Status of Climate Change Education Across the Country
While we do not have a precise understanding of the degree to which students are climate literate by the time they graduate, we do know some things.
To start, it is important to clarify that climate change education is more than science education. Climate change is a multidisciplinary/interdisciplinary topic – it involves understanding the relationship between climate change and economics, history, civics, social studies, and more. So climate change needs to be incorporated into many more subject areas than just science.
The good news is that some 40 states have either adopted the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) or based their science education standards on the NGSS. And NGSS contains a good amount of climate science education. Unfortunately, similar progress in other subject areas has not been made.
Getting climate change infused into state education standards is just a start. Those standards need to then change what actually happens in a particular classroom. That requires a good deal of professional development and other forms of support for teachers, such as model curricula, great textbooks, and field experience opportunities. This support does not exist (except in Washington and New Jersey as noted below).
A 2016 study by the National Center for Science Education found that 75% of public school science teachers devote some time to climate change science, which sounds good. But teachers need to devote more than a couple of classes each year to the topic, which is often the norm today. Students need a coherent and effective sequence of learning throughout their high school and college career, not just a little bit here and there, if they are to become truly literate. And teachers need training – the NCSE study found that more than half of the surveyed teachers reported not having received any formal instruction on climate change themselves, either before or after becoming teachers- and one third do not recognize human activities as the primary cause of recent climate change.
In short, what little climate change education which our nations students are getting is at best partial and patchy, and in the vast majority of cases, non-existent.
Status of Federal Climate Change Education Grant-Making
The federal government, through agencies such as NOAA, NASA, EPA and many others, produces a wealth of materials, internships and various other education activities about climate and climate change. But federal grants have been few and far between. In 2007, Congress provided a one-time appropriation of $8.5 million for funding to create grant-making programs at the National Science Foundation and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration. Since then, certainly some eligible institutions have received federal funding for climate change education projects, but these funds have been provided by grant-making programs not identified as climate change education grant-making programs so they are virtually impossible to track.
That being said, no federal grant program currently exists to specifically fund climate change education. More importantly, no thoughtful, coordinated, across-agency approach exists. (The National Wildlife Federation has drafted a comprehensive blueprint for such an approach which you can read here.)