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Climate change is here, but your child likely isn't learning much about it at school

Author Mary Batten's 10-year-old granddaughter reading her latest book, Life in Hot Water: Wildlife at the Bottom of the Ocean, to her 4-year-old brother. (Courtesy of Mary Batten)
Author Mary Batten's 10-year-old granddaughter reading her latest book, Life in Hot Water: Wildlife at the Bottom of the Ocean, to her 4-year-old brother. (Courtesy of Mary Batten)

More than half of adults see climate change as a major threat to the country’s well-being, but most states don’t require children to learn about it in school.

New Jersey, Oregon, Connecticut and California feature climate topics or environmental education in their curriculum, but that isn’t the norm.

Jennifer Jones, director of the Center for Science and Democracy at the Union of Concerned Scientists, says the U.S. is failing when it comes to climate literacy in education.

“If we look at the national level, we see that teachers lack resources, they lack training,” she says. “Because it’s not included in state standards, they’re not given the time and space, nor do they feel like they have the political support and administrative support to bring climate change into the classroom.”

She says every American should understand the basic science of climate change, but the definition of climate literacy goes beyond that.

We need to understand the uneven impacts of climate change on people, [how it] disproportionately affects communities of color, marginalized communities,” she says. “A climate-literate person is somebody who can distinguish credible and non-credible sources of information. They can recognize disinformation. And a climate-literate person is somebody who can communicate in a meaningful way about climate change in their community and society as a whole.”

Science writer Mary Batten agrees with Jones that it’s never too early to teach children about climate change and the environment — as long as the information is age-appropriate. She calls toddlers “budding field biologists,” citing how young children are intrinsically driven to explore every facet of their environment, especially when playing outside.

“They may pick up a little pebble, a leaf, a shell, a twig of grass, a buttercup, and they will hold it tightly in their little hands and run over to you excitedly and open the hand to give this treasure that they have found to you,” she says. “To me, the perfect time to introduce science is when the children are developmentally driven by that curiosity to learn everything they can.”

Over the past 30 years, Batten has worked on dozens of science-themed shows for children and has written two dozen books.

The National Science Teaching Association added her latest children’s book, “Life in Hot Water: Wildlife at the Bottom of the Ocean,” to the list of outstanding science trade books for 2023 for students K-12.

The key, Batten says, to teaching children about something complicated — like the organisms that thrive in scalding hot water at the bottom of the ocean — is to approach it as a story of discovery.

“There’s so many fascinating things going on in nature. And each does tell a story — in this case, of the hydrothermal vents,” she says. “It’s a story of discovering that they existed. And then secondly, it’s the discovery of what happens down at the bottom of the sea where the liquid earth interacts with the solid earth. And then third, it’s the discovery that life is down there where no one, not even the scientists who made the first trip to the bottom of the sea, expected to find any living thing in the superhot and also highly toxic conditions.”

Batten also says when writing about science, she doesn’t “write down” to children. Instead she “writes up.”

“That means that I respect their questions,” she says. “Children ask probing questions, and I think people really underestimate how intelligent some of the questions really are.”

For example, when Batten’s daughter was 4 years old, she asked, “does the universe have an edge?” Batten says she gasped at the question.

“I said, ‘Well, that’s something that scientists have been trying to figure out for hundreds and hundreds of years,’” she says.

As a writer, Batten says she is concerned about the current political climate and what it means for the future of climate literacy.

I never thought that I would see grown up people in positions of leadership — the former president, members of Congress, governors, state legislators, and school board members — working so hard to de-educate people, to take us backwards,” she says. “The book banning, the defunding of libraries, telling teachers what they can and cannot teach. These are already having a devastating effect on education.”

Jones says whether you’re a parent or educator or student, everyone has a role to play in getting climate change into the classroom.

“We see within the [topic of] climate change, as a whole, a very coordinated disinformation campaign largely held up by fossil fuels, but certainly others delegitimizing the science of climate change, trying to sow doubt about climate change,” she says. I would encourage all of us to contact your schools and your school boards and your elected representatives. Go to the ballot box with climate change in mind and be an active participant in creating this world we want.”

Ashley Locke produced and edited this interview for broadcast with Gabe Bullard. Locke adapted it for the web.

This article was originally published on WBUR.org.

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