In 2019, inspired by teenage Swedish activist Greta Thunberg, youth around the world took action to demand governments address climate change. While 2020 brought a pandemic that dominated the world’s attention, the urgency of our climate crisis has not abated at all.

That this movement was led by students is significant. The majority of today’s youth are keenly aware that the planet they are inheriting has been abused and is undergoing life-threatening changes, and that humanity needs to reverse the course of this destruction to sustain life as we know it. A 2019 survey by the Kaiser Family Foundation found that 61 percent of American teenagers say the issue of climate change is very or extremely important to them.

The students of today are the next generation of stewards of this earth. They are inheriting a planet that needs help and, for those here in Rhode Island, a state that is significantly impacted by rising seas. It’s imperative that they are provided accurate scientific information about climate change and that they understand what it means for their future.

Virtually every profession is in transition to become more environmentally sensitive and so must our educational system. In particular, Rhode Island’s tourism, agriculture and fishing industries are changing because of climate change. It is essential that we equip our emerging work force with the skills and knowledge to be competitive in the growing green economy.

Kids are also some of the greatest ambassadors for messages about protecting the earth. When they learn about the necessity of reducing our impacts, they are willing to change and ask their families to do the same. Making sure they all learn how real and serious climate change is will have an impact here and now, as well as when they grow up.

That is the impetus for the Climate Literacy Act. This legislation calls on the Department of Education to work with environmental and climate educators and educational leaders to develop key learning concepts about environmental, climate and sustainability principals to be incorporated into science and social studies curricula in grades K-12, and infuse them into teacher professional development.

The bill also establishes a recognition program for “Climate Smart” schools and an awards program — the “Green Apple” award —for teachers who excel in imbedding these concepts into their teaching. 

Climate literacy is “news you can use” for kids. They recognize that, as the people with the longest future on this planet, they are the most affected by climate change, and that their lifetime will be a critical period for our planet. They are also in the process of forming their personal lifestyles, philosophies and passions. Equipping them with scientific facts about climate change and what we can do to change course is an effective way to help them become part of the solution.

Climate literacy is also an imperative for our society. Hundreds of years of not knowing or taking seriously the dire impacts of industrialization, fossil fuel use and pollution are how we reached this critical point. We owe it to future generations to give them the information they need to keep their planet livable.

We urge passage of the Climate Literacy Act, and look forward to working with and supporting educators in making sure all Rhode Island students understand their role in solving the climate crisis.

Rep. Terri Cortvriend (D-Dist. 72, Portsmouth, Middletown) and Sen. Valarie J. Lawson (D-Dist. 14, East Providence) are the sponsors of the Climate Literacy Act (2021-H 5625/2021-S 0464). Jeanine Silversmith is executive director of the Rhode Island Environmental Education Association.

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