New Jersey’s Climate Change Curriculum: An Important First Step for Social Studies Education
by Evan Saperstein and Daniel Saperstein
In a recent Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) (2021) report, the United Nations (UN) scientific body confirmed what many leading scientists, activists, and public officials have known and warned for years: human activity is responsible for the climate change crisis. The sobering report (drafted by 234 scientists representing 66 nations) is nothing short of a code red, concluding that greenhouse gas (e.g., carbon dioxide, methane) emissions are causing rising temperatures and more frequent heatwaves, as well as worsening floods, droughts, and hurricanes (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, 2021). To stem the tide requires immediate and sustained action across the globe (e.g., through a net zero emissions coalition) (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, 2021). The UN General Assembly (2015) at large has recognized this dire imperative for years, and other multinational institutions and organizations (e.g., Climate Action Network) have worked tirelessly to bring attention to this heightening threat.
With each passing year, however, the stark consequence of failing to take action has become more painfully evident. Indeed, only three weeks after the release of the IPCC report, Hurricane Ida wreaked havoc in the South and then, to the surprise of forecasters, across much of the Northeast, particularly in New Jersey (Porter & Scolforo, 2021). The torrential downpour and instant flash flooding of streets and homes resulted in swift and seismic destruction (Porter & Scolforo, 2021). In response, New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy issued a state of emergency, and promised grants to help rebuild and guard against future devastation (Arco, 2021; Porter & Scolforo, 2021). And, while touring the aftermath, President Joe Biden (2021) cautioned that: “weather would be more extreme and climate change was here, and we’re living through it now. We don’t have any more time.”
Hurricane Ida is just the latest example of extreme weather events in New Jersey and across the United States (Freedman & Samenow, 2020; Pershing, 2021). Indeed, the United States recently experienced its warmest summer in history (previously set in 1936) (Chow, 2021). In fact, this past decade was the Earth’s warmest to date (and since 2005, there have been the 10 hottest years on record) (Borunda, 2020; Lindsey & Dahlman, 20021; Milman, 2020). In light of these troubling trends, New Jersey has taken steps to address climate change.
For instance, in 2020, Governor Murphy signed the Food Waste Recycling Law to reduce greenhouse gases by requiring large generators of food waste to recycle unused and wasted food (Munoz, 2020). Later that year, the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection published the Global Warming Response Act Report, detailing the steps needed to reduce climate pollutant emissions (Barr et al., 2020). This past year, the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection (2021) also developed its first statewide Climate Change Resilience Strategy. The strategy outlines six overarching priorities: “build resilient and healthy communities,” “strengthen the resilience of New Jersey’s ecosystem,” “promote coordinated governance,” “invest in information and increase public understanding,” “promote climate-informed investments and innovative financing,” and a “coastal resilience plan” (New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection, 2021).
Notably, New Jersey’s climate change initiative and action also has extended to education. Recently, New Jersey became the first U.S. state to add climate change across its K-12 curricular standards (Fallon, 2020; Warren, 2020; Williams, 2020); full implementation will take effect by the following academic year due to delays resulting from the pandemic (New Jersey Department of Education, 2021). Various stakeholders, including K-12 educators and administrators, participated in this historic initiative. New Jersey’s first lady Tammy Murphy helped lead the effort (Warren, 2020), with the goal of providing younger generations “an opportunity to study and understand the climate crisis through a comprehensive, interdisciplinary lens” (Cruise, 2020). The first lady cast the initiative as “much more than an added educational requirement; it is a symbol of a partnership between generations” (Cruise, 2020). Governor Murphy himself acknowledged the significance of the curricular standards “to reestablish New Jersey’s role as a leader in the fight against climate change” (Warren, 2020). Former Vice President and environmental activist Al Gore also praised the state for its commitment to prepare future leaders able to confront climate change and prescribe solutions (Warren, 2020).
The incorporation of climate change related content into the state’s K-12 curriculum is far-reaching (Fallon, 2020; Warren, 2020; Williams, 2020). The new curriculum will result in material changes to Social Studies, as well as several other content areas of the 2020 New Jersey Student Learning Standards (NJSLS) ranging from Career Readiness, Life Literacies, and Key Skills to Comprehensive Health and Physical Education; Computer Science and Design Thinking; Science; Visual and Performing Arts; and World Languages.
