As children across the region head back to school, many teachers are making final decisions about whether to incorporate climate change into their lessons this year — something the vast majority say they were never trained to do. There are concerns about how students will engage with a topic that is complex, entangled with misinformation and a source of anxiety for them. Perhaps this is why climate change instruction at the K-12 level is typically a patchwork of brief encounters with events like rising sea levels or the greenhouse effect, which add up to a national median of only one or two hours of exposure — per year, according to research by the Penn State Survey Research Center and the National Center for Science Education.

This does not mean students are in the dark; they are aware that the Earth is being transformed. They know this less because of what they’ve heard in classrooms and more because of the hours they spend online, where there is no escaping stories about explosive wildfires, torrential floods and species vanishing along with their habitats. This shadow curriculum tells them the world they will inherit is becoming unfamiliar, even dangerous.

Despite these dire narratives, or perhaps because of them, young learners may be more receptive to exploring the crisis than we realize, and this is one of several reasons that educators should make this the year they invite climate conversations into their classrooms. Teaching about climate change doesn’t have to provoke anxiety or become contentious; honest and open dialogue about the environment could lead students to make changes in their own lives, and ultimately, contribute to the sustainability of the planet.

In the 2019 Kaiser Family Foundation/Washington Post Climate Change Survey, 86% of teens agreed that climate change is happening and that humans are causing it. About one-quarter of them report that they are already politically active on climate issues by participating in protests, school walkouts, or contacting government officials, with students of color more likely than white peers to press for change. 

Knowing that most students will take the science seriously may help teachers feel they won’t be on the defensive when introducing climate change. Children will bring ideologically driven perspectives into the classroom, often shaped by adults in their lives. But their worldviews are still in a state of flux through early adulthood; many skeptical students end up acknowledging climate change or expressing concern about it if they can simply make sense of the underlying causes of phenomena like ocean acidification or ecosystem disruption, especially if their initial ideas are treated respectfully.

Many students will take what they learn in school and start climate conversations at home. They can, in fact, have a strong influence on adults’ climate views. Researchers find that children are well-equipped to navigate the charged topic of climate change with older generations in ways that inspire action. In a study published earlier this year in Energy Research & Social Science, particularly strong effects have been documented among girls and their parents, especially those who lean conservative.

Discussing environmental threats, some local, can stoke fear. But it can also cultivate hope by integrating solutions into lessons and home conversations. Reversing planetary warming abounds with possibilities like zero-emission buildings, walkable cities, cutting food waste, solar farms, returning rights to Indigenous peoples for managing forestlands, and dozens of other regenerative strategies. These solutions are not always about new technologies; many focus on social norms and human behavior, but all are about bringing the world back to life through compassion, justice and collective action, the kinds students can investigate within their own communities.

Leaders in climate activism remind us that no single solution can restore the environment; our best hope is to “pull all the levers” available to us. Education is one of these. Teachers can embrace the role of trusted messengers for climate ideas that other activists hold up as key to the cause — they can be influencers for millions of children whose futures are at risk, and by extension the adults in their lives. As educators contemplate taking on this work, youth across the world will be in the streets rallying against overconsumption, corporate greenwashing, dependence on fossil fuels, and unethical exercises of power in decision-making about the climate. Inspiration, it seems, could flow both ways.