Climate Education in Oregon 

Breck Foster Social Studies and Spanish Teacher

Breck Foster strives to infuse climate change into her social studies and Spanish classes at Lake Oswego High School in Oregon. She has a BA in Development Studies, a teaching credential from the California State University of Northridge, Master of Education and Administration from UCLA, and a Professional Administrators License from Lewis and Clark College.  She is a steering committee member of Oregon Educators for Climate Education and a board member of Oregon Green Schools.  She advises her school’s Asian American Student Union and Green Team as well as serves on her school sustainability committee and the LOSD Sustainability Advisory Board.  She collaborates with the Lake Oswego Sustainability Network, Oswego Lake Watershed Council, and Eastern Oregon Climate Change Coalition. She and her family reside in Lake Oswego.

A Call for Climate Education

After former Oregon governor Kate Brown issued Executive Order No. 20-04 in 2020, she initiated a bold climate action plan to “advance positive climate outcomes in six main areas: transportation, buildings, energy, industry, health, and lands.” Yet, like many government and private actors hoping to address the climate crisis, she excluded the area of education in her call to climate action.  

A 2021 study by the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication found that 77% of Oregonians believe “schools should teach about the causes, consequences, and potential solutions to global warming.” Climate education with an emphasis on acquiring green skills “through the lens of justice, equity, and fairness” can foster pro-environmental behaviors at an individual level and create sustainable, equitable systems. A 2021-22 Climate and Health Profile report carried out by the Oregon Health Authority reinforced the need for viewing climate change through an equity lens, asserting that “events linked to climate change affect communities of color, Tribal communities, those living with lower incomes, older adults, people with disabilities, people who live or work outdoors, and under- or uninsured people more than other populations.” To promote this perspective, climate change education should be place-based and incorporate traditional indigenous knowledge along with climate science. Additionally, education should inspire and provide opportunities for green career pathways so that students have a vision of how the skills and knowledge they are learning in school can provide them with a secure and healthy future.  

With climate anxiety significantly affecting youth mental health (in large part because they don’t witness adults taking care of the planet), comprehensive climate education can help kids understand the state of the world “they are inheriting” and provide them with the tools they need to act responsibly, think critically, and shape a better future. Engaging in learning that provides hope, knowledge, and agency can help combat students’ fears. Many youth at the forefront of this social movement for climate change education recognize that informed action on climate change has the power to ease climate anxiety. In fact, Governor Brown’s 2020 climate action plan led to a key 2022 Oregon Health Authority Study which found that “addressing the mental health impacts of the climate crisis must be met with systemic change and action in public and private sectors,” including education. In addition to other mental health-related goals, it calls for “increased attention on climate change in educational curricula” (p 4). Educators should be among those leading the way, but in order to encourage far-reaching change, decision-makers must heed the call.

Legislation and Standards

Oregon’s academic standards explicitly refer to climate change in a few core subject areas and grade levels, but without a statewide multidisciplinary K-12 climate instructional plan and adequate professional development, instruction of these standards will be incomplete and students may fail to fully understand or be prepared for the ways in which climate change will continue to impact all facets of life.

Oregon currently requires science teachers to discuss the subject of human-caused climate change. The updated 2022 science standards included the national Next Generation Science Standards adopted by Oregon in 2014, elevating the role of climate change in student learning targets. Oregon social studies standards address environmental issues, including sustainability and climate change. In the elementary and secondary level social studies standards, related learning goals include: understanding climate change’s impacts on marginalized communities and environmental sustainability in Oregon; observing long-term climate change and variability impacts on land use and settlement; learning about conflict over land and scarce resources; and identifying examples of stewardship in a community or environment. 

A 2019 NPR/Ipsos poll found that while 86% of teachers believe climate change should be taught in school, 55% of teachers do not teach or speak to their students about climate change, and two-thirds of these educators believe that climate change is outside of their subject area. Thus, in order to achieve and support interdisciplinary climate change education, a comprehensive plan must include professional development to foster the incorporation of climate change across every subject and grade area. Facilitating educator access to age-appropriate, place-based, and vetted resources will also help close the climate change education gap.

Despite the omission of the education sector in the state’s 2020 climate action plan, Oregon has made some legislative strides in the area of environmental education. In 2009, Oregon legislators passed the No Child Left Inside Act, which led to the development of Oregon’s environmental literacy plan. This was followed by Senate Bill 439 in 2015 and a ballot measure in 2016, both of which provide funding for outdoor education.

While there is currently no statewide comprehensive climate change education program in Oregon, there are robust efforts to integrate climate change education into the curriculum, including initiatives backed by districts, schools, local nonprofits, and advocacy groups. 

Portland Public Schools

Advocates believe climate change themes and topics should be integrated into educational state standards across all grade levels and subjects in a way that is interdisciplinary and place-based.

In 2016, responding to a robust campaign led by teachers and students, Portland Public Schools (PPS) passed the most comprehensive climate literacy policy of any school district in the country, which is particularly notable because of its firm basis in climate justice. In 2022, the district took their dedication to climate change and sustainability a step further with their landmark whole-school climate policy. PPS aims to reduce greenhouse gas emissions 50% by 2030 and achieve net-zero emissions by 2040 while increasing sustainability-focused education in the district. Its curricular goal is to “teach our students about climate change, sustainability, and climate justice, with specific attention to helping students be active participants in real life, community-based solutions.” PPS has outlined climate education goals across three areas in their district-wide plan: 

  • First, to “empower staff as allies for a healthy climate;”
  • Second, to develop curricular resources around climate change causes and solutions as well as climate justice;
  • And third, to incorporate climate action by creating “opportunities to engage youth in hands-on climate learning, preparation, and practice.”

