Helping students see global climate change issues through a social justice lens

#ClimateEdNowConservationists and preservationists like John Muir and Aldo Leopold inspired generations of global citizens to appreciate the beauty of our natural world and the intrinsic value all life contains. These deep ecology theories and work by early environmentalists paved the way for the management of lands and natural resources and made explicit that preservation was the responsibility of individuals and society. They were the first to note the dire need for sustainable living much before they knew of the destructive behaviors and anthropogenic causes of climate change. Their love of nature was grounded in experience: total immersion in the natural world helped them develop their sense of stewardship and deep appreciation for the environment, and formed the basis for their ecological writings.

Muir and Leopold paved the way for future environmentalists and the development of countless pro-environmental behaviors of the 20th and 21st centuries. Meanwhile, work by Rachel Carson and others began to expose the environmental degradation caused by human behavior. Overexploitation of natural lands, indiscriminate use of dangerous pesticides, and unsustainable agricultural practices of the green revolution were products of commercialism, growth, and urbanization. The dichotomy between love of nature and prosperity, unfortunately, was established.

Environmental education has evolved immensely over the past 100 years based on the best science available. A constant is the idea that students best learn about nature and develop pro-environmental behaviors by being immersed in it. Deep ecology, conservation practices, and preservation all have roots in outdoor play and exploration. However, current research indicates that individuals may act more responsibly towards nature when global issues are framed through a social justice lens. In other words, the social connections individuals make within their community may influence environmental sustainability just as much as outdoor appreciation and experiences. The environmental justice movement was born.

Environmental justice addresses the disproportionate burden of environmental harm facing populations of mostly indigenous communities, communities of color, and working-class citizens. All people, regardless of race, class, or gender, should be afforded equal access to Earth’s resources as well as equal protection from environmental harm. Unfortunately, it is typically these marginalized groups who feel the burden of climate change the most. Underrepresented populations and developing nations are much less resilient when it comes to the rapid changes we are experiencing: intensified storms, devastating floods, drought, frequent forest fires, soil erosion and desertification, and food insecurity.

It could be argued that environmental injustice is a global pandemic.

Where does environmental education go now? There is a considerable lack of directed and explicit instruction to address how educators can incorporate social justice themes in their climate change curriculum. I would argue, though, that educators must incorporate social justice themes in their curriculum to address climate change. Students need to understand not only the complexities of climate science but also the repercussions of climate change and the consequences for those people who may be different from themselves. I recently spoke with several advanced environmental science teachers who said they include social and environmental justice themes in their instruction. The findings were fascinating. The teachers explained that they used local case studies to frame many global issues. When teaching about global food production and not expanding agriculture’s current footprint, these teachers introduce food deserts and the lack of access to healthy, nutritious foods for all people in urban areas. When teaching about population growth and family planning in developing nations to slow the global population growth rate, they discuss local family planning and educational initiatives. When teaching about resource use and the global dependency on fossil fuels and industrialization, they highlight the health consequences of local hazardous waste sites in densely populated urban areas. These are just a few examples of how global issues can be localized to help students better understand environmental justice.

The ubiquitous inclusion of social justice themes throughout an environmental science course is needed. The global issues found in a typical environmental science classroom are exacerbated by climate change. Loss of biodiversity, pollution, fossil fuel dependency, global overpopulation, and land and ocean management are all affected by anthropogenic climate change. It could be argued that environmental injustice is a global pandemic.

I think back to working in the gardens with my father as a child. I think back to the trees I climbed, the forests I hiked, and the lakes I explored. These are ecosystems that are threatened by a changing climate. However, those who are marginalized, threatened, or poor feel the burden of a changing climate much more than I do. Today, we need more than just climate change education — we need environmental justice education.

Read other essays from our #ClimateEdNow series.

Greg Simons
Short Bio

Greg Simons is Science Department Chair and Senior Class Dean at Shattuck-St. Mary’s School in Faribault, Minnesota. He currently teaches AP Environmental Science and is professionally interested in ways environmental science teachers incorporate social justice themes when framing global environmental issues. He holds a BA from St. Olaf College and both an MA and EdD from Hamline University.