Among the many things to admire about Italy — Bernini fountains, Puccini opera, chestnut gelato — we can now add that country’s public education system. Don’t laugh. Placing itself in the vanguard of environmental education, the Italian government announced last week that it would introduce mandatory lessons on climate change in every grade beginning September 2020.
The plan is relatively modest: adding roughly one hour of instruction in environmental sustainability per week. But sustainable development also will be woven into other subjects, such as geography and physics.
Meanwhile, here in the greatest country, we are limiting the use of scientific data in developing environmental and public health regulations, and science teachers are afraid to utter the words “climate change” in their classrooms.
Italy’s move comes from its new minister of education, Lorenzo Fioramonti. Formerly a university economics professor, he came in for criticism when he encouraged students to walk out of class and join the global climate strike in September, just days after he was appointed. “The entire ministry is being changed to make sustainability and climate the center of the education model,” Fioramonti said in an interview with Reuters.
The trouble with the initiative is that Italy can’t hold onto a government any better than President Trump can hold onto a fact.
Fioramonti is part of a coalition government of two rival political factions brought together only in a marriage of convenience. An equally inspiring initiative to mandate news literacy in Italian high schools, targeting 4 million students, foundered last year when the government changed. Again.
Still, give Italy’s current leaders points for recognizing the gravity of the climate crisis and the importance of educating the next generation of citizens — who will, after all, be its primary victims. In the United States, whether to include climate change in science curricula is left up to individual school districts, with predictably uneven results.
In 2013, a group of educators from the National Science Teachers Association and 26 states produced the Next Generation Science Standards, intended to be a kind of common core for STEM classes. Ten states, from Alaska to Texas, have declined to adopt the standards, which include the concept that human activities affect global warming. Other states are openly hostile.
A bill introduced this year in the Florida legislature would allow school districts to teach “different worldviews,” according to its sponsor, on scientific theories deemed “controversial.” These include evolution and climate change (but not gravity or the moon landing — at least not yet). In Montana, a bill would have required the state’s public schools and even colleges to teach that nature, not human activity, causes climate change. That proposal was tabled in a legislative committee earlier this year.
Even in communities that embrace climate literacy, most teachers have not been fully trained. According to the National Center for Science Education, less than half of US science teachers have had any formal coursework on climate change, and fewer than 20 percent had continuing education credits in the topic. In Massachusetts, climate change has been a formal part of the state’s science education standards only since 2016.
Climate realists in the states can expect no help from Washington, where a tide of antagonism toward scientific facts has been cresting since Trump took office. Under his rule, career scientists are barred from speaking at conferences, websites are bowdlerized, and the respected National Climate Assessment is threatened by political appointees who want to soften its most dire conclusions.
In the past few weeks the news from Italy has been heartbreaking.
Record flooding in Venice has destroyed a jewel box-full of national treasures, as warming oceans and melting ice sheets thousands of miles away contribute to the devastation. The regional council chambers in the historic Palazzo Ferro Fini were flooded minutes after councilors rejected budget items designed to combat climate change, so Italians can be stupido, too.
Officials say 70 percent of Venice was submerged last week. How many more drowned canaries in a flooded coal mine do we need?
Renée Loth’s column appears regularly in the Globe.