Starting next year, Israeli schools will be required to teach students from kindergarten on about the climate crisis, the education and environmental protection ministries announced Sunday.
The Education Ministry will send all school principles guidelines to that effect in the coming days, according to the announcement. The climate crisis has thus far not been part of the compulsory curriculum and was offered only as a possible elective, which most teachers chose not to teach.
Dozens of students who talked with Haaretz in the past said that they never learned about climate issues at school, while some said they had studied the crisis on their own, as part of locally organized initiatives.
The two ministries, at the initiative of Education Minister Yifat Shasha-Biton and Environmental Protection Minister Tamar Zandberg and their professional staff, now say that they will gradually integrate a climate program into the curriculum, for all levels, encompassing 30 hours a year, which is equivalent to one hour per week.
The program devised by the two ministries was approved by a professional committee consisting of scientists from leading universities. The development is of particular importance, since up to a few months ago the Environmental Protection Ministry presented climate data that contradicted the scientific consensus regarding the severity of the crisis, presenting the causes of the crisis as “controversial” on its website.
The Education Ministry had previously suggested that geography teachers use videos made by companies Nobel Energy and the Delek Group, who present the use of gas and oil in a positive light without mentioning their contribution to the climate crisis. The ministry has now confirmed that all content denying climate change has been deleted from its websites, and that all new material recognizes that the climate crisis enjoys scientific consensus.
The material will deal among other things with the impact of burning fossil fuels on the carbon cycle and on the concentration of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, and with the culture of consumption and globalization as social phenomena that exacerbate the crisis, with the mass extinction of animals and plants due to this crisis, and more. Students will also learn about the negative impact of using gas, based on findings by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change which determined that one third of global warming can be attributed to the emission of methane, the main component of natural gas.
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The change does not involve a new subject or the addition of school hours, but rather new content which will be integrated into various compulsory and elective courses. The Education Ministry did not reply to questions by Haaretz regarding the precise way in which the subject would be incorporated into each subject, saying that some of the program is still under development. Environmental organization sources said they were concerned that the number of compulsory hours would be very limited.
Sustainability in kindergarten
The program will be introduced in schools by September on a partial basis, and will be gradually expanded in the coming years. 15 million shekels ($4.5 million) of the 30 million that were allocated are designated for developing new content and for training teachers so they become familiar with the material. A further 15 million shekels are designated for introducing the subject in youth movements.
Over the last two years, 5,000 teachers have undergone training in environmental subjects at workshops that only partly referred to the climate crisis. According to professionals in both ministries, professional development for teachers will be augmented next year, including designated courses on climate, so that over the next five years all teachers will receive training in this subject.
In elementary and junior high schools, the subject will be studied as part of the existing curriculum, mainly in geography and science classes. Schools will also be asked to integrate related topics into other subjects such as art, geography, English, history and social studies, up to one hour a week in total. “We don’t want to create a sense of fear, and the aim is to adapt the content to pupils’ age and ability to absorb the material,” says Zivit Linder, the head of the education and community division at the Ministry of Environmental Protection, in conversation with Haaretz. Linder was part of the team that prepared the new program.
This approach echoes the State Comptroller last report, which dealt with Israel’s lack of planning for the climate crisis. He noted that the problem involved many areas and each required attention.
The topic will be studied in high schools as part of science, social studies and some humanities elective courses offered. Philosophy and Jewish studies will consider the connection between man and nature. According to the Education Ministry, the topic will also be integrated into Hebrew language classes, English and other languages, but the agency did not indicate whether there will be compulsory questions on this topic in matriculation exams. Students will be able to select this topic in final school projects.
The topic will also be integrated into kindergarten programs, with the aim of strengthening children’s ties to nature.
Some aspects of environmental protection already exist in the curriculum, and the Education Ministry says that this has been strengthened recently, with designated programs relating to climate added. Teaching these topics was at the discretion of schools, however, leading to great gaps in what was taught at different schools. The Environmental Protection Ministry allocated funds for increasing awareness of environment and climate issues, but participation in these programs depended on school principals. Schools will now be obliged to deal with these topics, says Linder.
The Education Ministry started developing material on climate four years ago, but things moved slowly. Appeals by climate groups to the education minister in 2020 did not receive a response, and parents were told that the subject was dealt with in the current curriculum.
The change came last summer, after the IPCC report came out, indicating that the world had less than a decade in order to prevent the worst implications of the climate crisis. Pressure by environmental groups, teachers and parents, as well as criticism in the media, produced a new approach. A committee of specialists examined the curriculum and asked professionals at the education ministry to augment the existing material significantly.
Is this sufficient? “We ask ourselves this question all the time? Says Dr. Gilmor Keshet-Maor, the head of the science division at the Education Ministry. “Everything we do has to be responsible, based on updated and accurate knowledge.”
Youth activists have been criticizing the education ministry over the last few years, asking it to deal with the climate crisis. They held a protest earlier this year during a visit by the education minister, who told them she would consider their demands.