The Future of Climate Change: How to Teach Children to Conserve

Today's generation of children faces the growing issue of climate change.


Sadie Louise Bernier of Seattle is 7 months old, but her parents are already showing her little things everyone can do to protect the environment. "We're leaving your room now, darling, and we're turning off the lights," says her mother, Kim Rakow Bernier. Then she'll point out the window and say, "There's Daddy getting on his bicycle to go to the office."

As outreach director for Facing the Future, a sustainability education organization, Kim says that modeling caring-about-the-planet behavior for her daughter is "almost unconscious," since "this is what we do as a family anyway." But it's indicative of the fact that, while high schools and colleges have included ecology and the environment in their curricula for years, conversations about environmental consciousness in general and global warming in particular are trickling down to students in kindergarten, and sometimes even younger. The children's section at Barnes and Noble, for instance, offers new books from Nickelodeon's Big Green Help series (published on recycled paper), with titles like SpongeBob Goes Green! and Save the Tree! And for the 2-year-old-and-up set, there's Choose to Reuse! (a green touch-and-feel book).

"There is no question there is a much bigger demand for climate change education materials than there was, say, five years ago," says Jim Elder, director of the Campaign for Environmental Literacy. Al Gore's An Inconvenient Truth, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change's 2007 prediction that global temperatures could rise 8 degrees by the end of the century, and extreme weather events such as Hurricane Katrina have spurred wider recognition of the validity of the idea that climate change is induced by humans. A dozen or so states require environmental education to be taught in grades K-12, and that number is growing, says Elder, with Maryland, California, and Oregon among those most recently developing major environmental initiatives.

For environmental educators, the trend is more than welcome. In a 2006 Hamilton College Climate Change and Environment Issues Youth Poll, 50 percent of the 900 high school students surveyed flunked a nine-question quiz on the causes and consequences of climate change. But the survey also found that students who discuss environmental issues with their friends and family are more likely to engage in environmentally conscious behavior.

To help jump-start educational efforts at all levels, in and out of school, Eban Goodstein, codirector of National Teach-In on Global Warming Solutions, recruited 804 institutions and about 250,000 people, including students of all ages, to participate in a nationwide "day of engagement" on February 5. As part of the day's events, students across the country were able to participate in live videoconferences with about a dozen members of Congress. Goodstein's target audience is specifically young people because he views them as "the decisive human generation." Young people "have a truly heroic task that they have no choice but to fulfill in their lifetimes," says Goodstein, who is an economics professor at Lewis and Clark College. "[The task is] saving the planet as we know it, so that their children can also inherit a beautiful and rich planet."

Such calls to action may help energize older students. But educators warn that very young children may be frightened if global warming is described in terms too dire. With them, it's better to focus on small, practical actions, like turning off lights or not wasting water, so they don't feel overwhelmed and overburdened, says Kevin Coyle, vice president for education at the National Wildlife Federation.

"Starting in fifth and sixth grades, I see kids beginning to grasp issues at a level closer to adults and asking serious questions and having serious concerns about what this means for their own future," says Tim Bombaci, a sixth-grade science and math teacher at Manson Elementary School in Manson, Wash. Bombaci just received a grant to further develop a community garden, a project that helps students learn about the full cycle of food, from planting to composting scraps. While fourth through sixth graders will do most of the digging and planting, he envisions earlier grades observing or helping out.