Kentucky’s two senators, Rand Paul and Mitch McConnell, are both “skeptical” that human behavior has caused climate change. But since 2011, when, following years of planning and collaboration by scientists and educators, the state approved its Environmental Literacy Plan, students there are taught the reverse. High schoolers, in chemistry class, learn how methane emissions alter the makeup of the Earth’s atmosphere and contribute to global warming. In a historically coal-producing state, they learn about the harmful effects of the industry; now, at public-school hosted career days, representatives from the “green economy”–from wind turbine technicians to energy-use experts–are required to be on site to offer advice.
Even though Kentucky’s voting population runs red, the state is among the most progressive in the country when it comes to environmental education. The United States, however, currently has no formalized environmental education policy (and under the current administration, is unlikely to implement one), but volunteers in 48 out of the 50 states have drafted their own plans. The results have been mixed. Earth Day Network (EDN)–the advocacy organization that emerged from the first Earth Day on April 22, 1970–surveyed the status of environmental education across the 50 states.“Some are decent, some are horrible,” EDN President Kathleen Rogers tells Fast Company. “Some have the right idea but haven’t made progress.”
The theme of Earth Day 2017 is environmental and climate literacy, and part of the goal of the theme, Rogers says, is to rectify the country’s uneven educational landscape, and develop an environmental education platform that can be applied across the world. The educational goals are part of EDN’s larger five-year strategy, launched in 2015 and timed to Earth Day’s 50th anniversary in 2020, to advocate for environmental awareness and action around the globe; other efforts include planting 7.8 billion trees (one for each projected person on the planet) and building the world’s largest environmental service project, Billion Acts of Green, that encourages citizens to take small steps toward reducing their environmental footprint, like eating less meat and discontinuing use of disposable plastic.
To launch the environmental literacy campaign this Earth Day, EDN has partnered with the March for Science, which will pass through Washington, D.C., as well as over 517 other cities that have registered as “satellite marches,” this April 22. At the center of the EDN campaign launch will be a series of teach-ins–a nod to the educational model that activated the first Earth Day–held on the National Mall; organizations from the National Audubon Society to the Princeton University Press have registered to host sessions in Washington that day. EDN and the March for Science have also developed a downloadable toolkit so any community can host a similar educational initiative.
But through its three-year campaign, EDN aims to see environmental literacy move out of the grassroots realm and into policy. EDN has developed an environmental curricula for year-round use in K-12 classrooms; it’s the organization’s goal to promote mandatory environmental education in schools both in the U.S. around the world and to have its strategy serve as the backbone of that effort. Along with the World Bank Group, EDN will conduct a study of the state of climate literacy in over 50 countries and will work with educational ministers, NGOs, and other stakeholders to understand how best to promote mandatory climate education in each country.
In the U.S., EDN will advocate for environmental literacy to be added to the Common Core State Standards, which so far have been adopted by 42 states and four territories. Taking a district-by-district approach, and focusing particularly on states like West Virginia, Oklahoma, Wyoming, and Idaho, which reject current scientific standards, EDN will train formal and informal educators alike in using their online resources to teach students.
The current scattershot state of environmental education in the U.S., Rogers says, could jeopardize the country’s future as a global economic force. By failing to consistently educate the next generation on issues related to climate and the environment, “you won’t build an educated workforce; you won’t build an educated consumer base,” Rogers says. “We need to prepare our citizens for what we know will inevitably be the green industrial revolution—regardless of what Trump says, it’s coming.” Though education, Rogers says, is often treated like “the poor stepchild” of the environmental movement, overlooked in favor of advocating for other environmental and climate goals, that has to change. “We need a national policy that drives this kind of education not just for political reasons; we need a uniform process of educating our kids so they can grow up and get jobs,” she says.
Other countries around the world are already far ahead of the U.S.: EDN has been in talks with countries like Morocco, Nicaragua, Oman, and Italy, all of which are moving forward with the idea of mandatory environmental education. “They want to have an educated consumer public and they want to have an educated workforce,” Rogers says.
Even though the anti-science and climate-change denying veil over the U.S.’s current administration appear like a roadblock in the environmental movement as a whole, Rogers believes it’s a temporary hiccup. “Irrespective of the political nature of anti-science thought, we will move ahead with this. It’s inevitable. It’s progress. The sun is free, the wind is free, it’s less toxic, and it makes economic sense,” Rogers says. She compares the current shift toward sustainable practices and development with the first industrial revolution when people clung to their horses and outhouses out of fear of change. The thing that bent their mind toward modernity and progress, Rogers says, was education. “You have to educate people to get them excited about changes,” she says. “We are going to see some retrenchment on the way toward implementing this educational policy, but that’s just the way it goes. It’s two steps forward, one step back, but it will happen.”