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No climate action without climate education

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Jordan Madden is a young climate activist from the US. He explains why climate education is the basis for climate action.


This blog is the eleventh in The Elders’ Intergenerational Climate Blog Series 2021 and features an introduction by Mary Robinson:

"At this crucial point in the fight against the climate crisis we should all be aware of its effects and how we can tackle it. Without a wider understanding of what we are up against – and what is at stake – we cannot reach the level of public engagement that we need to push leaders and governments to act with determination and urgency. As Jordan Madden says, climate education is absolutely necessary.

Jordan also addresses the corrupting influence of energy companies. To that, I reiterate my support of the youth who are rightly confronting corporations, leaders, and nations about their contributions to the climate emergency. Tackling this crisis will require all of us – across generations, nations, businesses and civil society."

- Mary Robinson

How many people can truthfully say that they know sufficiently about the climate crisis and its damage? If we are honest with ourselves, even people who have fancy professional or doctorate degrees do not understand the climate crisis adequately. It is inevitably an understanding acquired through experience.

In a world where climate-related catastrophes impact people in numerous different ways, we are gearing up for this fight, but like a sensible person once told me: you would never bring a knife to a gunfight.

Climate education is key to tackling the climate crisis

As a climate activist looking to tackle this crisis in my community, I was intrigued when I began to question, why is such an urgent crisis not being taught to everyone? Why is it mentioned to students only at a certain age, if at all? I was frustrated. The climate is warming, our homes are being destroyed, and yet we are preparing our children for it with coloring sheets and fake initiatives to recycle plastic bottles. No, I was not just frustrated; I was infuriated.

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Jordan Madden (third from the left) protests for increased climate action with fellow climate activists.

For many of us, we learned of the climate crisis through its heavy presence from our peers on social media, or in the news. But why was this information not being given to us by our educators? I distinctively remember reading about it very briefly in my science textbook and being frightened but so curious. When attempting to satisfy my curiosity, teachers met me with “you are too young to learn” and “we do not know more in-depth on that topic.” My first response was: “why not?”. When you turn away a curious and ambitious child like me it only sparks more curiosity. So, I went to learn more.

I found that, in 1957, Humble Oil (now ExxonMobil) first learned of the rising CO2 levels. They began to uncover precisely what rising CO2 levels in our atmospheres do to our planet. For decades, they put money into research on the effects humans had on the planet and how their companies contributed to climate change. In other words, they knew.

While some governments, intergovernmental, and non-governmental organizations have now started realizing that we need to educate people about climate change, we still have a long way to go.

One problem is that companies are allowed to influence policy, including education policy. For example, ExxonMobil has created an initiative to promote STEM learning in communities where they drill for oil. What a very ironic way to show gratitude. Instead of addressing the concerns of people living in those communities, they educate their children on how what science tells us about climate change is wrong. Exxon continues to drive this narrative by lobbying policymakers and regulating what can and cannot be said about human effects on climate change. This corrupting influence has prompted some education regulators and legislators to limit what we can say about climate change, and mar it as “controversial” or a “personal indoctrination.”

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Jordan Madden, a climate activist from the US, takes part in The Elders' Intergenerational Climate Blog Series.

The strong support for climate education

There is also strong support for an enhanced and improved education on climate change. Three in four Americans agree it should be taught in school and a full 86% of US teachers, and 80% of parents support it. A majority of both republicans and democrats also support educating young people on climate change.

However, even though an overwhelming amount of Americans, teachers, and parents support the teaching of climate change, actually getting it done is a little more complicated. Even though many parents and teachers support climate education, only 45% and 42% respectively talk to their kids about it. That is a significant drop from the ones who favor teaching on the climate crisis.

Even in college, students argue that they are not being given enough climate education. A full 80% of student them said in a poll that their courses did not prepare them for climate transformation in the workplace. While professors may not have the time, resources, or knowledge to incorporate this into their already crammed classes, the main problem is the curriculums and textbooks. Remember how Exxon was “promoting STEM learning”? These companies are influencing policymakers, states, and legislators as to what is included in climate education curriculum. For example, in that same Texas town where Exxon claims to be promoting STEM learning, textbooks refer to climate change as “superficial” and “containing errors.”

Governments and states cannot allow the fossil fuel industry to influence education policy. Simply put, Exxon needs to be removed from Congress and statehouses across the country.

Turning words into action

Tackling the climate crisis must begin with education. If we do not quite understand what the threat is or how to prevent or prepare for it, how will we ever be ready? It’s like swinging blindly at something, but not knowing what you are swinging at.

Climate change is an existential threat to mankind and we cannot let it fester any longer.

Even if we stop burning fossil fuels today, and change our industries and workforce to be one hundred percent renewable, carbon-emission-free, we will still not reverse the damage already done. But we can prevent it from getting worse.

We must prepare our economies to be sustainable, our energy to be renewable, and create green, high-wage jobs. This is no small task. It will take all of us. But we have the tools, we want it badly, now the only step left is to do it.

Jordan Madden is a climate activist and current member and leader of the Sunrise Movement. He got involved in the climate when he was 15 years old, after learning of the impact it had on his community. Inspired by local leaders and heroes of his, like the late John R. Lewis, and Stacey Abrams, he knew that change would only come if demanded. Jordan began to rally students and community organizers in his state and began to seek equitable ways to combat the climate crisis, end the corrupting influence of fossil fuel executives in our politics, and elect leaders who stand for the health and wellbeing of all people. 

Views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The Elders or The Elders Foundation

Mary Robinson and Brianna Fruean at COP 25Intergenerational Climate Blog Series 2021

Featuring youth climate activists from around the world, discover stories of courage, hope and resilience in taking climate action.

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