Climate Change Education in the Schools: El Salvador and the U.S.

The climate change debate has made its way into U.S. classrooms, as school boards and legislators try to force teachers to present “both sides of the issue.” In El Salvador, however, schools are taking a different approach. Government officials and educators have moved way beyond questioning the reality of climate change and are implementing a curriculum that teaches the science behind the resulting extreme weather patterns and how to mitigate the associated risks.

In January, a writer for the Wall Street Journal Law Blog posted about “a new battle brewing in America’s classrooms” – climate change. As U.S. schools have begun teaching climate change to their students, state legislatures and school boards have reacted by requiring teachers to also present the other side of the debate.

In Texas and Louisiana, state boards of education now require classrooms to teach climate change denial as a valid scientific position. In Tennessee, Oklahoma, South Dakota, and Kentucky, state legislators have proposed bills that would require teachers to dedicate equal time teaching climate change and climate change skepticism.

In El Salvador, however, schools have adopted a climate change curriculum that goes beyond an academic discussion about whether or not it’s a reality. Salvadoran teachers, instead, are now tasked with the more serious task of preparing their students for future extreme weather events caused by climate change.

According to an article posted on Alertnet, the government now mandates that all public and private schools in El Salvador teach the science behind climate change as well as how students can deal with the increased risks caused the extreme weather.

In October 2011, Tropical Storm 12-E dumped 55 inches of rain on El Salvador in 10 days, causing the worst flooding in the country’s history. The storm and its aftermath were a wakeup call for many Salvadorans. Communities along the coast, especially those in the Lower Lempa region of Usulután and San Vicente, have experienced regular flooding for the past several years. Tropical Storm 12-E, however, was the first storm since Hurricane Mitch in 1998 that affected multiple regions throughout the country. In the days after the storm, government officials, including the Minister of the Environment and Natural Resources, attributed the storm to climate change and warned that because of it, these weather events are the new norm.

The Salvadoran schools system is responding by joining the effort to teach more than the science of climate change. Government officials are using the schools to teach environmental safety. According to the Alertnet article, “in math, biology, and physics, students will undertake exercises that estimate potential damage from climate-linked extreme weather, and explore how to counteract and reduce its effects.”

The article quotes a 12-year-old student who believes “the teaching approach will be well-received in the classroom, particularly as so many families in El Salvador have had first-hand struggles with the country’s recent extreme weather.”

Since Hurricane Mitch, government agencies and civil society have prepared communities to deal with extreme weather events. Since President Funes took office in June 2009, the government has strengthened the Civil Protection network, which they elevated to a government Ministry. Their success over the past few years are measurable. Hurricane Mitch, the previous high-water mark, claimed over 240 deaths. Tropical Storm 12-E produced more rain and more severe flooding, destroyed more crops, and affected many more communities, but the loss of life was limited to 34 people.

If predictions are accurate, El Salvador will see more storms like Tropical Storm 12-E, and efforts to prepare the population is a matter of life and death. In theory, there is still time to reverse or decrease the impacts of climate change over the long-term, but that would require principal polluters such as the U.S. and China to reduce their emissions of the greenhouse gases that contribute to climate change. Its hard to imagine how the U.S. will ever cut emissions voluntarily, considering that the teachers can’t even talk about climate change without interference from politicians.