Starting in July, every K-12 public school in Connecticut will be required to teach their students about climate change. After years of organizing from environmental groups, advocates, and students, the new standards garnered bipartisan support during an education committee vote and passed during the 2022 legislative session. These requirements make Connecticut the second state in the nation—after New Jersey—to mandate some form of climate education in all public schools.
State Representative Christine Palm introduced the bill four times before it finally passed. In prior years, the bill faced pushback from lawmakers who assumed that climate change was already taught in most public schools, as well as those who weren’t educated about climate change themselves. “There is active scientific debate among scientists and others…about how much global warming is caused by humans burning fossil fuels,” said Republican State Representative John Piscopo, incorrectly, in 2019. “Why tie teachers’ hands to one side of a debate?”
Without these legal requirements, there is no guarantee that climate change will be mentioned in public schools—let alone taught accurately and comprehensively. Bobby Sanchez, cochair of the Education Committee, claimed that 90 percent of schools already teach climate change. However, this number was self-reported by schools, and students claimed otherwise. In an informal survey of about 200 students conducted by Sunrise Movement Connecticut, 55 percent of students reported not receiving enough climate change education to make informed decisions on the topic. “I have to help bring this up in all my science classes,” said McKena Clemons, a 16-year-old public school student and the communications lead at Sunrise Movement Connecticut. “I have to be annoying about it.” Safa Mohamed, an organizer with the climate justice organization Zero Hour and a freshman at Ohio State University, said that her climate education in Ohio “really depended on who the teacher was” and “how much they cared,” with the occasional surface-level lessons covered repeatedly. “Learning about climate change in school felt like déjà vu.”
From 2019 to 2022, I advocated for the passage of Connecticut’s climate education bill after learning about the work that Palm was doing to ensure that students were receiving climate education. At the time, I was also directing Sunrise Movement Connecticut. This placed me in an ideal position to organize fellow young people to support and testify for the bill. Over the next three years, I helped organize over 100 students to lobby lawmakers in person and virtually for the bill, submit written and verbal testimony to the Connecticut General Assembly Education Committee, write opinion pieces in support, and more. I believe that the relentless pressure from advocates, especially student advocates, was crucial in getting the bill over the finish line.
In March, the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change released its sixth synthesis report, which detailed the “widespread and rapid changes” that have already occurred and are causing “damages to nature and people,” especially vulnerable communities. Even as climate change accelerates, thousands of schools across the country are failing to provide even a cursory climate change education. A 2020 report from the National Center for Science Education rated 20 states a C+ or lower for how they addressed climate change in their science standards, with six—Alabama, Georgia, South Carolina, Pennsylvania, Texas, and Virginia—receiving an F. “In some cases,” reads the report,
the standards essentially ignore climate change altogether. In other cases, the standards address issues that are part of the problem without explicitly naming “climate change” or “global warming.” Teachers are left to assess whether a particular standard offers an appropriate opportunity to discuss the issue.
“We have to be equipped with knowledge about our own world,” said Mohamed. “We’re not getting that.” According to advocates, requiring robust climate education in public schools could also help young people take ownership of the crisis that they are unfairly inheriting. A study published in 2021 by Nature surveyed 10,000 youth, ages 16–25, across 10 countries. 60 percent of youth surveyed reported feeling worried or extremely worried about climate change. By educating students on the solutions to climate change—not only the problems—it allows youth to take ownership of the situation, rather than falling into hopelessness or despair.
While advocates are excited about this bill’s passage, many believe that it’s also important to integrate climate education across more subjects. Clemons said that classrooms should also mention environmental racism and intersectionality, for example. In September, New Jersey became the first state to require climate change education. The state has a more comprehensive curriculum than Connecticut, with climate education required in virtually all subject areas—as opposed to only science classrooms. The curriculum also integrates information about how to act in “informed and sustainable ways,” including through introducing students to potential careers in the field.
In 2021, US Representative Debbie Dingell introduced the “Climate Change Education Act.” This act would establish a grant program through the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration for institutions to expand or implement climate change education programs and professional development. It stalled in the House subcommittee on Environment and Climate Change. In March of this year, another climate education bill was introduced to Congress by US Representative Barbara Lee. However, the bill will be difficult to pass with a small Democratic majority and the high level of congressional polarization around climate change and public education. Despite the lack of national progress, the public is overwhelmingly in favor of these proposed requirements. Around 80 percent of teachers and parents support climate education.
While Congress is unlikely to pass a national climate education bill any time soon, there is an opportunity for other states to take action. Following the lead of New Jersey and Connecticut, bills requiring some form of climate education have been introduced in New York, California, Massachusetts. According to Connecticut state Representative Christine Palm, her climate education bill finally passed four years after she first introduced it due to two things: “the engagement of young people who are fed up waiting for older generations to take climate chaos seriously” and “simply wearing down the opposition through persistence.” The time for more states to act is now.