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Proposed certification program in Colorado would be all voluntary and would emphasize vocational skills not seen in other state programs


by Allen Best

High school diplomas with endorsements certifying climate literacy would be enabled by a bill to be reviewed by Colorado legislators.

Climate literacy is defined by the bill, SB-24-014, as understanding the essential principles of the Earth’s climate system, assessing scientifically credible climate information, learning to communicate about the climate in a meaningful manner, and making informed and responsible decisions regarding actions that may affect the climate.

Prime sponsors for the bill are two Democrats, Sen. Chris Hansen of Denver and Rep. Barbara McLachlin of Durango.

The proposal calls for an approach in Colorado somewhat different from those of other states. It would be voluntary, both for schools and students, authorizing instruction in participating schools for students in grades 6 through 12.

To gain the endorsement, a student would have to complete two courses in the area of climate literacy selected by the local education provider.

Unlike several other states with climate literacy programs, no funding has been proposed to support this added instruction.

Students would also need to complete a final experiential learning project that is approved, supported, and facilitated by a climate literacy learning provider. Local schools would be allowed to collaborate with local businesses, nonprofit organizations, and institutions of higher education in developing these participating projects and courses.

Possibly the most substantial difference between the one proposed in Colorado and those in other states is its attempt to create opportunities to develop technical green skills that will be needed to “support the transition to a low-carbon sustainable economy,” as the bill puts it.

The primary thinking for the bill comes from a smallish Colorado nonprofit called Lyra. The website says it seeks to work with communities to “uplift and foster their bold ideas so that education is more nimble and responsive to students.”

Mary Sewell, the chief executive and founder of Lyra, said the legislation was drafted after consultation with the North American Association for Environmental Education.

“A big part of this is the experiential learning element,” she says. “It is the more hands-on, green-skills piece.” The green economy will need trades people with new skills. So will rural economies. She suggests that schools in more rural areas might want to partner with the Future Farmers of America or 4-H clubs.

Figuring out the partnerships for the experiential learning will take thought. “It doesn’t have to be the (school) district.”

A handful of states from California to Maine have adopted various climate literacy requirements and programs.

“Climate change is the paramount challenge of the 21st century,” says a report issued in June 2023 by the Center for Green Schools in partnership with Campaign for Environmental Literacy.

“Although education is not the exclusive, nor perhaps even the primary means of addressing this issue, it is difficult to fathom how we could accomplish the extensive and far-reaching societal changes necessary to confront the climate crisis without a broad base of educated and literate citizens, consumers, policymakers, business leaders and other stakeholders,” says the report, “State-Level Legislation Concerning K-12 Climate Change Education.”

The report analyzed how state legislation, as one piece of a complex puzzle, can help prepare graduates for a future impacted by the climate crisis. It also had this item that goes against prevailing wisdom.

Alliance Research had polled 1,000 people in five countries about their knowledge of the climate, climate policies, and climate actions. The United States stood out in the polling. Only 5% of American respondents were found to be highly climate-literate and over 55% demonstrated low climate literacy. Counterintuitively, it was older people, not the youngsters, who knew more.

“Interestingly, the highest proportion of respondents considered climate-literate was among Boomers at 16.3%, while Gen-Z showed an 11.5% literacy rate.”

Well – take that, youngsters!

The report told of programs and policies in various states. California led the charge beginning in 2004 with curriculum that broadly talked about how people influence natural systems. In 2018, climate change and environmental justice were added to the list of topics.

Maine legislators in 2022 appropriated $2 million to create a pilot program for professional development of teachers through partnerships with community groups.

New Jersey incorporated climate change education across curricula in 2020. In June 2023, the state announced that the English language arts and math standards had been updated to include climate change education. The state has appropriated $5 million toward climate change education in its 2024 fiscal year budget. This funding helps pay for a climate education hub to enable teachers to share instructional materials. Other states, including Connecticut, are trying to follow in New Jersey’s footsteps.

A National Public Radio story in 2023 explored the New Jersey program a year after its 2022 implementation. It told of one school where students learn about climate change not only in a ceramics class but in physical education, too. The example was a wellness class at a grammar school in Pennington where students sat in a circle in the gym. Ordinarily, they would have been outside, but smoke from wildfires in Canada kept students indoors. The game they played was designed to help the students understand the impacts of wildfire smoke on air quality and on their bodies.

The NPR story also told of places where there has been pushback on instruction in K-12 schools. In Idaho, legislators repeatedly rejected learning standards that mentioned climate change. In Pennsylvania, after an outcry from the school board, the Kutztown School District banned a popular young adult novel about middle schoolers navigating disasters. The NPR story also reported that a bill then being considered by Ohio legislators would require public universities and college professors to teach the “scientific strengths and weaknesses” of climate change.

Even in New Jersey, where 70% of residents support climate change education, some oppose it.

Allen Best
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