It’s time for schools to prepare the next generation of environmental health leaders

With the summer season winding down, schools are reopening their doors to students, many of whom have not seen the insides of a classroom for more than a year. In addition to returning amid the COVID-19 surge, students also begin their academic year in the shadow of record-breaking temperatures, widespread hurricanes, and fire-and-drought-related health threats. 

Today’s generation is uniquely exposed to harmful environmental circumstances. Air pollution from fossil fuels kills an estimated 7 million people every year, making it the 4th leading cause of death. Wildfires have only exasperated air pollution, significantly increasing susceptibility to COVID-19. The most recent United Nations report sounded a “code red for humanity,” warning that while we still have a window to limit climate catastrophe, some impacts are irreversible and this remediation window slowly closes by the day. Given that climate change is responsible for 37 percent of heat-related deaths globally and more than $820 billion annually in health care costs, President Biden recently launched the Office of Climate Change and Health Equity to specifically assess the public health dangers of global warming. 

Children are the most vulnerable to climate impacts, and they will suffer the consequences of past generations’ inactions towards addressing this existential threat. UNICEF’s recent Children’s Climate Risk Index (CCRI) finds that half of all children globally live in countries ranked “extremely high risk” for climate-related hazards. In the fall of 2017, 9 million children, across  9 U.S. states, the Virgin Islands, and Puerto Rico, missed a portion of schooling due to natural disasters, and this trend will only magnify. Climate events threaten basic children’s rights to acceptable living conditions, primary education, clean water, healthy food, and a clean and safe environment. 

One might think that with the increasingly dangerous marks of climate change, schools’ top priority would be educating students about environmental science and climate justice. However, with the exception of New Jersey (the first state to mandate K-12 climate lessons), most schools neglect to address the climate crisis. While 86 percent of U.S. teachers and 4 out of 5 parents wish schools taught climate-topics,  just 45 percent of teachers included climate lessons in their curriculum and the average science teacher only devotes 1.5 hours per school year to the subject — wholly inadequate to confront the problem’s importance. Few kids discuss the subject with family, so many must learn through hearsay or clickbait news that overwhelmingly paints the climate issue as a doomsday situation and ignores a solution-driven approach. 

Providing climate and sustainability education can be life-saving and can protect 275 million children from climate risks. We must prepare climate-literate youth that are capable of confronting the climate crisis, rather than forcing them to be passive bystanders. With climate education, young people will learn how climate change is reflected in their lived experiences. Given the potential eco-anxiety of learning about environmental intersectionality, an implemented climate curriculum must also prioritize coping strategies to address the increasing youth mental health crisis stemming from climate events. 

The public education system is a crucial — but often overlooked — climate-action stakeholder. While running the country’s largest bus fleet of 480,000 majority-diesel buses, the U.S. education system is one of the most significant public energy consumers with 98,000 schools served and annual energy costs of $8 billion. Integrating climate curricula and green infrastructure policies across the education sector will meaningfully reduce CO2 emissions. Policymakers and governments must prioritize green schools in infrastructure and climate-action initiatives, as net-zero schools will be resilient to future impacts and provide billions of dollars worth of cost-savings for local taxpayers. Economic stimulus dollars ought to support career and technical training, school solar-panel retrofits, and a transition to electric bus fleets. In addition, more states must enact state policy standards mandating K-12 climate lessons across all subjects and providing schools with the ready-made resources to implement them.

In the U.S., “green” jobs are the fastest-growing occupations; yet, half of young people feel that they do not have the right skills for future green careers. Climate education will help catalyze the generation of green professionals increasingly needed as we shift to fossil-free net-zero economies. It is also the foundation to build a generation ready and able to tackle our most pressing issues, united in the life-long commitment to planetary health stewardship and global citizenship. 

With over 50 million children enrolled in U.S. public schools today and 90 percent of the world’s nearly 2 billion children enrolled in some sort of schooling, we are a powerful demographic with the potential to shift the tide towards climate action. With less than two months until COP 26, the UN’s most important international climate change conference, there is no time to waste. So, let’s ensure that our leaders commit to bold and comprehensive climate and sustainability education for all children. Now is the time for the education system to step up to the climate crisis. 

Ellery Spikes and Rohan Arora are activists with The Community Check-Up. This national youth-led environmental health organization works to restructure the climate narrative as a public health emergency through youth outreach and engagement. Spikes, a trained Climate Reality Leader interested in climate literacy and regenerative agriculture, serves as the Policy and Advocacy Director. Arora is the co-founder and executive director with significant experience in climate accessibility, youth advocacy, and environmental health.