Written by: Kimberly White 

New Jersey has established its Office of Climate Education, the first of its kind in the United States. 

Building on the state’s legacy as a pioneer in climate change education, the Office of Climate Education aims to bolster climate literacy and environmental awareness among students and educators across the state. 

“In the midst of some of the worst climate-related events that our country has ever faced, New Jersey is taking a proactive stance in combating climate change, and education is the foundation of our efforts,” said Governor Phil Murphy. “Through this initiative, we are not only fostering environmental consciousness but also preparing our youth to innovate, lead, and shape effective solutions for a greener world.”

Established within the New Jersey Department of Education’s Office of Innovation, the Office of Climate Change Education will support the state’s schools in implementing the New Jersey Student Learning Standards for Climate Change Education. 

The newly established office also aims to support and prepare students for the future jobs created by the transition to a green economy. There is a growing call among U.S. youth not only for more comprehensive climate change education but also for schools to offer opportunities for students to pursue green jobs. 

The Sunrise Movement, a youth advocacy group focused on political action on climate change, has proposed a Green New Deal for Schools, calling on school boards and superintendents to transform the school system to fight climate change and pass district-wide policies to teach climate justice, create climate disaster plans, update school infrastructure to be powered by renewable energy, and create pathways to green jobs by providing opportunities that connect students with climate-focused union jobs. 

“As our state and our world move closer to clean energy and green technologies, we have a unique opportunity here in New Jersey to properly equip our students to be at the forefront of the high-paying jobs that power the future,” said First Lady Tammy Murphy.

The Office of Climate Education will collaborate with educators as well as additional stakeholders in the state to leverage feedback and insights to inform the creation of professional development opportunities and provide guidance and resources to facilitate high-quality, innovative learning opportunities for students throughout New Jersey. 

The NJDOE has announced that Sarah Sterling-Laldee will head the initiative, serving as Senior Climate Change Education Advisor. Sterling-Laldee has more than two decades of service in New Jersey Public Schools, previously serving in roles as a middle school Science Teacher, Supervisor of Science, and Director of STEAM Education.  

In her role as Senior Climate Change Education Advisor, Sterling-Laldee will lead a team of Climate Awareness Innovation Specialists to oversee the state’s work on climate education, providing support to educators and school districts on climate change standards implementation and coordinating the state’s climate change education grant program. 

“The establishment of the Office of Climate Change Education, led by the incredible Sarah Sterling-Laldee and dedicated specialists, will help develop best practices and approaches to assist our best-in-the-nation teachers in educating the next generation of climate literate leaders of the future green economy,” added First Lady Tammy Murphy.

New Jersey leading the charge for climate education

In 2020, New Jersey made global headlines when the New Jersey State Board of Education adopted the New Jersey Student Learning Standards for Climate Change Education, becoming the first state in the U.S. to require schools to teach students about climate change. 

The landmark guidelines incorporated climate change education throughout its K-12 learning standards. 

First Lady Tammy Murphy led the initiative to integrate climate change curriculum into New Jersey’s learning standards, noting that decades of short-sighted decision-making have fueled the climate crisis and today’s youth must be given the knowledge, tools, and opportunities to study and understand the climate emergency as well as prepare them for the future green economy. 

Now, schools across the state are taking an interdisciplinary approach to climate change education, with more than 1.3 million students in the state learning about climate change in most of their academic subjects. 

The addition of the Office of Climate Education builds on the state’s efforts to support, prepare, and empower students to understand climate change, its impacts, and how to take action.

“The establishment of the Climate Change Education Team underscores our dedication to equipping the next generation with the knowledge and tools needed to address one of the most pressing challenges of our time,” said Dr. Angelica Allen-McMillan, Acting Education Commissioner. “By integrating climate education into our schools, we empower our students to become informed and engaged citizens, ready to contribute to a sustainable future.”

Governor Murphy allocated $5 million to aid schools with the implementation of the guidelines in the fiscal year 2023 state budget, with the NJDOE providing funding directly to schools through two grant opportunities. Governor Murphy has allocated an additional $5 million in the fiscal year 2024 state budget to provide continued support to schools implementing the climate education standards. 

Climate education in the U.S.

While New Jersey has been at the forefront of the climate education movement, many states in the U.S. are lagging behind. 

More than 86 percent of teachers and 84 percent of parents support climate change education in the United States. However, despite overwhelming public support for climate education, climate science in schools has been a source of controversy, with some politicians embracing climate denial and pushing back on climate science as a political talking point. 

Overall, the quality of education on climate varies, with some schools miseducating students about the cause of climate change and others spending as little as 30 minutes to two hours teaching the topic during the entire academic year. 

The North American Association for Environmental Education recently conducted a national survey of teachers and administrators to learn their views on climate education. The vast majority of teachers surveyed agree that climate change is happening and is caused largely by human activities, agreeing that not addressing climate change and solutions in school is irresponsible.

According to the survey, while educators want to teach about climate change, the surveyed educators are hesitant, citing a lack of formal curriculum, lack of preparation and resources, and an unclear mandate. 

“[Teachers] don’t feel confident or informed, and that makes it really hard for them to be able to integrate climate change into what they’re doing,” Judy Braus, Executive Director of the North American Association for Environmental Education, told Yale Climate Connections.

This further highlights the need for a more standardized curriculum, enhanced access to resources, and opportunities for professional development, says the North American Association for Environmental Education.

“Teachers are truly the backbone of our society,” added Braus. “And they need more support from administrators, from parents in the community, as well as through policies that support this important work.”