Where We Stand: A Beacon of Hope on Climate Change

Students and educators are involved in many of the mass movements of our time—from calling for sensible policies to combat climate change and gun violence, to protesting the inhumane treatment of immigrants and supporting the Black Lives Matter movement. In the fight for environmental justice, much of the leadership is coming from students—and their teachers couldn’t be prouder.

One of the foremost purposes of education is to prepare young people for the possibilities and responsibilities of citizenship. This goes way beyond the memorization and regurgitation of facts. Teachers guide their students to develop judgment and discernment to be engaged and empowered participants in society.

This is why the American Federation of Teachers fights for the freedom to teach so classrooms are freed from the tyranny of high-stakes testing and test prep, to allow time for project-based learning—so students can analyze problems in their communities, figure out potential solutions, and advocate for change. It’s why we reject lockstep pacing calendars, so we can have extended classroom discussions and debates. Teachers need this latitude to help their students develop the confidence to make their voices heard, the courage to challenge injustice, and knowledge of the levers that can bring about change.

All this is necessary to prepare this and future generations to address the enormous crises of our age—extreme economic inequality; dangerous assaults on our democracy; polarization, bigotry, bullying, and divisiveness; and, as this issue of American Educator explores, existential climate change.

In one of the largest youth-led demonstrations in history, the Global Climate Strike in September galvanized millions of activists worldwide to take to the streets for climate action. It was started by 16-year-old Greta Thunberg, led by thousands of students, and supported by hundreds of organizations, including the AFT. Students across the United States walked out of school to participate. Educators, including AFT members, didn’t just show up, they helped navigate an array of policies in various districts regarding student absences, logistical support, and participation in student-led actions—as well as teaching classroom lessons on climate change.

Young Americans have grown up in an age of the earth warming, seas rising, devastating wildfires, and frequent “once in a century” storms. They are taking their future into their own hands. They understand their power to bring about change. But they need people already in power to act now to address the worsening climate crisis. Beyond demonstrations, people must use the political process to change policy.

Today, even as the focus of the environmental movement has evolved from concerns about pollution to fear of possible extinction, proponents and opponents of tackling climate change largely take their places along party lines. But safeguarding the environment was not always a partisan matter. The Environmental Protection Agency was established during the Nixon administration, and President Richard Nixon planted a tree on the South Lawn of the White House to recognize the first Earth Day. The Senate passed the Clean Air Act in 1970 without a single nay vote.

In the decades since, environmental regulations and enforcement have helped clean up rivers so polluted with toxins that they once caught on fire, and reduced smog and acid rain. Wind and solar energy are booming. Cleaning up our environment is not a choice between jobs and the environment. As new green technologies show, we can grow the economy, sustain good jobs, and save our planet.

The disastrous effects of climate change are outpacing policy changes to combat them. Corporations and opponents of government regulations have leveraged their fortunes and influence to undo environmental protections. Communities of color and low-income people suffer disproportionately from environmental degradation and climate change. President Trump has withdrawn from the Paris climate agreement, and his administration has reversed many efforts to safeguard the environment. Trump and his administration have abandoned the once bipartisan leadership of the United States in addressing global climate change.

People want a better life and a better future. But we need the means. That is why it is so important that individuals—not just the most powerful—have a voice in our democracy. Young voters increasingly name protecting the environment as one of their top concerns. People too young to vote are raising their voices in other ways—walking out in climate strikes, standing up, and speaking out.

Young people recognize the urgency of the climate crisis that their elders failed to summon. We must join them—pushing for bold political and policy initiatives to reverse climate change and reduce the intertwining issue of economic inequality. Our youth have lit a spark and given us a beacon of hope. We must follow their lead.

American Educator, Winter 2019-2020