Growing up less than an hour from the nation's capital, I considered my education to be unparalleled. In fact, the county in which I attended grade school is the richest county in America. However, it wasn't until my senior year of high school that I realized my education, and that of my fellow Americans, was severely lacking.
How? Well, while concepts such as parametric equations, rhetorical devices, civic disobedience, and more were thoroughly discussed by my teachers, there was absolutely no discussion about the climate crisis.
The lack of climate change education
In fact, substantial climate education didn't even come up till my senior year at my STEM-focused high school. See, I was fortunate enough to graduate from Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology, which has been consistently ranked as the best and most rigorous high school in the United States. However, the only discussion of the climate crisis occurred near the very end of my senior year, realistically a time when the majority of graduating seniors could care less about high school.
In our senior year, we were all required to take a class called Geosystems, which discussed the inner workings of how our Earth functions, and it presented the scientific basis behind some of the climate issues we face today. We covered the destruction of the ozone layer, rising water levels, and other important information that citizens of our world should know. However, the very fact that it wasn't even touched upon until the end of my senior year shows how its perceived importance fell far below other sciences, such as biology, chemistry and physics. Climate discussion was introduced to us during a time when most graduating seniors were distracted by our upcoming post-graduation plans like going to college or “beach week” plans. And, unfortunately, this is a commonplace found in hundreds of schools across the nation today — climate education, if covered at all, is introduced far too late in a student’s career to make any lasting impact.
The climate crisis is said to be one of the biggest threats to human existence to date, and the United Nations released a report in which experts warned that we only have a decade to make things right before irreparable damage is done. Irreparable, yet children and teens don't learn about it until after they're driving cars and preparing to live an adult life. Shouldn't this knowledge be embedded much earlier in our education?
Even in institutions like my high school that pride themselves on educating a generation of future leaders, the class and curriculum regarding environmental science is mocked by students and faculty alike behind closed doors. It’s the class no one takes seriously, and at the end of the day, this mockery of climate education will come to haunt my generation.
It's my firm belief that this is because we don't understand nor impress upon students the urgency necessary to tackle this crisis. We are taught environmental science in a way that feels like something abstract, something that doesn't directly affect us, but it does. It will literally injure our health and well-being for years to come if we don’t tackle the issue head-on.
If the students at top institutions who strive to be future leaders aren't taught to take this threat seriously, how can we point the finger at the youth in under-funded schools for not understanding the danger?
The trickle-down: knowledge has to start at the top
Leadership has to start at the top for there to be any change at other levels. Children in the U.K. and European countries are often taught the basics of why recycling and using less electricity is important while they're still in grade school, and they’re much more aware of the fact that lack of climate change education is a problem. In the U.K., many districts have pledged to have U.N.-trained climate change teachers in their schools. Teachers and students took to U.K. streets in 2019 to protest for more climate change education. Why isn’t this happening here?
As one of the most influential nations in the world, America has to make drastic changes if we're going to protect the Earth and our people for future generations. Climate change education in America has to evolve; it is vital that it focuses on the scientific aspects of the planet we inhabit and explains the consequences and our responsibility in plain terms. We don't need to scare our students, but we do need to show them respect by educating them with the important information that will save their lives.
Middle- and high-schoolers need to learn that the climate crisis and movement is truly intersectional; that racial inequalities, health disparities and more are directly linked to our inaction regarding the climate crisis. We spent years learning about the parts of the cell, but not once in my education was I taught about climate justice and how intersectional this crisis truly is. Simply saying that the planet is getting hotter or that polar bears are close to extinct isn’t going to do anything. Instead, saying that billions of impoverished people — and minorities in particular — are going to face worsening respiratory diseases, will. We have to adapt our curriculum to encompass intersectionality and environmental health in climate education. Otherwise, I worry the climate crisis won’t ever be addressed to the detriment of my generation and the generations after.
The harsh reality is people don't care until it's too late
We would all love to put our faith in one another, but the reality is the citizens of our nation have not addressed and will not be able to address the climate crisis till climate education becomes a national focus in our academic curriculum. It needs to be restructured in a way that truly explains the real-life impact of the climate crisis on our lives.
We also need to realize that it's not that Americans just don't care; it's that many can't care. How are you supposed to worry about lowering your carbon footprint when all you're worried about is getting to work and back so you can pay your bills and put food on the table? People in survival mode can't think outside of their bubble — and that's not a criticism, that's a simple fact. Worse still, these families are most likely to be negatively impacted by the climate crisis, just as they have been most at risk to Coronavirus.
Indeed, climate education cannot continue to be a privileged and polarizing issue. An NPR poll in 2019 found that 4 in 5 parents were in favor of climate change in the curriculum, but the NPR audience is generally the upper middle-class. We need to address the fact that many of those privileged enough to be able to care about the climate crisis don't speak up, which perpetuates environmental health disparities that impact disenfranchised communities in both liberal and conservative states alike. Coming from an extremely liberal district, there is a common misconception in the mainstream narrative that climate change is something that only liberal states care about, while the reality highlights the climate crisis is something that impacts everyone of all political affiliations. Although liberal states like California have increased their climate education back in 2016, we as a collective society ought to push for climate education to be something every American, no matter the district he or she is in, is taught in their schooling.
Climate education is a gift
Climate education is one of the biggest and most meaningful gifts we can give students in today’s political landscape: it will give them the knowledge they need to save themselves. As a climate activist and aspiring physician, it's disheartening to see how the nation still doesn't realize the true threat of the crisis and the direct health implications it has for all of us.
We constantly ask why politicians aren’t willing to come to the negotiation table in Washington, but the fundamental reason behind this apathy is because the climate crisis is perceived as unimportant, a notion that is currently still being promoted in the majority of educational institutions across the nation. If we don’t implement intersectional climate education that reflects the true consequences of the climate crisis on human life, we will never be able to move the needle. And, if we continue on our current trajectory, the climate crisis will continue to be a runaway train; one that will be forgotten yet will forever destroy the lives of millions across the globe.
Rohan Arora is a patented climate and sustainability activist based in Washington, D.C. focused on the intersection of environmental issues and health disparities. He is the founder and executive director of the national environmental health organization The Community Check-Up that promotes environmental health education through outreach. He is also a climate activist advisor to the American Lung Association and informs their environmental health campaigns such as the #StandUpForCleanAir initiative. In addition to this, he serves on the executive board as the Director of Research and Development for internationally acclaimed nonprofit Climate Cardinals, which makes the climate movement more accessible to non-English speakers in over 29 countries.