Why activism needs to be part of any meaningful climate education

Simply teaching kids about the science of the climate crisis isn’t enough. To prevent feelings of disempowerment, they need to see how they can make a meaningful impact.

SOURCEWaging Nonviolence

Last month, crowds of young people and supporters gathered in 1,500 locations around the world for one of the largest youth-led climate protests since countries began emerging from the most restrictive phase of the COVID-19 pandemic. Many students skipped school or staged class walkouts to participate in the Sept. 24 day of action, the latest surge of activity from the school strike movement that launched in late 2018.

The protest was a sign that youth climate activists, who have had to adapt to COVID lockdowns and restrictions on large gatherings, are ready to reassert themselves through mass mobilizations. In just the last few years, young people have raised the profile of climate change as a national concern in the United States, made climate a major issue in Congress for the first time in over a decade, and persuaded colleges and universities to divest billions of dollars from fossil fuel companies. Most recently, thanks to student advocacy, schools like Harvard and Boston University have announced they are divesting from coal, oil and gas.

However, if recent pushback against climate legislation in Congress demonstrates anything, it is that the climate movement will be busy for years to come. The past two decades of organizing have weakened the fossil fuel industry’s grip on politics, but these corporations and their allies in government remain powerful. This raises an important consideration: How can the climate movement best ensure the growth of new generations of young activists to propel it forward into the future?

Educating for climate action

“In the formative period of late adolescence and young adulthood, if you combine the intellectual exercise of studying social movements with tactile, feet-on-the-ground experience in an activist campaign, you get a prime opportunity for leadership development,” said social movement scholar George Lakey, who as a professor at Swarthmore College taught some of the young architects of both the fossil fuel divestment movement and the push for a federal Green New Deal.

The question of how to ensure a vibrant future for the climate movement is one I have spent much time reflecting on over the last few years, and I think Lakey’s words point to part of the answer. I became a climate activist as an undergraduate in the early 2000s, when youth climate organizing in the United States was just emerging as a distinct national movement. In the 2010s, I worked with campaigns to stop gas pipelines, coal mines and other fossil fuel infrastructure projects in the greater Pacific Northwest. I have watched the youth climate movement grow from a scattering of small, loosely connected groups to a force that has repeatedly brought hundreds of thousands of people into the streets.

More recently, I have had the chance to study the movement from the outside. In 2016, as I was aging out of the role of “youth” activist, I began pursuing a master’s in environmental education. After finishing my degree, I launched a small nonprofit called Reconnect Earth that takes college students into outdoor spaces to learn about environmental issues, social justice topics and grassroots organizing. While doing research for a book on the youth climate movement, I have also had the chance to interview young people involved in climate strikes, campus divestment campaigns, advocacy for a Green New Deal, and other youth-led initiatives — as well as educators who have helped young people become effective activists. I am convinced education plays an important role in sustaining the climate movement by empowering new young leaders.

Swarthmore College provides an instructive case study. There, students in one of Lakey’s classes researched nonviolent social movements for the Global Nonviolent Action Database, analyzing why such campaigns succeed or fail. Many of the same students simultaneously joined protests against mountaintop removal coal mining organized by the Earth Quaker Action Team. The role some of these young people went on to play in two of the most important national campaigns in U.S. climate movement history suggests just how impactful the combination of hand-on experience and academic study of movement dynamics can be.

Too often, though, the U.S. education system fails to foster such experiences for students, either in K-12 schools or in college. Even mainstream environmental education often falls short, promoting individual behavior change rather than grassroots organizing to address the climate crisis. There are many barriers to using education as a more powerful tool for social change — including resistance from conservative school boards and the desire of environmental education organizations to be perceived as apolitical. That said, activists and educators can learn a lot from looking at what has happened in places where those obstacles have been at least partly overcome.

The Portland example

Portland, Oregon’s school district is regarded as a national leader in K-12 climate change education, with a “climate literacy” standard that includes a focus on justice and has also served as a model for districts elsewhere in the country. However, the city did not achieve this distinction easily. Portland’s proactive approach to climate education is largely thanks to the hard work of students, teachers and community members advocating for change from the ground up, who hatched the idea for a school district-wide resolution on climate literacy that passed in 2016.

“A small group of us met in a church basement over the winter to draft the resolution,” said Tim Swinehart, a geography teacher at Portland’s Lincoln High School. “That spring, at least 100 people showed up at a school board meeting to support it.” In response, Portland’s Board of Education committed to providing “curriculum and educational opportunities that address climate change and climate justice in all Portland Public Schools.” However, supporters soon found that getting this policy on paper was only the first step. That was, in itself, a learning opportunity for students.

By early 2019, Swinehart said, “We were struggling to make progress with the district on implementing their climate justice policy.” The Board of Education had set up a climate justice committee that included teachers and students, but its power was limited and key goals remained unrealized. Meanwhile, an unprecedented wave of climate activism was sweeping the globe, inspired by the school strike movement launched by Swedish teenager Greta Thunberg. Swinehart began incorporating information about these developments into his teaching.

“I was certainly teaching about Greta Thunberg’s work, but also trying to show my students this wasn’t about just one European girl, but the activism of thousands of young people around the world. Seeing youth like themselves in the streets shaped our students’ views of climate activism, and they wanted to do something,” Swinehart said.

