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Humane Education is Climate Education

By Jeannie Russell

The headline of a recent New York Times article describing new initiatives for teaching about climate change in NYC public schools ended with a question mark:  “Reading, Writing, Math, and …Climate Change?

As humane educators, there is no question at all as to whether climate change needs to be as fundamental a part of our classroom curriculum as the 3R’s referenced in the article’s headline — the answer is yes!  The question for us is what exactly climate education should be.  The article highlighted some important ways in which the framing, presentation, and even the goals of a comprehensive climate curriculum as developed through a humane education lens might be not only distinctive, but critically important to the mission of actively addressing the impacts of our changing world.

Central to the practice of humane education is the goal of inspiring reverence for all living beings.  This entails helping students position themselves with empathy as one among the multitude of others, each having inherent and individual worth in and of themselves, and also participating as integral members of the community of beings whose complex interconnections make up our shared living world.  Our global climate patterns are the central hub of these interconnections, interacting with all the living processes on the planet to create the intricate envelope of life-sustaining conditions that our own human communities have adapted to for millennia.

By recognizing and valuing the role of each one of the life forms that contribute to these conditions as they rapidly change, we encourage our youth to take actions on their behalf in addressing climate threats via Nature-Based Solutions — working to restore local biodiversity, prioritizing the knowledge and needs of local peoples, and integrating natural features into all aspects of our human infrastructure — instead of relying on technological fixes that are often designed to allow the global corporate practices that destabilize our climate to continue.

The principles and practices of this nature-based approach align perfectly with those of humane education.  We at HEART felt compelled to respond to the New York Times article to convey our conviction that preparing our youth to be truly humane stewards of our changing world is the single most important educational goal our schools should have.  Our letter, published on February 10, 2024, briefly offered some examples of ways that this approach to climate education can take place through actively engaging students in their own communities to transform our public urban spaces into climate-mitigating and resilient natural systems that equitably serve the interests of all.   

We think the letter captures our approach well, so we’re sharing it here:

From flooding to extreme heat, NYC's children face a future of increasing climate chaos. We need an even more expansive climate curriculum focused on both the academic and collaborative skills our youth need to be leaders in creating the climate-resilient city we must become.  Public schools, the heart of our communities, must take an active role in reshaping our collective future. Teachers need engaging and adaptable resources so they can meet students where they are, including access to the kind of innovative programs that bring climate science education to life in project-based learning while meaningfully addressing real community needs. Examples include school gardens that support local wildlife and bring fresh foods right into the community, sustainable cafeterias where food waste becomes compost and plastic is reduced, and research on adding flood water absorbing swales and native plantings around the school. Most of all, teachers need public support in these very challenging times to foster a hopeful, creative, and nurturing school culture that guides our children into the better world they deserve.

As an exciting continuation of HEART’s efforts to expand awareness of our work in climate education, our staff presented three workshops during the first-ever New York City Public Schools-sponsored Climate Institute, which took place from February 20-22, 2024. This gave us the opportunity to put our climate education approach into practice by sharing many of our hands-on ready-to-use activities, lesson plans, and project-based learning resources.  Not only do these materials provide an engaging entry into the science of climate change, but they also develop the empathy and social/interpersonal skills young people need to be effective changemakers in their communities.  

K-12 teachers from across the city participated in the institute over the three days, and we had more than 400 teachers enthusiastically take part in the virtual workshops we offered on Food and Climate, The Many Vantage Points of Climate Change, and Preparing Our Youth to Be Stewards of a Changing World.  The teachers received our Food and Climate Guide with an accompanying Food and Climate Workbook, and accessed our TeachClimate.org portal from HEART’s online library of free resources. They also acquired a detailed set of project-based climate activities that can serve as springboards to more developed community service actions.  After the workshops, we had teachers visiting our website, contacting us for more guidance on planning project-based climate activities for their students, and even joining our semester-long Compassionate Communities “Food Justice for All” program.

It was great to see just how passionate teachers are about putting climate education into the heart of their curriculum and classroom culture.  We live in a time of many challenges, but answering any of them requires building the power of a collective voice that understands our living world as it really is — not a resource to be exploited, but a shared home built together with trillions of wonderful, incredibly diverse neighbors.  Humane education is climate education; there is no other way to see our world that will carry us into a future reimagined for the good of all.

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