Climate Education Bill: Advocacy in Action
In 2022, a groundbreaking $2.1 million Climate Education Bill was passed in the Maine legislature. This huge policy win, resulting in funding for climate education professional development for public school teachers, emerged from a youth- and educator-led, grassroots effort to make change in Maine public schools, and increase access to climate education for all Maine students. It is a bill that was dreamed up by Maine youth and teachers, supported by community organizations across the state, and supported by strong legislative champions. The Department of Education will soon be awarding its first cycle of climate education grants to Maine schools. Members of NBEC’s Climate Education Advocacy and Stories for Change working groups have collaborated on bringing forward stories of people involved in the LD 1902, Climate Education Bill campaign.
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Here is the story of Joanna Leary, a life science teacher at Falmouth High School, who wrote testimony in support of LD 1902, the Climate Education Bill.
Talking about awareness & hope with Joanna Leary
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
What feels exciting when teaching climate change?
The level of awareness that students have, and the level of perception that they have, is really fascinating to me. It was interesting, because in period two honors biology yesterday, they were focusing on social justice and economics. And then the next section, they were really about science, they were asking, ‘what's going to happen to species distribution?’ and ‘Are we still going to have skiing?’ I was like, ‘wow.’ I feel like they're savvier now than kids were five or ten years ago.
What are your big questions in terms of climate education?
How do we teach this in a way that can inspire individual action, and not crush people's souls?
How do we foster awareness for kids so that they feel a sense of agency? Most of us just feel–at least I know I feel in my darker times–just a sense of panic. Like, ‘What can I do?’
I'm sorry, but I know that my recycling my soda can isn't going to fix it. Meanwhile, some companies are, you know, spewing a billion tons of pollution and hiding it. But you can't fix all of that, you can only do your realm.
How do we inspire people to be become active and vigilant voters? The paradigms gotta go, the whole thing has to be different.
With topics of social justice, there's a different awareness around that now than there was 10 years ago, you know, pre-Black Lives Matter. And there's just a different dialogue about privilege. How do we take people who will be influential–some of them, because they come from a position of privilege–and help them develop a viewpoint that says, ‘let me use this for something that helps’? How can you support awareness in people who might be influential?
I talk about climate change with technology. And the extractive nature of it, what’s involved in all the mining. This is a place where you could make a difference, and don't buy the absolute latest newest thing. The minute you bought it, it's out of date, and they're gonna start nudging you that you should probably try to buy something else. I try to keep introducing these things a couple of times, so they might sink in. If they just kept their phone for a couple of years instead of cycling through it, that would make a difference.
Have you seen students building that sense of agency?
Last year, I had two students who came to me and said, ‘Would you be our faculty advisor, we want to start a student Climate Group?’…They started that last year. So they are looking into things.
Why did you support LD 1902?
I know that there are places where there isn't even as much as I'm doing– there is no education happening. Or people are living in a place where they might–especially in the climate that exists now in education–they might be afraid to talk about it.
I am comfortable with the science around climate change, but there are people who don't have that level of comfort. And then let's say you're in that position, and you're living someplace where you pretty much know it's not going to be welcomed. I could see someone just kind of skating by it.
I hope that we do increase the general capacity to deliver good instruction on it.
Was testifying for this bill your first time being involved in legislative action?
I always vote. I'll do petitions, or I'll call– I certainly call Senator Collins. But for LD 1902, [climate education organizer] Carey Hotaling reached out to me because she knew me, and asked me to get involved. I didn’t do much, but it was interesting to participate.
I think there probably are a lot of us out there who are looking for ways to do this better and excited that there could be more of a central resource. It’s something to help us do it better.
What gives you hope?
I do believe that there is hope. And I do believe we could solve this. I try, as I teach, because I do want to promote hope.
So I tried to say to the kids: ‘if you are interested in this, there will be a job for you. Like, there's all kinds of possibilities out there. If you're more of an engineer, you could still be participating in this and doing things for the better, or if you're like someone who really likes to crunch numbers, someone would love to get a hold of you because not everybody who's a scientist is always great at it.’
I try to put possibility out there for the students so they can start to think about it.
Generally speaking, I feel more hopeful whenever I'm thinking about my students than I do about a lot of things. They do go on and do really cool stuff.
And I am always telling them always vote. When you can vote, pay attention and vote.
Interviews with Nick Lund, April 2023, and Emily Weyrauch, September 2023
About The Climate Education Bill
The Climate Education professional development funds outlined by LD 1902 are prioritizing schools in historically underserved districts. This way, the resources will go to educators who have less experience in climate education, supporting students in districts where climate education has not historically be taught.
The bill was designed to take pressure off educators by partnering them with community organizations that can help prepare for and deliver professional development.