For Social Studies in particular, climate-related content has been added to U.S. and world history, encompassing economics, geography, civics, government, and human rights (New Jersey Department of Education, 2020e). The social studies standards speak to “leveraging climate change as an area of focus” through “authentic learning experiences” and the “use of disciplinary literacy skills to communicate . . . solutions for change” (New Jersey Department of Education, 2020e, p. 21). This includes “students asking their own questions,” soliciting “diverse points of view,” and “using geospatial technologies to gather data” (New Jersey Department of Education, 2020e, p. 21).
The social studies standards from the New Jersey Department of Education (2020e) set “performance expectations” specific to climate change, including to “evaluate the impact of individual, business, and government decisions and actions on . . . climate change” (p. 66); “assess the efficacy of government policies and agencies in New Jersey and the United States in addressing these decisions” (p. 66); “investigate . . . climate change, its significance, and share information about how it impacts different regions around the world” (p. 86); “develop an action plan . . . related to climate change and share with school and/or community members” (p. 87); and “plan and participate in an advocacy project . . . about the impact of climate change at the local or state level and propose possible solutions” (p. 87). These curricular changes go well beyond Social Studies, as noted above. For Career Readiness, Life Literacies, and Key Skills, climate-related content cuts across topics in creativity and innovation; critical thinking and problem-solving; digital citizenship; global and cultural awareness; and information and media literacy (New Jersey Department of Education, 2020a). Comprehensive Health and Physical Education ties climate-related content with community health services and support (New Jersey Department of Education, 2020b). Computer Science and Design Thinking fuses climate-related content with data and analysis, as well as the effects of technology on the natural world (New Jersey Department of Education, 2020c). For Science, naturally, climate-related content covers earth and human activity, engineering design, and earth’s systems (New Jersey Department of Education, 2020d). For Visual and Performing Arts, climate-related content is part of dance, media arts, theatre, and visual arts (New Jersey Department of Education, 2020f, p. 4). And, for World Languages, climate-related content runs the gamut of interpretive, interpersonal, and presentational modes of communication (New Jersey Department of Education, 2020g).
Educating the next generation about the effects of climate change is fundamental to the future of social studies education and across disciplines. During the September 2019 global climate strikes, students around the globe (led by Greta Thunberg) left class and took to the streets to protest politicians’ inaction on climate change (Huish, 2021; Sengupta, 2019). While the pandemic served to stall momentum (Berwyn & Erdenesanaa, 2021), youth activists are once again holding in-person (albeit much smaller) protests as part of Thunberg’s Friday for Future movement (Adam & Noack, 2021). But youth activists can only achieve so much on their own, and climate change education is a necessary predicate to prepare the next generation to address this challenge.
New Jersey’s climate change curriculum is a critical first step, and it should become a blueprint for other states in this country as well as other countries abroad. Climate change education will provide students with a baseline of knowledge to understand and confront the negative impacts of this threat. As the NJSLS show, these are interdisciplinary issues that cut across social studies, as well as the sciences and the arts, to name a few. It is imperative that students with varying backgrounds, educational levels, and areas of interest become well-versed in these issues, and take the lessons learned through further education, into their professions, and as part of their lives as citizens.
Yet, New Jersey should not stop with climate change education. New Jersey K-12 schools can and should take the lead in teaching about other critical issues—be they about public health, economic inequality, or social justice. The UN has outlined a number of these global challenges that have become better known as the 17 sustainable development goals (SDGs), of which climate action is but one. Others include: no poverty; zero hunger; good health and well-being; quality education; gender equality; clean water and sanitation; affordable and clean energy; decent work and economic growth; industry, innovation and infrastructure; reduced inequalities; sustainable cities and communities; responsible consumption and production; life below water; life on land; peace, justice, and strong institutions; and partnerships (United Nations General Assembly, 2015). To groom well-rounded citizens, New Jersey K-12 schools must once again take the reins and incorporate such issues into various content area standards. Students need to learn about the impact of climate change and other global issues to successfully navigate through the many challenges facing today’s world. Given the scope and scale of the risk, the stakes could not be greater.
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