By Josephine O’Grady

According to the 2020 New Jersey Scientific Report on Climate Change, New Jersey is warming more quickly than the rest of the Northeast region. The state is experiencing a myriad of climate-related challenges – including higher rates of sea-level rise and warmer temperatures, increased precipitation, and so-called “sunny-day” flooding. The long-term impacts of climate change in New Jersey span decreased water and air quality, extreme weather, and drought, which exacerbate existing environmental, economic, and public health stressors in the state’s Environmental Justice communities. In the face of these challenges, climate education emerges as a transformative strategy to enhance adaptation and increase public participation in climate-related measures.

In 2020, New Jersey became the first state in the country to require climate change education to be incorporated across multiple subjects in K-12 schools. The New Jersey Student Learning Standards adopted climate education requirements across seven subjects, including Science, Technology, and Social Studies. The standards were created in partnership with various stakeholders throughout New Jersey, including sustainability professionals in higher education, environmental nonprofit organizations, and local school board officials from districts that had pre-existing initiatives to improve climate literacy among their students. The state’s leadership on climate education reflects the needs of its citizens; a 2023 poll conducted by Fairleigh Dickinson University showed that 70 percent of New Jerseyans supported teaching climate change in public schools.

The new standards also assist in satisfying the state’s commitment to climate resilience. New Jersey’s Climate Resilience Strategy outlines six resilience priorities, which includes investing in information and increasing public understanding. Research shows that understanding the specific impacts that human activities have on the environment, such as carbon footprints, closes the gap between climate knowledge and personal climate action. In New Jersey, a pilot course was developed for Rutgers students, with results indicating that students gained mastery in topics spanning natural disasters, extreme weather events, and environmental justice. At the conclusion of the course, 96 percent of participating students stated that climate change is due to human activity, and three-in-five students believed that there is still time to prevent the worst climate change impacts.

Although New Jersey has become a leader in climate education and highlighting the positive impacts of climate literacy, there is still more work to be done. In a 2022 study surveying parent-child communication patterns about climate change, 71 percent of New Jersey parents (n=83) reported one or more concerns about the updated Student Learning Standards. These concerns ranged from ensuring that climate change discussions are developmentally appropriate to whether teachers are adequately prepared to incorporate climate concepts in the classroom. Similar concerns are echoed in Sustainable Jersey’s 2022 Report on K-12 Climate Education Needs, which highlights the need for more funding opportunities to support professional content training for teachers. In response to these recommendations, the state Department of Education approved $4.5 million in the Fiscal Year 2023 budget in state grants for public schools. With these funds, school districts across the state have created experiential learning projects for students and established professional development opportunities for teachers pursuant to the new standards.

Josephine O’Grady is a research assistant with the NJSPL who is pursuing a master’s degree in public policy at the Edward J. Bloustein School of Planning and Public Policy.