Environmental education is in crisis. Here’s what you need to know

As presidential candidates prepare for the busiest period of the primaries, climate change is already proving to be a significant topic of debate.

Several GOP candidates have made it clear that they don’t support the green policies of President Joe Biden, going as far as to say that climate change is a hoax. However, several polls have shown contrasting opinions among voters, with 75% of those in Iowa saying they will only support a candidate who treats climate change as the greatest threat to humanity. Over 55% of people polled in Wisconsin believe global warming is caused mostly by human activities, according to Yale University’s Program on Climate Change Communication. Illinois is at 60% and Texas is at 56%.

The direction of U.S. climate policy is at a crossroads.

Should Biden continue his stay in the White House, it will mean a continued shift away from fossil fuels, cutting emissions and promoting environmental equity in neighborhoods nationwide. Conversely, a GOP victory under former President Donald Trump, labeled as the most anti-nature president in history, will likely see a regression to pro-fossil fuel policies, derailing current mitigation efforts and stripping the international community of strong and much-needed climate leadership.

Amid this political tug-of-war, the education of young Americans on climate issues takes on heightened significance.

In a controversial move, Texas and Florida — states both battered by extreme weather and home to the second and third-largest state populations of school-aged children, respectively — appeared to have adopted the right-wing media and education group PragerU’s anti-climate change content in their school curriculum. The decision looked poised to influence the environmental understanding of millions, in opposition to the scientific consensus on climate change.

Reckon spoke with Raymer Maguire, director of campaigns and policy at the CLEO Institute, a Miami-based non-partisan environmental organization dedicated to climate crisis education and advocacy, to shed light on the evolving landscape of environmental education in an era of climate uncertainty.

Reckon:

Last year, we heard about how Florida and Texas adopted PragerU’s anti-climate curriculum. It caused outrage among some parents in those states and politicians at the local, state and national levels. Do you have any updates on that?

Raymer Maguire:

The CLEO Institute wrote a letter to Florida’s Secretary of Education, Manny Diaz. We asked for clarification after it had been publicly reported that Florida’s Department of Education had adopted PragerU’s curriculum. Shortly after, someone from the Texas Education Department announced that they were adopting it as well. That was quickly rebuffed.

The Department of Education in Texas said it wasn’t true. It took a while for us to get a response from Florida, but once we did, we found out it had not adopted Prager University’s curriculum. So, it’s my current understanding that it’s not being adopted in Florida or Texas.

Do you think the announcements were a political stunt more than anything?

I think that’s a big part of it. I also think we have two concrete examples where Prager University announced they’re working with a state board. In both instances, that has turned out to be false. So, it’s probably more about this company than it is maybe about our political or social environment.

That’s reassuring. But it still seems concerning that the publicity generated from the announcements may have caught the eye of children and parents. I’ve also heard that environmental education is either not being taught or being taught poorly at many schools nationwide.

What are the consequences of children growing up without an accurate and clear view of what’s happening to their planet?

The environment is us; it’s our life, our world. If we aren’t teaching children to protect our environment, future generations will continue to make the same decisions our current leaders are making today.

Unfortunately, those decisions are continuing to burn fossil fuels. Instead of investing in renewable energy so the generations ahead of us don’t have to bear the disproportionate impact of climate change, our children and future generations will have it worse and face a more difficult task reversing the damage.

We’re heading toward a presidential election where climate change and the environment will be a big topic. Are groups like the CLEO Institute and similar organizations elsewhere preparing for a greater period of advocacy and protest?

Absolutely. We saw one example of that just two days ago when over 200 youth came to Tallahassee with the CLEO Institute and other organizations to form a coalition that held over 60 meetings with legislators and dropped by over 110 legislative offices to have meetings about three bills, including one that is greenwashing at its finest.

It allows utility companies to mix any percentage of methane captured from farms, aquatic treatment centers, or landfills with traditional methane from fracking and drilling and to sell the product as renewable ­­— with guaranteed profits from the state of Florida. We were also supporting a mangrove bill that would encourage the planting and restoration of mangroves.

The 200 youth who attended met with legislators and talked about how their communities are being impacted by flooding and air pollution.

We had one activist who was only seven or eight years old and another in their 70s and 80s. Most activists were teenagers in their early 20s. They’re fighting for their future.

What was the response from legislators?

Their reactions were all over the spectrum, from being as positive as identifying new bill co-sponsors we could talk with to finding folks who identify as climate champions but didn’t understand the negative impacts of the methane bill they voted in favor of. Many of them thought it would have been a good thing because of how it was worded. We were able to explain the downsides.

I suppose what is also part of a child’s environmental education is what they see outside of school and how they interact with the world around them. Are there any states that are, say, doing a good job of showing children what a climate-friendly future might look like?

Some states are taking full advantage of the Inflation Reduction Act grants and revolutionizing their transportation systems. Georgia is making Florida look very backward.

Georgia fully embraces federal dollars to improve the efficiency of home appliances, reduce pollution, and improve mass transit. In contrast, Florida’s governor has rejected hundreds of millions of dollars across multiple grants, including $350 million for the Florida Department of Transportation.
And if we’re going to broaden environmental education to include health, think about the kids who have to wait at bus stops inhaling diesel fumes. Asthma is a huge problem among youth. The diesel fumes from school buses are one of the major external causes that can induce asthma attacks.

A bus system run on electricity can have immense health benefits to kids.

You mentioned PragerU wasn’t infiltrating the education systems in Texas and Florida. But it seems some kids in the United States are perhaps not getting the best environmental education possible. Since you are a new father, what tips would you give to concerned parents who want their children to know more about climate change and the environment?

I just had a daughter four days ago, but I also have a stepson who’s in fourth grade. By pure coincidence, about two weeks ago, he learned some new words in his scientific vocabulary class, including fossil fuels, renewable energy, solar power, and other words like that. He goes to a private school.

What I found most interesting in his curriculum is there was no suggestion that fossil fuels or renewable energies were good or bad. It just explained that both are energy sources. One comes from fossilized materials and one comes from sources like the sun.

We had to talk about what is good and bad about these energy sources. We discussed pollution, sustainability, and resiliency, which were not part of the training. I had to explain why it’s important for communities to be strong and resilient. What does it mean when a hurricane hits Florida? What does it mean when flooding hits Florida?

I took a simple approach to the words and definitions. We discussed why renewable energy was important and why fossil fuels needed to be phased out. We can no longer debate the negative impacts of greenhouse gasses and the damage that fossil fuels inflict on our communities and planet.
I hope our curriculum has caught up with the scientific fact that climate change is happening and that our planet is warming because of human actions.
Does the CLEO Institute have resources that concerned parents could make use of?

We do. We also have a whole teacher training program, where we go to South, Central, and North Florida schools to train teachers on the climate.

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