Despite the intimidating reality that we are living amid human-caused climate change, climate action has faced political and informational roadblocks.
Given the current era of disinformation, originating and cultivating a public education system, fostering scientifically and socially aware climate literacy at all levels of education is more necessary than ever, according to Kenneth Worthy, campus lecturer of environmental science, policy and management.
“Unless we have a climate-literate public understanding the depth and the characteristics of the global climate crisis … we are risking everything,” Worthy said.
Michael Mascarenhas, campus professor in the Department of Environmental Science, Policy and Management, added that we are living during the “anthropocene” epoch, or the time period in which society has extensively altered the Earth’s natural systems. Yet, a large portion of the general population lacks comprehension of both the human role in climate change and how it will irreparably change our world, he said.
Over the past 20 years, Worthy said conservative media outlets and politicians have spread “an extreme form of disinformation,” manufacturing doubt and denial about the climate crisis; he likened it to the tobacco industry’s informational chokehold on the health impacts of smoking tobacco.
“I went into education because I was feeling very alone in being afraid and wanting solutions,” said Sage Lenier, campus alumna and educator. “Why is (climate change) not on everyone’s radar? I realized education is not very accessible, and I’m passionate because it’s the first half of the equation to get to doing the work.”
Lenier said she began her career in education by engaging in environmental work on campus, which included teaching a 300-person DeCal, “Solutions for a Sustainable and Just Future.” By introducing students to climate issues through solutions-oriented and environmental justice lenses, Lenier equipped students with knowledge that would make them “angry, but passionate and informed,” in the hopes of spurring them to climate action.
Such passion is incredibly important for young students, many of whom are pessimistic and “already jaded” about the climate crisis, said Neelam Patil, climate literacy teacher leader at Cragmont Elementary and Oxford Elementary.
“My job is to show them that no matter how small you are, how young you are, you can make a difference,” Patil said. “There’s a lot they can learn about and things they can do … they don’t make those connections and feel disempowered.”
Patil added that empowering students to take climate action is a common goal among Berkeley Unified School District, or BUSD, teachers. Individual educators have integrated climate lessons; now, a climate literacy working group is working to coordinate a districtwide effort after BUSD passed a climate literacy resolution in November.
Jessica Login, a science teacher at Malcolm X Elementary, described the financial, emotional and time-consuming effort it took to frame her own climate curriculum, even with the support of administration. Making climate change the unifying theme throughout all K-12 subjects is necessary to aid students in digesting climate change’s environmental and social impacts, Login added.
A survey by the BUSD climate literacy working group is assessing the status of climate educational materials across the district. The group will begin designing curriculum this summer, according to Patil.
“With any topic, I want to be real with my students. I want to be developmentally appropriate,” Login said, noting that these challenging conversations about the environment can sometimes be uncomfortable — both for the teachers and for the students. “How do I poise them to make those connections through the questions I’m asking or the activities we’re doing? And then I want them to know and feel like there are things that they can do.”
Thinking bigger involves comprehending how climate change is tied to a host of other societal ills, Lenier and Mascarenhas added, including consumerism and other markers of late-stage capitalism.
Capitalism is hurting particular societal groups, Mascarenhas continued. And understanding racial capitalism’s connection to the social and environmental effects of climate change would allow the public to see the full picture, build awareness and establish solidarity across different socioeconomic groups to confront environmental injustices.
Campus students can demand more at the college educational level, according to Worthy. He cited historical student efforts to bolster their own educational experience, including the student and faculty driven push to create the campus American Cultures requirement. A similar move could integrate climate literacy into university curricula, he added.
“We all have so much hope pinned on the young people,” Login said. “It’s not fair to pin all that hope without giving them all the tools that any person would need to really affect change.”