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The crisis of climate change is that many know nothing about it

Face painting, tree-planting, posters from local environmental groups, and a give-away of reusable grocery bags. If this sounds familiar, I’m guessing you too celebrated Earth Day this weekend.

Students in school might learn about today’s official Earth Day anniversary; a day in 1970 when 20 million people rallied for laws to control unfettered air and water pollution, ultimately spurring the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency.

Climate change has become the primary focus of the Earth Day Network’s local education campaigns, helping students make the connection between everyday actions, like turning off the lights, and climate stewardship. But despite the sweeping popularity of Earth Day, dedicating one day a year to understanding complex issues such as climate change is far from enough.

We can’t expect hundreds of millions of people to understand how climate change affects our food and water supplies, our weather, and our energy security after one day in the park and a few lessons at school. Public school curricula are simply not delivering the skills our next generation will need to compete in a green tech future and to make critical advances in clean energy technology, climate policy and climate adaptation strategies.

We cannot expect Earth Day to fill that void. The National Center for Science Education found that 90% of Americans admit to knowing little about climate change, and aren’t well informed enough to make decisions about it.

The fact that far too many of us know way too little about climate change might have something to do with who has been funding our science education. The Washington Post uncovered in 2006 that the National Science Teachers Association could not accept 50,000 free copies of a climate change documentary because they didn’t want to jeopardize their funding, a large portion of which came from the oil industry.

The good news is that 75% of Americans would like to learn more about climate change and if they are still in school, their wish might soon come true. Released earlier this month, the Next Generation Science Standards would require most of America’s middle and high school students to understand climate change, its drivers, and how scientists gather data and arrive at conclusions, if they want an A in science class.

A cutting-edge science curriculum can help our youth keep pace in an increasingly global economy and will give our young people the skills they need to drive clean energy innovation. In fact, California’s State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson’s support for the new standards is rooted in the reality that students will need technical skills to maintain the state’s leadership in an economy where science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) jobs have grown three times faster than non-STEM jobs over the last decade.

We should also seize the opportunity to use our schools as laboratories to learn and teach about energy efficiency and conservation. Public schools in the United States offer an unparalleled opportunity to realize the benefits of energy savings, improved school environments and energy education. An estimated $271 billion in deferred maintenance and energy upgrades is needed across the country’s school buildings, a problem California is trying to tackle with Proposition 39.  On a smaller scale, a school district in Long Island saved $350,000 in utility bills making energy efficiency investments and shifting behavior with Post-Its reading, “When not in use, turn off the juice.” Old habits die hard, and teaching our young people climate-friendly behaviors now will serve us all in the long run.

The release of the Next Generation Science Standards is a real reason to celebrate this Earth Day. Think of what could happen if our 76 million K-12 and college students were well versed in climate science, economics and energy-saving behaviors. As showcased by the winners of this year’s Intel science competition, the potential of climate-minded youth to help solve today’s energy challenges cannot be underestimated.

You’ve probably heard the saying that humans only use one-tenth of our brain capacity, and that if we were only capable of using more, we could do extraordinary things. While this myth has been largely debunked, it’s useful for the purpose of analogy. When it comes to addressing climate change, we truly are using less than one-tenth of our collective genius, and that’s due largely to the fact that we have so far failed to educate and engage the next generation of climate scientists, engineers, and advocates.

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