Over the past five years, PPS has shown their dedication to climate education by forming a Climate Crisis Response Committee and hiring a Climate Justice Advisor, an AmeriCorps Climate Justice Project Coordinator, and a Climate Resiliency Program Manager. 

Lake Oswego School District

Lake Oswego School District, in collaboration with students, educators, and community groups, has taken a different route to achieve similar desired outcomes as PPS, adopting a strategic plan in 2021 that calls for developing a system for integrated climate change and sustainability education across K-12 grade levels. The district hired a Sustainability Teacher on Special Assignment (TOSA) and formed a Sustainability Advisory Committee as they work toward their goals and create a more comprehensive framework. 

Oregon Educators for Climate Education

Coalescing around students’ calls for climate change to be taught in schools, a small group of educators launched Oregon Educators for Climate Education (OECE). This grassroots effort, driven by an expanding statewide network of educators, students, and community partners, is working toward legislation that mandates K-12 place-based, multidisciplinary climate education integration for Oregon students across all core subject areas. They developed a set of holistic and interdisciplinary learning concepts that they imagine being integrated into standards without prescribed curriculum in recognition of the need to make it easy for teachers and allow for district and regional adaptation.

OECE developed and pushed the 2023 SB 854 Climate Change Education Bill; the bill was sponsored by Senators Manning and Patterson. In its current form, SB 854 calls for the Oregon Department of Education to develop a model climate instructional plan, while giving school districts autonomy to determine their needs for professional development and other resources. A diverse coalition of organizations—including the Oregon Educators Association, the Eastern Oregon Climate Change Coalition (EOC3), Southern Oregon Climate Action Now, and Elders for Climate Action—have endorsed the bill. Unfortunately, SB 854 stalled in the Education Committee, but building off of the strong support behind the legislation, OECE plans to continue working with legislators, educators, students, and school board members to amend and resubmit it in the next session. At the same time, they have been working toward climate change lesson development with the support and collaboration of the Gray Foundation and SubjectToClimate through teacher workshops, and all of this work has helped grow a community of climate educators and advocates.

In addition, OECE is in the process of drafting an instructional framework proposal for distribution amongst policymakers and interested stakeholders to imagine how climate change education under SB 854, or a similar bill, could look in Oregon. This version is a living document that will continue to be amended and expanded, providing both a broad overview of climate change education and a discussion within the context of Oregon, district implementation guidance, instructional guidance for K-12 educators, sample lessons and topics for grades 4, 8, and 10, as well as an overview of College Now & Career and Technical Training connections.

A notable outcome of grassroots efforts has been the creation of an Oregon Climate Change Education Hub by SubjectToClimate, providing free, place-based lesson plans, many of which are created by Oregon educators. All lesson plans are vetted by climate scientists, aligned to Oregon State Standards, and designed to integrate climate change education within existing curricula. The Hub also offers Oregon-centric professional learning opportunities, primers on climate change and pedagogical strategies for teachers, news articles for students that can be differentiated by reading level, and more. These resources directly complement other initiatives and sites such as the OER, the ODE Tribal History/Shared History, and the Environmental Literacy Program resources.

Start Teaching About Climate Change Now

In lieu of all of this context, Oregon educators may be asking the question: “How do I start teaching about climate change in my classroom?” 

    1. Begin by asking yourself how climate change might connect to your subject area and classroom materials. You may find that you are already addressing climate-related issues! 
    2. From there, strategize ways to integrate climate change, whether that’s through a unit, a school year-long project or theme, or simply a single lesson plan. There are countless tools on SubjectToClimate’s Oregon Hub to build your climate literacy as an educator. 
    3. Look for professional learning opportunities and ask your district to provide professional development on climate change education. 
    4. Look for lessons that not only inform students of the issues driving climate change, but also teach about effective behavior changes to mitigate climate change and develop skills that can help students come up with large-scale solutions.
    5. Find out if climate or sustainability education is already part of your district-wide climate action or sustainability plan. If not, perhaps convene students for conversations to build understanding on this topic, and bring the results of these meetings to the school board and other stakeholders. Students need to see that their school upholds the values, practices, and policies needed for a healthier, more equitable, and resilient community.

Final Thoughts

Educating our youth—who are our future decision and policy makers, consumers, and innovators—is a critical part of addressing the climate crisis. Oregon districts, schools, and nonprofits are making promising strides in the implementation of statewide climate education, despite numerous legislative challenges. The Oregon Climate Education Hub will promote and further the groundwork that has already been laid by local stakeholders. By providing Oregon educators with support and resources on climate change education ahead of any statewide changes, the Hub will enable seamless integration of climate change into education in Oregon. 

Oregon Climate Education Hub

Oregon Climate Education Hub

A statewide resource for Oregon educators working toward integration and infusion of PK-12 climate change education across all core subject areas.