Zimmerman: The importance of environmental literacy
Youth at a 2018 climate strike in San Jose are pictured in this file photo.

For decades, educators and legislators have failed students regarding environmental education.

California’s Environmental Literacy Task Force noted in 2015 that, “K-12 students in California do not currently have consistent access to adequately funded, high-quality learning experiences, in and out of the classroom, that build environmental literacy.”

The lack of education on climate change, and the role of humanity in it, is unacceptable. The youth of today do not have the luxury of treating the environment as an elective. Recent research indicates people born after 2010 will face up to four times as many climate-induced natural disasters as people born in 1960, and that is only if we manage to keep warming under 1.5 Celsius.

Environmental literacy

To be environmentally literate is to have “an understanding of how natural environments influence individual organisms, including humans, and how organisms, especially humans, in turn, influence the planet’s systems.” This does not mean just adding a “climate literacy” subject to school curriculum. Rather, true climate literacy involves embedding environmental perspectives into all relevant subjects.

A comprehensive environmental literacy education also includes a full understanding of how individuals can engage with political, social and economic systems in order to reach their environmental goals. We owe it to today’s youth to give them the knowledge, skills and efficacy to address the mistakes of the previous generations and shape their own futures.

It has been the youth who have led the push for better climate education. According to high school student and environmental advocate Diya Kandhra, “consistent conversations regarding climate change and sustainability are simply not present in general public school courses.”

Kandhra recalls that “in my 12 years of public school education, climate change was sparsely discussed in the standard biology curriculum, and I had to go out of my way to learn about climate change in school, only having the opportunity as a high school senior registering for AP Environmental Science.”

Fed up with a lack of educational options, local students have taken to directly advocating to their elected representatives. Students such as Kandhra recognize that “combating climate change is an unavoidable responsibility for the younger generation… The only way we can step up to the challenge is by being empowered with climate literacy—knowing is half the battle.”

Education programs are an important avenue to channel youth frustration over the historic lack of action on climate change and growing climate anxiety into positive action. Because climate change is a global issue, climate literacy can also be used to foster unity and communication across borders. Student-driven efforts have ranged from placing pressure on legislators to demanding better from school boards to creating their own climate education.

Moving forward

Thankfully, state senators have started stepping up to the climate literacy cause. Last year, state Sen. Ben Allen spearheaded a bill to provide funding for the creation of curricular resources. This year, several California legislators, including Dave Cortese and Josh Becker, supported a budget request for $200 million to support the dissemination of this curriculum at the state, county and district levels.

There is also Assembly Bill 1939, which is currently in committee. This bill would amend California’s education code to include a requirement for climate change instruction. Echoing student advocates, principal co-author Cortese argues that “one of the most effective ways of combating climate change is to educate our next generation on the causes and effects of climate change, as well as what can be done to address it.”

Full implementation of statewide climate literacy will likely take several years. To learn more, check out the California Environmental Literacy Initiative or the California Department of Education’s publication, A Blueprint for Environmental Literacy.

These are just the first long-overdue steps towards adequate climate education. I would encourage youth and adults alike to be proactive in educating themselves about the climate crisis.

For more information on environmental literacy efforts in Santa Clara County, check out the Environmental Literacy Summit organized by the county Office of Education. This free event will be held virtually on Saturday, April 30 from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m.

San José Spotlight columnist Erin Zimmerman is a climate reality leader with the Climate Reality Project’s Silicon Valley chapter. Erin, a long-time environmental and political activist, holds a PhD in political science. Her column appears every third Wednesday of the month. Contact Erin at [email protected].

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