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Who Stands for the Planet?

Photo by Li-An Lim on Unsplash

By Hinda Majri and Maria Mongelluzzo

Climate change is a topic dominating many conversations in recent years. From regular reports of the increased occurrence and intensity of natural disasters, like wildfires in Australia, to young activists like Greta Thunberg voicing their concerns on a global stage, to the continued fight for environmental protections and policies, such as the Green New Deal, climate change seems to be on everyone’s mind.

But who is responsible for teaching K12 students about climate change in the United States and ensure future generations have a more sustainable relationship with the Earth? What impact does climate change curriculum have outside the classroom?


The UN Sustainable Development Goal 13[1] specifically addresses climate change. Target 13.3[2] and Indicator 13.3.1[3] stress the need to incorporate climate change curricula at every level of education (UN Sustainable Development Goals, n.d.). Current UNESCO data suggests their focus is on the targets and indicators related to resilience and adaptation to natural disasters and hazards (United Nations, n.d.). This seems appropriate given the dire circumstances surrounding natural disasters but leaves individual countries, states, and even schools to make decisions about how, and if at all, they will address climate change education.

While UNESCO data is not currently available, other institutions have attempted to gauge attitudes about climate change education in schools in the United States. An NPR/Ipsos survey considered teacher opinions of climate change education in the classroom[4] (Kamenetz, 2019).

Using this and other information, the U.S. can begin to understand public opinions and how to incorporate climate change education into classrooms.

Who Takes a Stand Around the World?

It is important to consider the progress made by other countries in incorporating climate change education into the classroom.

In late 2019, Italy became the first and only country to create a policy that requires public elementary schools to incorporate climate change education into courses including geography, math and physics (Nace, 2019).

In January of this year, New Zealand created a national climate change curriculum for middle school students. While not compulsory, teachers will have access to classroom materials and teacher resources to help students learn about climate action and managing climate anxiety (Ramirez, 2020).

Who Takes a Stand in the U.S.?

In most U.S. states, it is up to individual schools or school districts to decide how to incorporate climate change education into their curricula, a challenging task considering the little resources and lack of funding most schools are facing.

Thankfully, many organizations and initiatives provide support to schools, local districts and communities. NASA dedicates a section of their website to professional development courses, workshops and resources for schools. The STEM412 Global Climate Change Education for Middle School course, for example, is a collaborative effort with PBS Teacherline that offers education professionals training on how to engage middle-school students and help them understand the causes and effects of climate change (PBS, n.d.).

In 2019, Washington state invested $4 million to train teachers on how to incorporate climate education into their lessons and classrooms (Pailthorp, 2019). Focusing on local, visible problems, hundreds of teachers have participated in various training across the state including going on-site locations where climate change problems, such as wildfires and sea-level rise, can be seen and better understood (Pailthorp, 2019). For example, during a training focused on solid waste and garbage, teachers visited and learned from Seattle Public Utilities (Pailthorp, 2019).

The Zinn Education Project offers workshops for schools and teachers unions as well as classroom-tested lessons for elementary through high school through their Teach Climate Justice Campaign. Their People’s Curriculum for the Earth is a collection of articles, role plays, simulations, stories, poems, and graphics to help animate teaching about the environmental crisis.

One of the simplest and most successful actions the Zinn Education Project promotes is to take the pledge to teach climate justice. Sarah Giddings, Middle School Social Studies teacher in Mesa, Arizona took the pledge and says that lessons on climate change took her students “from a place of what appeared to be indifference and complacency, to a place of inquiry, compassion, and activism” (Zinn, 2020).

Teachers also get students involved in activities like The Climate Change Challenge where students come up with creative solutions to reduce harmful effects of climate change. Stephanie Kadison, a High Science Teacher from Alabama, shared that “one student came up with [a] light switch that turned off if there were no sound waves for more than 30 minutes to save energy” (Bigelow & Swinehart, 2020).

Beyond the classroom, the Zinn Education Project encourages youth engagement by offering a list of opportunities to engage in climate justice actions like the Nature Bridge Summer Programs or Climate Generation.

Finally, the project also encourages grassroot organizing by featuring successful resolutions to adopt a climate curriculum like the one passed in Portland School district from the continued pressure from students, parents and teachers.

The Impact

Students are having an impact outside of the classroom. From what they learn in school, students are influencing their parents, changing and opening their parents’ minds about climate change: “The North Carolina study, published in May 2019 in research journal Nature Climate Change, found that middle school-aged students who learned about climate change were pretty good at getting their parents to think differently about the issue.” (Sayler, 2019)

Climate change education also has a real impact on communities: “In 2016, Nature Energy released a study that showed that Girl Scouts who learned about energy-saving techniques were able to bring them into their homes. Kids have also proven effective at getting their parents to recycle more, according to a study in Waste Management” (Sayler, 2019).

As our climate continues to change, climate change education offers some hope. Hope that decision makers will make this a priority for future generations.

We leave you with this final thought:


[1] Goal 13: take urgent action to combat climate change and its impacts
[2] Target 13.3: improve education, awareness-raising and human institutional capacity on climate change mitigation, adaptation, impact reduction and early warning
[3] Indicator 13.3.1: number of countries that have integrated mitigation, adaptation, impact reduction and early earning into primary, secondary and tertiary curricula
[4] The NPR/Ipsos survey resulted from polling approximately 1,000 adults and 500 teachers


Bigelow, B. & Swinehart, T. (2020). A People’s Curriculum for the Earth: Teaching Climate Change and the Environmental Crisis. Retrieved from https://www.zinnedproject.org/materials/peoples-curriculum-for-the-earth

Kamenetz, Anya. (2019, April 22). Most teachers don’t teach climate change; 4 in 5 parents wish they did. Retrieved from https://www.npr.org/2019/04/22/714262267/most-teachers-dont-teach- climate-change-4-in-5-parents-wish-they-did

Nace, Trevor. (2019, November 19). Italian law to require climate change education in grade school. Retrieved from https://www.forbes.com/sites/trevornace/2019/11/19/italy-law-to-require- climate-change-education-in-grade-school/#12c82e765dae

NASA. (2020, February 12). Professional development courses, workshops and resources. https://climate.nasa.gov/resources/education/edOpps/

Pailthorp, Bellamy. (2019, March 4). Washington invests $4 million this year to bring climate science into classrooms. Retrieved from https://www.knkx.org/post/washington-invests-4- million-year-bring-climate-science-classrooms

PBS NASA. (n.d.). Resources for Teaching Global Climate Change in Middle School. http://www.pbs.org/teacherline/catalog/courses/STEM412/?utm_source=em&utm_medium=new s&utm_campaign=courses_sum10

Ramirez, R. (2020, January 14). New Zeal(and) for climate education. Retrieved from https://grist.org/beacon/new-zealand-for-climate-education/

Sayler, Z. (2019, May 23).

UN Sustainable Development Goals. (n.d.). Knowledge Platform. Retrieved from https://sustainabledevelopment.un.org/sdg13

United Nations. (n.d.) The Sustainable Development Goals Report 2019. Retrieved from https://undesa.maps.arcgis.com/apps/MapSeries/index.html?appid=48248a6f94604ab98f6ad29fa 182efbd

Zinn Education Project. (2020). https://www.zinnedproject.org/campaigns/teach-climate-justice

Sites DOT MIISThe Middlebury Institute site network.