After completing the final exam for my AP Environmental Science class in 2015, a strong sense of affirmation washed over me. Environmental Science wasn’t only becoming a newfound passion of mine, it was becoming my path to a new sense of purpose. After graduating high school and leaving my small, conservative, maritime town in Michigan behind, I headed off to Boulder, Colorado to pursue my Bachelor’s Degree in Environmental Studies at the University of Colorado. I couldn’t imagine myself in any other field of higher education. Exploring environmental issues and solutions through an interdisciplinary approach, I was truly in my element. During my Freshman year, I went back to visit my hometown during our University’s Winter Break. I decided to reach out to my former Environmental Science teacher to geek out over my course load with hopes of sharing new content with her to potentially cycle in with her curriculum. To my dismay, I learned that my experience with environmental education at my high school was the first and last of its kind for the foreseeable future.
Environmental education and literacy is important now more than ever, and it is never too early for students to start learning about the climate, the diversity of ecosystems, and the natural world around them. Similarly to my personal experience, environmental science and studies classes are not normally available until high school, and even then, are not usually required. Moreover, in elementary and middle school, environmental science is only ever integrated into general science classes.
In order to foster an environmentally conscious and engaging generation of youth, environmental literacy needs to be made a standard of public education, and not just in science-based classrooms.
In addition to an increase in implementation of environmental education, we also need to restructure the way we approach it and how we communicate it to children and youth. Similarly to the University of Colorado’s Environmental Studies program, environmental education curriculum for elementary, middle, and high school should be taught with an interdisciplinary and bio-social approach that encourages students to make connections between different areas of their studies.
In other countries across the world, environmental education has been a significant part of curriculum. In Sweden, environmental education, from conservation to ecology, has been a part of their curriculum since 1969. Their lessons on the environment aren’t packed into a single course, but addressed across subjects from science to economics, in every grade beginning in preschool.
On top of encouraging and implementing environmental education, Sweden was also the first country in the world to establish an environmental protection agency in 1967 and one of the first countries in the world to introduce a carbon tax in 1995 for carbon-intensive, non-renewable fuels such as oil and natural gas. By 2013, the country’s greenhouse gas emissions were reduced by 22 percent from 1990. To put this into perspective, the United States’ total greenhouse gas emissions increased by 1.3 percent from 1990 to 2017.
Despite Sweden’s success, climate action-based policies which often beg lifestyle changes and shifts in ideologies aren’t accepted by everyone.
The carbon tax, one of the most debated climate change solutions, increases gas prices which usually impacts those living in more remote and rural areas quite harder than those who don’t.
According to the IPCC Fifth Assessment report in 2013, we have 11 years to reduce carbon dioxide emissions by 45% to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius, avoiding catastrophic effects. Within the past decade, our home has seen record-breaking storms, forest fires, droughts, coral bleaching, heat waves, and floods around the world with only a 1.0 degrees Celsius increase in warming. This doesn’t even begin to cover the disproportionate impacts our most vulnerable populations experience due to inaction.
Given the current state of our environment and the impacts climate change has already been having on ecosystems, human communities and economies at all scales, there is simply no time left to leave environmental education on the back burner. Failing to educate students about climate change, or implying that it is a natural phenomenon and not a human-made problem is not only a fallacy, but a moral failing.
I extend this as an invitation to those who are wanting to become involved and committed to climate action and justice – it is our responsibility to ensure children and youth are engaged, educated, and empowered to become mindful stewards to the world around them. Requiring environmental literacy an educational standard is the first step in manifesting change and creating an environmentally, ecologically-conscious generation.