Bedfellows: An Unexpected Alliance That Keeps U.S. Children In The Dark on Climate Change

Ute Children Learning Science of Phenology
There are few things the extreme right wing, the Congress and the White House would agree on these days but one of them seems to be scaling back or eliminating K-12 climate change and environmental education for kids.

They have different reasons, but the effect is the same – our kids are losing out on essential education concerning the greatest and farthest-reaching environmental threat of our time.

What’s worse is that it is a problem we “adults” are imposing on our kids for the entirety of their lives.  It is surely a fundamental American idea that our children deserve to have the knowledge and tools they will need to handle the risks and opportunities of an uncertain future.  Agreed?  Maybe not!

Defunding Climate Change in the Classroom

In a disturbing twist, the Obama Administration has eliminated or drastically cut back on the few federal programs that exist to provide K-12 students with specific education on climate change and the environment.

Using fiscal austerity as the rationale, the White House has, in its 2013 budget, cut out environmental education grants to schools, nature centers, zoos, aquariums, teacher training programs and more.  The costs of these programs are the equivalent of numerical “rounding errors” in the context of the immense federal budget.

The administration has, nonetheless, axed environmental education programming at the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and has scaled back targeted climate change education grant programs at the National Science Foundation (NSF).   Thousands of teachers and millions of students will lose out on the professionally-developed and delivered educational programs these agencies support.  And, despite counter assertions by the White House, there is nothing truly available to replace them.

The sad irony is that the extreme right wing will applaud this move by the Obama Administration because it is what they have unsuccessfully sought to accomplish for nearly two decades.  The elimination of climate change and environmental education in the federal budget has been a basic pillar of climate skeptics and conservative group plans  from the beginning.  Recent revelations in the media about tactics of right wing conservative groups show efforts to increase skepticism through school programs about the validity of climate change science.   But, eliminating federal funding for climate education is an even greater victory for the extreme right wing.

Handicapping the Next Generation

And what of the kids, themselves?  The harsh reality of climate change will present truly unimagined levels risk and uncertainty for the next generation.  Today’s children are being saddled with a lifetime of abrupt changes and challenges including: sea level rise and flooding, dislocations, violent tornados and wildfires, diseases, water and food shortages, the conflicts of war and more.

You would think this to be a good time to pull out the stops and get the next generation prepared and ready, right?   Not really.  And here is why that is morally wrong and strategically shortsighted:

  • The weather extremes, natural disasters, and other physical and economic problems associated with global warming will harm our vulnerable children most of all – this has been proven out in disasters, famines, war and every other major national disruption.
  • The lack of school-based climate change education will leave our children without basic knowledge and skills on how to understand and handle climate related problems they will be forced to cope with as adults – we give them the mother of all problems but keep them in the dark on it.
  • These cut backs will deprive U.S. children of a “leg up” on pursuing solutions to global warming — causing them to miss out on significant economic opportunities as the rest of the world develops innovative new, less green-house gas polluting, approaches to energy and economic development.

Just last year, the House of Representatives tried to eliminate these programs but, fortunately, the Senate restored them and even provided some small increases.

Now, however, the prospects are made much worse with the withdrawal of Administration support.  The Obama White House has placed itself in practical alignment with the former Bush/Cheney Administration which consistently called for the elimination of climate change and environmental education in our schools and zeroed-out these programs with enthusiasm, repeatedly forcing public-interest education organizations into pitch battles on Capitol Hill to restore funding.

If climate change itself is the injury to the next generation, then failing to educate our kids with solid school-based programs has to be the unforgivable insult to their future prospects.

National Wildlife Federation and colleague organizations plan to challenge the Obama White House on this and seek reconsideration of these decisions in next year’s budget — we will be seeking allies to help overcome this strange new alignment of unusual bedfellows.  You game?