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NJ’s new K-12 climate change curriculum teaches kids everything except that we need to ban fossil fuels

In the science standards, for instance, educators must teach that human activity “modified … the relationships between Earth’s systems,” and that humans can develop solutions. I would’ve used “fucked over,” but I guess modify is fine.

This school year, which started for many in New Jersey this week, K-12 students in the state will be exposed to a comprehensive climate change curriculum. They’re the only students in the country who will learn about it in every grade, in myriad ways, with both local and global foci. 

And looking over the materials made available by the state, the curricula actually seem pretty cool—while some students may learn about how climate change, if left to its current course, will affect their town, others will tackle environmental justice issues like redlining, as well as speech writing, data analysis and more. There’s a lesson on greenwashing and the myth of net-zero emissions. That’s pretty important stuff (and, to be honest, may be used against the state in the future by these kids when they see what the state’s goal of being “carbon neutral” actually looks like).

Teaching resources made available to educators include courses from a variety of educational nonprofits, governmental agencies and media that hit on topics like navigating a politically divisive issue like climate change, media literacy, age appropriateness and more.

It’s a holistic approach to teaching climate change; lessons may be integrated into a variety of subjects like languages, health, technology and more, and the tools and education provided to students prepare them for everything from rallies to a career in geological forensics.

“Our standards provide students with the tools to learn how climate change impacts our society, but how to also work collaboratively with peers and communities to address the issue of climate change,” says Dr. Angelica Allen-McMillan, state acting commissioner of education.

Indeed, the standards focus on building a green economy, and repairing the societal harms of our historic energy systems, much more than the immediate need to end our reliance on the fossil fuel industry (and deny new fossil fuel infrastructure projects, like the handful currently under consideration in NJ). It’s two sides of the same coin; looking at both of them seems like Climate Change 101. But in a state that has refused banning new fossil fuel projects, but is keen to tout its green energy initiatives, the forward-looking lens of the standards makes sense.

State First Lady Tammy Murphy and the State Board of Education laid the groundwork for the new curriculum standards back in 2020. The goal was “to prepare students to understand how and why climate change happens and the impact it has on our local and global communities as well as to act in informed and sustainable ways.”

The New Jersey School Boards Association (NJSBA) and Sustainable New Jersey, a coalition including TCNJ, the Dodge Foundation and more, released a report on what needed to be done to implement climate change education. The report included the need to fund educators and school districts to participate in ongoing learning programs, and provide curriculum resources so teachers don’t have to pull lessons out of thin air—Gov. Murphy allocated $5 million in funds to these programs in his most recent budget.

And earlier this year, the state launched the NJ Climate Change Education Hub, a database of resources for teachers, including sample lesson plans, teacher education opportunities, guidance for school boards and more. The database was put together by Sustainable Jersey, NJSBA, TCNJ’s School of Education, New Jersey Audubon and the National Wildlife Federation.

A slide from the resources for the “Redlining, Tree Equity, and Environmental Racism” lesson.

The resources, particularly the sample lesson plans, hit a lot of areas. Take, for instance, the lesson plan on “Redlining, Tree Equity, and Environmental Racism,” a lesson designed for middle schoolers. Redlining, of course, is the illegal practice of mortgage lenders or insurance companies denying service in certain areas, often due to the demographics of the area. Tree equity refers to the stark lack of trees in underserved communities, particularly communities of color. (Trees, of course, help reduce air pollution, beautify neighborhoods, reduce energy bills, and much more.) The curriculum is designed to enable students to define “redlining and systemic racism,” explore the connections between redlining and tree equity, and think up possible solutions. 

The resources provide teachers with talking points, definitions, slideshows, ideal integrations into classrooms and more.

Or, consider the course plan for “Gaming and Climate Change,” aimed at high schoolers. In this lesson, students would explore how video gaming influences behavior, and how that can be harnessed to create action on climate change. The lesson links to an article (published by Bank of the West), that cites the following research: 

“Students who played Spent, a game around homelessness, demonstrated increased empathy for people living with poverty both immediately after playing and some weeks later. The Re-Mission Games transport young cancer patients into the human body where they use an array of therapies to attack their disease. Clinical trials have shown they increase understanding of cancer, boost positive emotions and help young people stick to tough medical regimens.”

The course prompts teachers to consider climate change games and ask students if they’d play them; teachers are also prompted to ask kids to design a climate change video game.

It all sounds good, and to be clear, generally is. But, there are some concerns. First, Sustainable Jersey, which helped sculpt the resource portal, is funded, in part, by a handful of the state’s energy companies. That’s at least bad optics, to give them the benefit of the doubt. There’s a long history of fossil fuel companies funding education initiatives.

And the sample lesson plans are open-ended, meaning its not clear how they’ll be implemented—for instance, a lesson on non-dairy alternatives to milk (and we know cattle raising and milk farming is one of the leading causes of greenhouse gas emissions), asks students to consider, “the perceived worth of non-dairy alternatives based on nutritional value before revisiting the graphical data to further compare the positive and negative aspects of each industry.” A lesson entitled, “Naturally, We Have a Problem,” asks students to consider conflicts around all natural resources (water, land, fossil fuels, etc.), and not, explicitly, the companies exploiting those natural resources for financial gain.

A screen grab of some of the “Exemplar Lesson Plans” offered by the state’s climate change resource portal.

Of course, these are just sample lessons. The state’s education standards more expressly outline what educators must teach about climate change. But there’s wiggle room there, too. That’s understandable given the wide array of approaches and course material in all of NJ’s schools. In the science standards, for instance, educators must teach that human activity “modified … the relationships between Earth’s systems,” and that humans can develop solutions. I would’ve used “fucked over,” but I guess modify is fine.

What I’m driving at here is that the educational resources and standards don’t explicitly tell educators to teach that the continued use of fossil fuels (and, to a lesser degree, the continuance of factory farming) is the main driver of climate change. They empower teachers to provide all the tools necessary to students to understand how climate change is impacting their communities and the world, how to speak out about them, and how to imagine next-gen, renewable societies—indeed, it’s very solutions-oriented. Which is fine, because we need innovative solutions from this upcoming generation. 

But if we’re going to do this right, and tout ourselves for our climate progress in New Jersey, we need to be explicit about the main driver of climate change: fossil fuels. And we need to educate NJ students about the fossil fuel projects they can help prevent in our state, like the creation of a liquefied natural gas export facility in Gibbstown. Members of the Delaware River Basin Commission (DRBC) voted this week to extend the permit of the company, Delaware River Partners, overseeing the project.

“It’s madness to extend the dangerous Gibbstown LNG project in the middle of a climate crisis and undemocratic without a public hearing. This vote proves all the talk by Governor Murphy and the DRBC about climate change is just more Hot Air,” said Environmental Activist Jeff Tittel, retired NJ Sierra Club director, in a press release.

It’s those types of issues that are pushed aside when the focus is on future solutions. This shit is urgent! Combining that forward-looking approach with one that takes a serious look at banning fossil fuel projects is not only a truly comprehensive approach to climate change education. It’s also elementary.