Writing climate change into the K-12 curriculum


We are living in the midst of a climate emergency, with the expectation that conditions will significantly worsen in the near future. In January, NASA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration confirmed that 2023 was the hottest year ever recorded. In New York state, climate change is impacting the environment, society and the economy as extreme weather events increase in frequency and intensity. Floods are more frequent, and the growing season for crops is changing. Climate disasters have cost the northeastern United States over $80 billion since 1980.

In response to the threat of a climate catastrophe, there is a renewed push to include climate awareness in the K-12 school curriculum. New Jersey was the first state to mandate climate change lessons in its public schools. New York State Senate Bill S278A would amend state education law, “establishing a course of instruction and learning expectations on climate education in all public pre-kindergarten, elementary and secondary schools.” There is a companion bill in the Assembly, A1559A.

Over 200 educational professionals and organizations representing tens of thousands of members have signed a letter in support of the state legislation. It reads in part:

“New York State has set ambitious climate change adaptation and mitigation goals under the Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act (CLCPA). This Act commits the state to 100% zero-emission electricity by 2040, and a reduction of at least 85% below 1990-level (greenhouse gas) emissions by 2050. The CLCPA implementation plan recognizes that actions to address climate change will be needed at scale and across all sectors of the state, including ‘the need for P-12 curricula to include climate change education,’ as well as ‘a coordinated effort on outreach and education across all sectors of the economy.’ Addressing climate change is an educational project, and we stand ready as educational professionals to assist New York State as it addresses the challenges and opportunities presented by the rapidly changing climate.”

The National Wildlife Federation is already asking teachers to pledge to teach at least 10 hours a year to promote climate change awareness. Its website includes a guide for teaching about climate and climate change. The Climate and Resilience Education Task Force offers a toolkit for supporting climate action and education.

While New York, New Jersey, Connecticut and California want to expand student understanding of the threat of climate change to the world as we know it, a number of states governed by Republican Party climate change deniers, including Florida, Texas and Virginia, are committed to ignorance and obfuscation. In Connecticut, Republican State Rep. John Piscopo is demanding that lessons on climate change include unsupported challenges to the scientific consensus that human action and the emission of fossil fuels into the atmosphere are the primary engine of global warming. Piscopo charges that scientists and teachers who want a climate-awareness curriculum are trying to indoctrinate students.

The New York City Department of Education isn’t waiting for legislative action. Last summer, 39 city elementary-school teachers took part in a four-day training on “Integrating Climate Education in N.Y.C. Public Schools.” The workshop included children’s literature that teachers can use in their classrooms at different grade levels, such as “Rain School,” by James Rumford, a picture book for kindergarten through third-grades about children living in the town of Kélo, in the Central African country of Chad. Every year their school must be rebuilt because the building is destroyed by powerful storms.

Monica Pagan-Guzman, who teaches third grade at Public School 83 in East Harlem and took part in the program, started a lunch club in which students discuss climate change.

This month, the Department of Education and the United Federation of Teachers co-hosted a climate change training session for up to 500 educators.

Since the start of the Industrial Revolution, human-caused climate change has impacted the globe with the burning of fossil fuels. The debate in classrooms and the political realm should not be over whether climate change is happening, or to what extent it puts human civilization at risk, but rather how societies and individuals should respond. On my website,, I have high school-level lesson material aligned with my book “Teaching Climate History: There is No Planet B.” The package includes documents for use in both science and social studies classes.

Dr. Alan Singer is a professor of teaching, learning and technology and the director of social studies education programs at Hofstra University.