As I drive past Somerset Mine my son points to a pile of coal and says, “That's the black rock that when you burn it makes electricity and pollutes the air.” A profound statement from a 5-year old boy.
What he doesn't know is that sea level continues to rise, oceans continue to acidify, and glaciers and Arctic sea ice continue to melt. Global annual carbon emissions have reached more than 9.3 billion metric tons and continue to increase by an average of 3 percent over the last decade. China continues to emit ever more carbon than the United States.
Due to the trend of ever-rising greenhouse gas emissions, scientists fear it will be difficult, if not impossible, to forestall severe climate change in coming decades, threatening Earth's ecology and putting human welfare at long-term risk. The consequences and costs are serious, but the majority of people still don't seem to care.
Contrary to conventional wisdom, our climate problem is not a scientific or political problem. It's much deeper.
Society cannot solve climate change because we do not have the will to do so. We do not have the will to do so because we are not adequately educated on why averting climate change is critical to protecting our economy prosperity, quality of life, and children's health and well being. Until a vast majority of global citizens become ecologically literate, little will change.
H.G. Wells pointed out 90 years ago, “Human history becomes more and more a race between education and catastrophe.”
China is making a $250 billion-a-year investment, largely, in environmental science education. By comparison, the U.S. spends more on potato chips than on renewable energy research.
China's current five-year $1.3 billion plan focuses on seven national education and development priorities: alternative energy, energy efficiency, environmental protection, biotechnology, advanced information technologies, high-end equipment manufacturing and so-called new energy vehicles, like hybrid and electric cars.
Meanwhile, the U.S. school system is still largely underfunded. Americans pay some of lowest income tax rates relative to the rest of the industrialized world, 55th out of 114 wealthy countries. With our education system paid largely by federal, state and local taxes (half property taxes), it's no surprise our schools are underfunded.
Why is it that the one thing we all agree upon is the most important part of life — education — is the least funded aspect of our modern society?
Our children and our economy suffer the consequences:
— The World Economic Forum ranked the U.S. 48th out of 144 developing nations in quality of math and science instruction. China is no. 1.
— The Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) ranks the U.S. 17th of 34 countries in science proficiency.
— The United States ranks 27th out of 29 wealthy countries in the proportion of college students with degrees in science or engineering.
— Only 10 percent of U.S. elementary schools provide regular hands-on science.
How can we possibly address climate change with all this being the case?
It's not enough to educate society on “10 things you can do to reduce your carbon footprint.” It's not enough to inform people to vote for the “greenest” politicians in hopes they will increase a subsidy on renewable energy or support an international climate agreement.
To solve climate change and boost our economy, we need nothing less than an education revolution with speed and at scale. We must create a more skilled workforce. More specifically, STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) education must be integrated into all aspects of academia and vocational schools. We will also need to go beyond the conventional classroom to include online learning that focuses on environmental and climate science.
The baby boomer generation must adapt to the new way of doing business that accounts for the environment in board rooms and on profit and loss statements. Writer and futurist Alvin Toffler said, “The illiterate of the 21st century will not be those who cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn, and relearn.”
We must have rigorous, high standards in education for both students and teachers. Teachers must be paid better and must perform accordingly.
Tony Wagner of Harvard, the author of “Creating Innovators: The Making of Young People Who Will Change the World,” explains, “The world no longer cares about what you know; the world only cares about what you can do with what you know.”
The education revolution must systematically churn out ecologically and environmentally literate members of society who can make informed decisions in an ever more complex world where the ecosystems and natural capital that provide the services humans need for survival — clean air, pure water, functioning oceans, a stable climate, and the natural resources necessary for human survival — will function in perpetuity.
Our economy is predicated on it. Your job requires it. Your and your children's health depend on it.
Chris Lane is CEO of Aspen Center for Environmental Studies (ACES). ACES' Children's Education Fund is currently working to develop ecological literacy in thousands of youths.