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These students want to learn more about climate change. Some NH lawmakers disagree.

Members of the 350 NH Youth Team met on a Saturday to discuss their push for more climate education in New Hampshire schools.
Mara Hoplamazian
Members of the 350 NH Youth Team met on a Saturday to discuss their push for more climate education in New Hampshire schools.

For high school junior Oishik Chakraborty, testifying in front of New Hampshire lawmakers this March was a new experience. It was nerve-wracking, he said, but he made sure to get his point across.

“The importance of climate change needs to be addressed, especially in younger generations, as we are the future of this nation,” he told lawmakers during a public hearing in the House Education Committee on March 5.

Chakraborty said his worries about testifying were replaced by happiness as lawmakers engaged with his points, asking him questions about his support for House Resolution 30, an effort to encourage state officials to develop a more thorough climate curriculum for New Hampshire students.

The resolution was thought up by the youth team at 350 New Hampshire, an advocacy group focused on climate change. The high schoolers have spent the past few months working on the resolution, preparing theree-minute speeches, reaching out to school boards across the state, and talking with Democrat Rep. Wendy Thomas, who is sponsoring the resolution.

Their resolution, which comes before the full House for a vote on Thursday, would encourage the state’s Department of Health and Department of Environmental Services to prepare climate education materials that include an acknowledgement that human activities have caused a climate crisis that people are working to solve and include historical background on fossil fuels and renewable energy.

New Hampshire received a “B+” grade in a 2020 report from the National Center for Science Education and the Texas Freedom Network Education Fund on it's climate change curriculum, based on the state's use of the Next Generation Science Standards. Reviewers said those standards were ambiguous about how much human activities influence climate change. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change says it is unequivocal that humans have warmed the earth, and the US Environmental Protection Agency says it is “extremely likely” that humans are the dominant cause of warming.

Students hope to change their climate education

Sitting around a table in Concord on a sunny Saturday morning, Chakraborty and five of the other students who worked on the resolution talked about why they’re pushing for change.

“We all felt as though we didn’t receive an adequate education about climate change in school,” said Taylor Barry, a Nashua High School North student on the 350 youth team. “We wanted to talk about some of the positive developments in the environmental movement and job opportunities and local impacts of climate change.”

Aside from AP Environmental Science, students said they didn’t have many opportunities to learn about climate science — except in special cases, like at Chakraborty’s science-focused charter school, where a variety of classes address climate change.

But he said learning about a wider range of topics through his activism, like how climate change affects marginalized communities and peoples’ health, has given him a different perspective than many of his friends.

“I just wish they could know a little bit more,” he said.

Preesha Chatterjee, a junior at Bow High school, said she had hopes to be an economics major in college — but wishes her high school education included more about the effects of climate change on people and societies.

“There are huge economic effects of climate change. And you can use economics to help make renewable energy affordable and that sort of thing,” she said. “And we don’t really talk about that or connect climate change with all these other topics.”

Chatterjee said learning more about climate change has helped her feel more optimistic — and she wants lawmakers to know it can help others, too. She remembers, as a child, seeing photographs of polar bears on melting ice and feeling upset.

“I was little, but I was like, ‘I can’t do anything about it, nothing is happening, I feel like humans don’t care,’ ” she said. “Seeing all of my peers care about it and work really hard to get the things we’re doing done has really helped my climate anxiety, I’d say.”

The students’ resolution has faced pushback from lawmakers in the House who argue teaching students more about climate change would worsen climate anxiety.

In a meeting after the hearing in which lawmakers heard from the students, Rep. Mike Belcher, a Republican from Wakefield, told the Education Committee that climate change is a “very politically charged issue.”

“I think that we need to be keeping generally politically charged issues out of schools," he said. "But even if you don't agree with me on that, I don't think we should be inducing climate anxiety in students by putting more of this on them right now when they're young and formative. And if this is a real problem, it's an adult problem to be dealt with."

Some lawmakers, including Rep. Hope Damon, a Democrat from Croydon, spoke in support of the resolution, arguing that students are seeing climate change happen and pretending it is not will not help decrease their anxiety.

Others said they disagreed with the overwhelming scientific consensus that human activities are causing climate change, or sought to minimize the danger of a changing climate.

Sarah Weintraub, a Nashua High School North student who testified about climate anxiety to the Education committee, said watching lawmakers debate whether education would help fight climate anxiety was frustrating.

“With anxiety in general, if something is big, overwhelming and scary and you don't know how to tackle it, it's just going to keep building. But if you're educated on something, given solutions, information, knowledge, you are more equipped to then tackle that,” she said. “That’s, like, textbook coping mechanisms.”

And for Weintraub, the idea that climate change is an adult problem — that’s a problem itself.

“We’ve been letting the adults handle it, and it’s gotten worse,” she said. “In anything — in jobs, in anything we do — if you’re letting someone else handle it and they’re doing a poor job, we need to reassign who is in charge.”

As climate change shows up in New Hampshire in the form of intense storms, melted snow, and hotter summers, students say they’re seeing it in their lives — and living through those experiences without learning about them in school is even more anxiety inducing.

“We see it on the news, we see it in our communities. And then to just be told, ‘Oh, just don’t worry about it’, it becomes this even bigger, more mysterious like doomsday sort of feeling,” Nashua North student Sonya Witkoskie said.

Amelia Tabit, a high school senior from Rye, said it felt like lawmakers were turning away from the reality they were trying to communicate.

“When you ignore something, it doesn’t go away,” she said. “Half my town is underwater when it floods. And that doesn’t go away when you ignore it, it just gets worse. And ignoring the voices of the youth is really selfish, honestly, because we’re gonna have to live in this world . . . and they’re not going to have to.”

Mara Hoplamazian reports on climate change, energy, and the environment for NHPR.