At its annual conference earlier this month, the National Education Association (NEA), which has close to three million members, voted to adopt Portland, Oregon’s pioneering climate education plan as a model for its own agenda.
Climate change education has spread across the country in fits and starts as local and national politics have obscured the dissemination of teaching materials and professional development opportunities. The NEA’s increased emphasis on teaching climate literacy will facilitate implementation of a nationwide climate curriculum, something many environmentalists consider crucial in confronting global warming.
In May, the Portland school board unanimously approved a resolution banning textbooks and other materials that spread doubt about the severity of human-driven of climate change and its roots in human activities. The resolution states that “it is time for school districts to redefine what it means to educate students for a future of certain climate change,” and that “students should develop confidence and passion when it comes to making a positive difference in society, and come to see themselves as activists and leaders for social and environmental justice.”
The highly politicized debate over the causes of and solutions to climate change has made implementing this type of progressive curriculum exceedingly challenging in many school districts. And even when something like this does gain traction, the force of the blowback can be overwhelming. After the resolution passed in Portland, the Portland Oregonian argued that the school board’s agenda went too far, and that it’s unlikely to encourage students to think critically about climate change because of the way it internalizes not only a body of knowledge, but also a system of values.
Bill Bigelow, curriculum editor of Rethinking Schools magazine and co-director of the Zinn Education Project, helped draft the Portland resolution. He said the group involved in writing the resolution included “teachers, retired teachers, parents, students, and climate activists,” and that that’s “exactly the kind of collaboration we’re going to need if the school curriculum is ever going to change.”
He said that teaching terms like “climate justice” are important because they help students understand that “the people being hardest hit by the climate crisis are often the very people who have had the least to do with causing it.”
“Climate justice means taking an approach that puts the lives of the most vulnerable at the center of the curriculum,” he said. “And climate justice means encouraging students to see themselves as activists—as people who can make a difference in the world, individually and collectively.”