Science Won Over the PTA!

“Climate change is a children’s issue!”

This slogan drew me to Sacramento last week for the California PTA (CAPTA) annual meeting. Now, if you are anything like me, you probably think of bake sales when you think of the PTA. So you can imagine that I was a little shocked when I walked into the enormous convention hall, packed with 2,000+ attendees. The room had three flashing Jumbotrons, speakers blasting music, and a surging and shouting audience of parents and teachers. It was more like a political convention than a bake sale—in fact, there were signs at the doorway that read “no food allowed”!

But why was I there? A year ago, NCSE was asked by the San Diego Unified Council of PTAs to help develop a resolution on climate change and climate change education for the state PTA to consider. As you read in my post last week, the national PTA has taken an influential stand on everything from seat belts to drug abuse. The organization started in the late nineteenth century by fighting child labor, and it has been taking on controversial issues ever since. This year was no different, with the California PTA taking on resolutions regarding synthetic marijuana and LGBTQ+ rights, in addition to the resolution on climate change.

The San Diego Unified Council of PTAs has brought the resolution to the state organization in the past, but unsuccessfully. Each resolution must be rooted in fact, which requires its author to cite a significant body of research literature. The folks in San Diego simply did not have access to or the expertise to assemble that information. But NCSE helped them find the best and latest research to support their resolution, and with that help the resolution was brought to the annual meeting for a vote.

A few days before the big vote, the authors of the resolution (including me) were sequestered in a small room with about twenty other local PTA presidents and members from across the state. They read over the resolution as a group and discussed it thoroughly. No one held back; we certainly got an earful!


San Diego Unified Council of PTA member, Gina Shumacher, speaking in support of the resolution.

“Climate change is controversial, why would we take it on?” one person griped. “And further, some people feel that climate change isn’t real. Aren’t we going to just scare them away from the PTA?”

“Isn’t the science still unclear about climate change?” someone else argued.

This small session was a rehearsal to prepare us for the larger meeting, where such questions would arise again, but in front of two thousand people instead of twenty. As we heard their questions and started developing answers, we concurrently revised and refined our planned testimony for the larger meeting. There, we knew, only four people would be allowed to speak in support of the resolution, and each person would have only two minutes to do so!

On Saturday, May 2, we all gathered in the large convention hall, clutching our notes for our speeches in support of the resolution. The first person up was the San Diego PTA president. He spoke about the resolution as a whole, why it was important for the PTA to take it on, and what the health consequences for children of climate change were. Another woman spoke about her own experiences growing up with health issues such as asthma, explaining that she had concerns about climate change’s impacts on her children’s health.

I was asked to speak about the educational implications of supporting such a resolution. This was easy. Since California has adopted the Next Generation Science Standards, there are all sorts of opportunities for teachers to address climate change and energy challenges with their students—it was basically a no-brainer.

Our last speaker talked about climate change as a children’s issue. She reminded us that when our children are sick, we do not take them to a general practitioner; we take them to a pediatrician. As it happens, the American Academy of Pediatrics issued a statement that children are more susceptible to the health impacts of climate change than adult populations. If we seek out our pediatricians when our children are sick because they are a trusted source, she asked, why would we ignore their words about climate change?

San Diego Unified Council of PTA members line up to speak in support of the resolution.

There were a few people who spoke against the resolution. One person argued that the science was not clear, and CAPTA would be supporting a “scientific agenda” by passing the resolution. Another person argued that climate change was not a children’s issue; but rather a human issue and would therefore be inappropriate for CAPTA to address. In the end though, the two thousand CAPTA members in the convention hall voted by a majority to support the resolution, and it was passed.

This is great news for climate change education in California—and beyond. Why?

First of all, CAPTA will “urge school districts to educate students on climate and energy literacy and human sustainability.” As I said in my testimony, the new state science standards encourage climate change education. But CAPTA’s support means that schools are even more likely to comply, and to do so more wholeheartedly.

Second, CAPTA will now submit this resolution for consideration at the national PTA meeting in 2016. If passed, the national PTA will be advocating for “comprehensive local, state and national legislation to substantially reduce man-made contributions to climate change and to mitigate its impact on children’s health.” Can you imagine politicians who deny climate change going up against the PTA? They might as well spit on Mom’s apple pie.

Being invited to work with the San Diego Unified Council of PTAs on this resolution, and then to speak in support of it, was a humbling experience. Hearing the many stories shared was inspirational. Every person at that convention had a deep love of their children, and their concern for their future was woven into everything they said. What came out of that meeting was affirmation that climate change is not just a scientific or political issue, it is a children’s issue—and if we are going to do anything for the next generation, we must prepare them for the challenges ahead.

Minda Berbeco
Short Bio

Minda Berbeco is the former Programs and Policy Director at NCSE.