A New Environmental Education Framework: The Need for Financial Literacy

Lexi Herndon is the Marketing and Outreach Coordinator at the Environmental Finance Center at UNC Chapel Hill.

Environmental education (EE) is a big fish these days. Programs are flourishing across the country, large and small, public and private, for the young and the old, and on almost every environmental issue we face. Why has environmental education become so big? According to the EPA, EE “provides the public with the necessary skills to make informed decisions and take responsible action.” The North American Association for Environmental Education (NAAEE) explains that EE leads to environmentally literate citizens who know what they need to do to keep the environment healthy and sustain its resources. While the growth of EE has certainly led to significant progress towards this goal, from our perspective at the Environmental Finance Center, something is still missing: environmental finance education.

Environmental finance is an important topic that is severely under-addressed in the field of environmental education programs (particularly in K-12 schools). The costs of environmental protection are ever growing, while individuals, communities, and governments face significant financial obstacles in achieving their environmental protection goals. But how can we prepare students to meet the challenge of rising costs and shrinking funding?

Environmental finance education offers a solution through financial strategies that answer the core question of “How do we pay for environmental projects?” Though existing EE standards do seek to help students understand the economic challenges of environmental protection in the context of our social, cultural, and political systems, existing curricula fall short in providing students with the practical knowledge they need to overcome those challenges. Environmental finance education has the potential to help students understand how we can integrate environmental and financial goals while emphasizing cost-effective approaches, removing barriers that raise costs, and increasing public and private investment in environmental services. Incorporating environmental finance into EE curricula would provide students with an opportunity to learn about and practice this integral aspect of environmental work.

In addition to increasing environmental literacy, incorporating environmental finance into K-12 EE curricula would help address another important underrepresented topic in formal education: financial literacy. Even though youth need financial skills to be successful as adults, financial literacy among teens is particularly low. Scores on Jump$tart’s most recent national Survey of Personal Financial Literacy Among Students indicate that the financial literacy of high school students has fallen to its lowest level ever. This means that 75% of young American adults are likely to lack the skills needed to make beneficial financial decisions. Despite this fact, only 17 states require finance concepts to be included in the standard curriculum. By incorporating finance into EE programs, our goal would be to teach basic financial skills to students that they will not only use to evaluate a variety of complex environmental issues, but also to make better financial decisions to improve their own environment.

The EFC at UNC has a long history of educating and providing resources to professionals (utility managers, state and local government officials, researchers, and consultants) to help them understand important concepts in environmental finance and to equip them to support financially sustainable environmental programs. Though we have yet to dip our toes into the world of K-12 environmental education, we look forward to opportunities that will allow us to apply our expertise in that sphere.

What do you think? Should environmental finance be incorporated into EE curricula? Comment below!


1 Comment

  1. Mark Heberer

    While I feel that EE is very important and should be introduced in K-12, environmental finance, and the many challenges involved, should not be included. Generate the interest, build the enthusiasm and they will find the ways to accomplish their goals.