On March 15, 2019, the strike movement held its first major global day of action, with an estimated 1.4 million youth and their supporters participating in demonstrations worldwide. Hundreds of Lincoln students joined thousands of high schoolers and middle schoolers from throughout Portland in staging class walkouts that converged at City Hall. After a rally, some students made the spur-of-the-moment decision to march to the school district headquarters almost two miles away, where hundreds protested in the parking lot. It was the push the Board of Education needed. That May, the board allocated new funding to hire a climate justice coordinator, support climate literacy professional development for teachers and create a district-wide climate justice class modeled off one Swinehart taught at Lincoln.

In Portland, the climate literacy campaign served as an opportunity for students who were learning about climate activist movements in the classroom to participate in real-world advocacy. However, students’ engagement didn’t end there. High schoolers involved in the climate literacy fight went on to champion a local ban on new fossil fuel export infrastructure, a citywide 100 percent renewable electricity policy, and rules to preserve Portland’s urban tree cover. In September 2019, an estimated 20,000 Portlanders participated in the global strike movement’s biggest day of action yet, another sign of how student-led activism had taken root in the city.

“The actual local policy outcomes of all this were important,” Swinehart said. “But maybe even more important was the training in activism students received from being part of the process.” A takeaway for educators is that sometimes, engaging in activism is the best education of all.

From climate science to social change

“For most young people, graphs of CO2 aren’t going to make them feel passionate about taking action,” said Amara Ifeji, a Northeastern University student and director of youth engagement for the Maine Environmental Education Association. “Youth want to be part of a movement that’s making people’s lives better by growing a more just and equitable future.”

How educators talk about climate change can be as important as whether or not the topic appears in school or college curricula. In my own work as an educator, I have often been surprised — when talking with college students who major in environmental studies — to learn how few of them have heard of national organizations involved in climate advocacy like the Sierra Club or 350.org. This deficiency in knowledge is not students’ fault; rather, it seems they frequently learn about climate change in school as if it were solely a scientific issue, not a social or political one. As a result, even those students who study the physical effects of a changing climate in depth often leave the classroom without feeling empowered to take action.

Of course, not all educators have the flexibility to design classes around climate and activism afforded in a place like Portland, where the Board of Education has at least been open to this idea. However, opportunities to slip in relevant lessons abound in high school and college, and are not limited to environmental studies classrooms. Some of the most valuable classes I took as a budding activist were not about climate change at all, but topics like the history of the 1960s civil rights movement. Educators teaching these subjects can help students understand how grassroots movements build power and correct common misconceptions about the way social change happens.

My nonprofit, Reconnect Earth, centers its work around summer backpacking trips in the North Cascades, where students hike through beautiful landscapes while learning about environmental and social justice issues and participating in trainings on activist skills. One of the most important parts of these trips is when I or another leader lead a workshop on grassroots campaign planning — which we always begin by asking students what they know about Rosa Parks, one of the most famous activists in U.S. history.

The Rosa Parks story, as it is traditionally told, is a tale of individual heroism in the face of oppression. We compare this narrative with information about real world events from the article, “How Change Happens: The Real Story of Mrs. Rosa Parks and the Montgomery Bus Boycott,” by Paul Schmitz. Students learn that Parks received training on nonviolent direct action from the Highlander Folk School; that before her famous arrest, Alabama NAACP President E.D. Nixon was searching for a plaintiff to challenge segregation in a high-profile lawsuit, a role Parks later agreed to take on; and that the Montgomery Women’s Political Council posted 15,000 fliers advertising the launch of a bus boycott ahead of Parks’ trial. Far from a lone individual spontaneously inspired to action, Parks was part of a well-organized community of activists who made the bus boycott a reality. There is a lesson here for activists involved in all kinds of movements.

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The climate crisis in the classroom

“Simply teaching kids about the science of the climate crisis, without giving them a way to engage, can do more harm than good, because it’s so disempowering and overwhelming,” Swinehart said. “That’s why activism needs to be part of any meaningful climate education.”

Unless handled carefully, climate change can be one of the most discouraging topics an educator could ever cover with students, who need to be able to see a viable path for them to make a difference unless they are to come away feeling paralyzed. That is why for this subject, more than perhaps any other, the approach of trying to make environmental education apolitical is bound to fail. Climate is, unfortunately, a political issue, and has been made so by decades of fossil fuel industry lobbying. Given that individual behavior changes are too small to make a tangible difference on such a huge global issue, the main viable path for students to have a meaningful impact is through activism. This is a reality they will need to grapple with sooner or later.

As for how educators can best empower students to attack the climate crisis, the answer will vary from one situation to another. In some parts of the country, an approach modeled after Portland students and teachers’ push for climate literacy may work well. Educators whose subjects may not directly overlap with the climate crisis can still contribute by helping students understand the dynamics of historical social movements. Third-party organizations like Reconnect Earth, which are not subject to the policies of school boards or colleges, also have a role to play.

“A huge part of what we have to do as educators is help students make that initial leap to believing in activism, to knowing it’s a path for change and an important part of making the world what it is today,” Swinehart said. “Once they understand that, they can take the next step to where they see themselves as the ones taking action.”


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