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To fight climate change, education is key

by Vihaan Mathur and Odessa Zhang

On the day he was sworn into office, Gov. Glenn Youngkin declared he would pull Virginia out of the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, a multistate effort to cap carbon emissions from power plants.

The question is: Does anybody care? Why has Youngkin faced so little resistance, especially from young people like us, who will live to see the worst impacts of the changing climate?

The answer has to do with what kids are taught — or not taught — in school.

First, we must recognize Virginia is not spared from the impacts of climate change. In the commonwealth, temperatures are expected to rise 4 to 13 degrees Fahrenheit in the next century.

Increasing temperatures raise concerns for sea level rise in coastal areas, such as the Chesapeake Bay. This impacts watersheds and water systems that are essential to Virginia’s economy and well-being. The bay is one of the most vulnerable regions of the United States and it already has suffered the effects of pollution, rising water temperatures and overfishing.

If we have all this data on climate change, why do people still question its validity? The key is education. We must educate kids about climate change so they can protect Virginia against the greatest crisis of our generation.

But our state is failing at this important task. According to “Making the Grade?” — a 2020 study conducted by the National Center for Science Education — Virginia was one of six states that received an “F” grade for its public school curricula on climate change.

This is not just a matter of sharing high-level statistics with children. Environmental science is a complicated topic that requires a continuing progression of learning, just like any other subject at school. This must start at the elementary school level, where students can learn about environmental stewardship and basic Earth science. Essential topics like environmental racism should be taught later in a student’s education.

As students in Fairfax County, we remember learning about the water cycle and the need to recycle. But it wasn’t until freshman year of high school when the words “climate change” even were mentioned in school. The concepts we learned were vague and we were fed a shallow, incomplete explanation of climate issues.

We were not taught about the impact of our actions and how we are facing urgent threats to human health, the economy and our future well-being. Most importantly, we never learned what we can do to make a difference.

The good news is we don’t need to start from scratch. Virginia can look to schools in New Jersey, California or New York for inspiration and encouragement to up our game on climate education. We can advocate for House Bill 362, which would require climate change instruction in Virginia public schools. We can adopt the Next Generation Science Standards, a nationwide climate change effort sponsored by 26 states.

Most importantly, we have to teach our children to care about the issue. By having climate education integrated into schools, we can guarantee our future leaders are held accountable to take action against a changing climate.

Vihaan Mathur and Odessa Zhang are juniors attending Thomas Jefferson High School and McLean High School in Fairfax County. They are co-founders of Youth Climate Action Team Inc., a nonprofit focused on providing climate education to the next generation of students. Contact them at: contact@ycatinc.com.

This article was published in collaboration with the Island Press Urban Resilience Project, which is supported by The Kresge Foundation and The JPB Foundation. It was originally published March 29, 2022 on the Richmond Times-Dispatch.

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A changing climate means a changing society. The Island Press Urban Resilience Project (URP) is committed to a greener, fairer future. www.islandpress.org/URP

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