Rep. Barbara Lee Calls for Climate Education in All Schools

Congresswoman Barbara Lee (D-Calif.) met with press on Thursday Sept. 19, 2019 to announce that she would be introducing a House Resolution in support of teaching climate change in schools. Source: @RepBarbaraLee

In May of 2016, the school board in Portland, Oregon, passed what is believed to be the first comprehensive climate education resolution in the country. It called for climate justice curriculum, increased professional development, support for student activism, and for the school district to abandon the use of text materials that deny the human roots of the climate crisis or minimize its effects.

This climate education work gets a big boost today from Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Calif.) who is remembered for her courageous stand as the only member of Congress to vote against the authorization of the use of force in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks.

Today, commemorating what promises to be the largest climate strike ever, Lee’s office says she will officially introduce a House Resolution to support the teaching of climate change in schools throughout the United States.

Like Portland’s school board resolution, this is not only a call for more “climate literacy.” Lee’s resolution also emphasizes that the climate crisis is a social crisis. In introducing the resolution, she said, “We need to teach every young person the human impacts of climate change and how to combat the climate crisis before it is too late.”

The resolution emphasizes that “climate change is a generational social justice, racial justice, and human rights issue.” It has been endorsed by diverse education and environmental justice organizations, including the American Federation of Teachers, the Sierra Club, the National Center for Science Education, the Mom’s Clean Air Force, Students for Climate Action, and Rethinking Schools.

The resolution begins from the premise that student climate activism is essential, but “in order to meaningfully act upon our changing climate and changed world, young people need education about its causes, consequences, anticipated future impacts, and possible solutions.” And, “when students engage in a climate change curriculum, they can develop a greater sense of efficacy about their capacity to address critical social and environmental issues.”

The congresswoman’s House Resolution emphasizes, a changing climate “disproportionately affects students of color and students in poverty, thereby exacerbating existing inequalities and limiting equality of opportunity.”

Lee is also a co-sponsor of HR 109, The Green New Deal—the most ambitious Congressional statement outlining how to tackle the climate crisis, and simultaneously address broader social inequality. But as Rethinking Schools magazine editors pointed out in a recent editorial, as ambitious as the Green New Deal is, it never mentions the word schools.

Thus, Lee’s resolution is a welcome gesture, reminding her colleagues—and everyone else—that the climate crisis especially affects young people, that young people are and will be at the center of those demanding action, and that the Green New Deal has profound implications for our schools.

Here in Portland, Oregon, where I work with the Portland Public Schools Climate Justice Committee, emboldened by the promises of the school board’s 2016 climate justice resolution, last spring, students and climate activists raised a series of demands for more robust implementation of the resolution. One of these demands was that the school district hire someone whose only job would be to promote climate justice education throughout the school district—working with students, frontline communities, environmental and social justice organizations, teachers, administrators, and with the school district’s Climate Justice Committee. In May, Portland’s school board authorized funds for this position, and the country’s first “Climate Change and Climate Justice Programs Manager” begins work next week.

In a statement Thursday, Rep. Lee said, “By failing to address climate change in a meaningful way, we are failing our children—and they know it.”

Imagine if young people throughout the United States had a climate justice education that asked them to consider the roots of the climate crisis, to examine the profoundly unequal ways the crisis is manifesting itself throughout the world, and to think of themselves as activists who can make the world cleaner, safer, and more equal. The House Resolution now introduced by Rep. Barbara Lee may be an important step in that direction.

Reprinted from Common Dreams.

This lesson is being shared by Rethinking Schools for the week of September 15-23 as part of Covering Climate Now, a global collaboration of more than 250 news outlets to strengthen coverage of the climate story.


Bill Bigelow is curriculum editor of Rethinking Schools magazine and co-director of the Zinn Education Project. He is the author and co-editor of numerous publications including Rethinking Columbus: The Next 500 Years and A People’s Curriculum for the Earth: Teaching Climate Change and the Environmental Crisis.

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