The untapped potential of climate education

Plus, an update on last week's beef between Bernie Sanders and the Washington Post's editorial page editor.

Hi everyone! Briefly, before today’s main item, I wanted to give a quick update about the Washington Post’s anti-Bernie Sanders op-ed, which I wrote about in a very personally satisfying line-by-line style last week. In case you don’t recall, the op-ed written by Post editorial page editor Fred Hiatt criticized Sanders for opposing a carbon tax.

After I wrote my reaction, a number of readers reached out to me saying they didn’t believe Sanders actually opposed a carbon tax at all. And indeed, I noticed that while Sanders’ climate plan does not include a carbon tax, the Senator from Vermont does not appear to have explicitly spoken against a carbon tax as something he would rule out as president. The only evidence I’ve seen of an explicit “no way” is the Post’s candidate ranking, which does not include Sanders’ exact quote.

So, I reached out to the Sanders campaign to clarify his position on a carbon tax. Seems like something we might be interested in knowing if he becomes the nominee.

I asked: “Would it be possible to get a comment stating, categorically, what Sanders position is on a carbon tax? If he is not actually opposed, what type of carbon taxes would he be open to? And if he is indeed now categorically opposed, why?”

Here was the response from Josh Orton, Sanders’ 2020 national policy director:

Bernie believes that climate change is an existential crisis, and believes the scientists who say we have very little time to prevent catastrophic and irreversible damage to our plant. The Green New Deal does not use a central system of carbon taxation in his climate plan, because the scientists say we must move quicker. But taxing carbon could be a valuable tool in specific circumstances in the future.

This didn’t fully answer my question, but it does seem that Sanders is at least open to a carbon tax, and therefore should probably get the same status as Warren in that ranking chart. I am curious, however, why it’s so hard to say categorically yes or no on this.

Anyway, that’s all. Your regularly scheduled programming begins now.

The untapped potential of climate education

If being a climate educator for over a decade has taught Eugene Cordero anything, it’s to never underestimate the power of a good lesson plan. “I know the value of an education,” the San Jose State University climate scientist said. “I’ve seen it in my classrooms.”

Yet for a long time, Cordero has suspected that perhaps others don’t realize how life-changing a good climate education can be. After all, the majority of public school teachers in America are not teaching climate science to their kids—and even the ones that do don’t always feel comfortable being 100 percent honest about it, often due to political pressure within the schools.

So Cordero decided try and quantify the effect of comprehensive climate education that tries to connect personally with the student. Working with co-authors Diana Centeno and Anne Marie Todd, Cordero spoke to over 100 students who had taken an intensive one-year course on climate change at San Jose State at least five years ago, to see if the course had any lasting effects on their behavior.

The results, published in PLOS One last month, suggested that learning about climate change in this way translated into tangible behavioral change for students. Compared to the average Californian, students who had taken the climate course seemed to live significantly less carbon-intensive lives. “They drove more efficient vehicles, used less energy at their homes, and took actions they attributed in part to the educational experience they received,” Cordero said. The course also helped students feel comfortable communicating with other people about their actions—which research has repeatedly shown to be one of the most meaningful individual climate actions one can take.

Hopefully, Cordero said, this study will help draw attention to how important education can be as a tool in solving the climate crisis. Because as the study said, “education is rarely mentioned in discussions of today’s major climate solution strategies.” Such strategies currently focus on making power sources, building materials, and technology less-carbon intensive. They rarely focus on helping people understand, and perhaps even desire, the need for such changes in the first place.

It doesn’t have to be that way. If similar educational programs to the San Jose course were applied at scale, Cordero’s study says, “the potential reductions in carbon emissions would be of similar magnitude to other large-scale mitigation strategies, such as rooftop solar or electric vehicles.”

Source: Cordero EC, Centeno D, Todd AM (2020) The role of climate change education on individual lifetime carbon emissions. PLoS ONE 15(2): e0206266. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0206266

If activists and scientists continue to ignore climate education, however, they will risk more than a missed opportunity for extra carbon reductions. They will risk losing the next generation of American hearts and minds to the fossil fuel industry—which isn’t ignoring the American public educational system at all.

The fossil fuel industry has long seen the public school system as a place to score political wins, and has been influencing public school curriculum all over the country for decades. Lately, however, the public school system has become an even more important battle ground for the industry, which is fighting to maintain “societal license to operate” as the climate crisis worsens. One of the key demographics that has turned against the oil industry lately has been school-age children, many of whom were inspired by Greta Thunberg. The industry now needs to fight back.

The public school curriculum presents a great way for the industry to do that, because there is tremendous demand for climate science education among parents and not many public school teachers who feel equipped to deliver it. Indeed, according to NPR, more than 80 percent of parents would like climate change to be taught in schools, but a majority of teachers do not cover it, because they don’t feel qualified to do so.

Enter the fossil fuel industry, which has the resources to create fun, easy-to-teach educational materials with cute kid-friendly characters who downplay climate science and sow fear about a world without fossil fuels. Petro Pete, anyone?

The world’s biggest oil and gas companies and trade associations are also sponsoring the creation of climate educational material that reaches tens of thousands of young public school students every year. This material meets the bare minimum of national science standards, but is chock-full of climate denier talking points about how the climate has “always changed;” how “individual action” and “adaptation” are the real keys to solving climate change; and how solar and wind energy are environmentally unfriendly.

Tomorrow’s issue of HEATED will go through some selected materials being taught at public schools.

Later this week, HEATED will delve into some of the history of the fossil fuel industry’s school influence campaigns, exploring the rationale behind those campaigns and the results.

Then, paid subscribers will get to have a discussion about it. They’ll be able to vent about their frustrations, share what they’re seeing in their kids’ school districts, and talk about what they’d like to see a good climate curriculum look like.

The majority of this week’s series will be free, thanks to the paid subscribers who make this work possible. The more of those we have, the more cool free series we can do. If you’d like to be part of this awesome community that supports independent climate journalism, sign up today.

OK, that’s all for today—thanks for reading HEATED!

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As always, remember to stay hydrated, and I’ll see you tomorrow!