provide invaluable leadership and knowledge to help deal with existential issues such as climate change and the perils of fossil fuels. How do students learn to see beyond myths and falsehoods such as the Thanksgiving story and tales that the ‘Indians’ sold the land to the settlers?
Do they learn about the many ways Indigenous societies cared for the land and protected natural ecosystems for coming generations, not leaving them to clean up the adults’ mess. The idea of considering the welfare of children and future generations is not new; in fact, it was stated about 1,000 years ago in the Haudenosaunee people’s ‘Great Law of Peace’, founding what is often referred to as the Iroquois Confederacy.
Nothing has brought these educational gaps out more clearly than the climate emergency and the movement for climate justice. And, as is the case with so many things, the failure to rein in climate change will harm poor and marginalized communities, here and in the Global South, first and most severely. As we saw at COP26 in Glasgow, our so-called leaders ignore the practical wisdom of youth and Indigenous leaders; they refuse to accept the urgency and the need to confront those causing the problem. (Unfortunately, many people in the general population share the same thinking, partly because they were never taught the truth.)
To provide today’s youth and future generations with a safe and healthy environment, we need to listen to them and understand that we are in the vortex of a serious climate emergency that demands full mobilization and immediate action. Nice words, half-hearted steps, and empty promises are not acceptable. Pipelines, tar sands oil, and fracking are all part of the fossil-fuel-based system that has brought human civilization and Earth’s ecosystems to the brink of disaster, so every new permit approval or construction project makes things worse than they already are. We have reached the point where every bit of fossil fuel extracted and burned is destroying the future for today’s young people and for future generations.
What can parents, students, community members, and teachers do? First of all, recognize that the tsunami of climate catastrophe is already on its way, and we need to act now to prepare students and communities. It’s been over 20 years since the impacts of global warming and climate change became widely known and the existential nature of the crisis also was becoming clear. It’s been seven years since a leading Lehigh Valley school district publicly adopted a comprehensive Climate and Sustainability Commitment, yet many students in our local schools still graduate without having learned about the climate emergency or climate justice in school.
Help make the change!
1. Ask teachers in all subjects and grade levels to integrate materials related to the climate crisis in classroom discussions and assignments. Here are some examples of how teachers can do this:
- English/Language Arts teachers can easily incorporate material on climate change in reading, research, and writing assignments—essays, fiction, poetry, and journalism.
- Social Studies teachers can discuss policy issues, including exploration of why governments have failed to act, to enrich reading and discussions
- Science and Math teachers can use examples from climate science to teach concepts and skills in their subject at every age level. (See teach-climate.net for more specific ideas and resources.)
2. Ask Principals, department heads, and curriculum coordinators to support teachers in the process of integrating climate change into their teaching.
3. Make sure your school library or media center includes materials related to climate change and sustainability, such as No Planet B, Winds of Change, Radicalized, a selection of ‘cli-fi’ stories, and proposals for change, such as Drawdown and Being the Change.
4. Ask high-school teachers to engage students in a GHG-inventory project and begin to draft a climate action plan for the school. (See teach-climate.net for specific steps and tools, and ideas.)
5. Initiate and engage in conversations about the climate emergency with friends, neighbors, and co-workers at every opportunity!
To help raise public awareness, we need to do all these steps publicly, raising them at parent meetings and school board meetings—and with other parents and students.
Peter was one of the founding members of the Alliance in 2003 and has coordinated student internships for the Alliance since its founding.
Devon is a junior at Moravian Academy. She is passionate about environmental issues and wants to have a positive impact on the local community.