Climate change education in schools is sporadic and limited, despite student interest and the growing urgency of the issue as temperatures rise and weather patterns become more severe.
That’s a problem, experts say.
“Education needs to be a part of the set of tools that we’re applying to address the climate crisis, whether that’s at the federal level, the state level, or the local level,” said Sarah Bodor, the director of policy at the North American Association for Environmental Education. “Right now, education is being used inconsistently and not very holistically.”
To better understand the barriers, NAAEE surveyed about 700 U.S. teachers and 100 administrators and state policymakers last summer. These results complement a nationally representative survey of educators from the EdWeek Research Center conducted in December.
Both surveys reveal that educators want to teach about climate change but don’t feel properly equipped to do so. Nearly 80 percent of teachers, principals, and district leaders said it’s important for U.S. schools to teach students the science behind climate change and its effects on the planet and society, the EdWeek Research Center found. (Of that group, more than half said it was “very important.”)
The NAAEE survey found that nearly three-quarters of teachers agree that climate change will have an enormous impact on students’ futures, and it is irresponsible not to address the problem and solutions in school. More than half of teachers also said their students brought up climate change on their own, and 46 percent said their students are worried and anxious about the issue.
A quarter of teachers across grade levels and subjects say they don’t teach anything about climate change topics or issues, according to the EdWeek Research Center. When teachers do talk about climate change in the classroom, their areas of focus vary.
Nearly half of teachers focus on students’ own behavior and what they can do to lessen the effects of climate change, the survey found. It’s much less common for teachers to discuss topics like job opportunities related to sustainability, environmental justice, or policy debates and proposals to address the effects of climate change.Science teachers are more likely than other teachers to focus on the science behind climate change and how it will affect the future of the Earth and society.
The vast majority of states do not require comprehensive instruction on the subject outside of high school science class, so the way it’s taught can vary by school. The NAAEE survey found that on average, teachers give their school a C for how climate change content is taught and incorporated in the classroom.
Here are three main reasons why—despite the broad show of support—climate change education has not become a priority in schools, according to the surveys.
1. Teachers aren’t confident in their ability to teach climate change.
The NAAEE survey found that only 21 percent of teachers feel “very informed” about climate change. That echoes an EdWeek Research Center finding, where 18 percent of teachers said they haven’t addressed climate change or related issues with students because they’re not well versed in the science behind climate change and feel out of their depth discussing it.
Unsurprisingly, the NAAEE survey found that middle and high school science teachers are the most confident teaching about climate change, and elementary teachers are the least confident. The EdWeek Research Center survey found that 26 percent of teachers said they haven’t talked about climate change because they can’t think of any way it is related to the subject they teach. Nine percent said they think their students are too young to learn about it.
Yet experts say comprehensive climate change education starts in the youngest grades and spans subject areas. New Jersey has required that climate change be taught in all grade levels and subjects, and a similar push is underway in Oregon.
“In elementary ages, I don’t think it’s very appropriate to talk about climate change in any way that would induce fear,” NAAEE’s Bodor said. “It’s more about just making observations with very, very young students. There’s a lot you can do with just noticing and observing” weather and the local environment.
Teachers’ lack of confidence in addressing climate change with their students may stem from a lack of preparation. The EdWeek Research Center survey found that about three-quarters of teachers say they have never received any professional training or education on climate change or how to teach it.
2. Teachers don’t have enough high-quality, relevant resources.
Another barrier is access to teaching materials. About half of teachers said they lack resources to teach effectively about climate change some of the time or always, according to the NAAEE survey.
Bodor said that while those resources are out there, they are not always easy to find—especially for elementary teachers and teachers of non-science subjects. (The nonprofit SubjectToClimate is among those working to offer standards-aligned, interdisciplinary materials for teachers.)
“Understanding how a set of resources can be put together in a way that meets your particular needs and addresses standards in a meaningful way is not an easy thing to do,” Bodor said. “Many teachers probably don’t feel like they have enough time to assemble resources in a way that will be effective in the classroom.”
Two-thirds of teachers said creating developmentally appropriate climate change education materials was extremely or very important to support effective teaching about climate change. A similar percentage said the same about the development of teaching materials to bring diverse perspectives—such as Indigenous knowledge or those focused on equity—into climate change teaching.
Half of teachers say they want short videos for climate change education, and similar percentages said they want ready-made lessons and small group activities. They are also hungry for resources that draw on current events and examples, as well as ones that focus on climate resilience and solutions, the NAAEE survey found.
3. Teachers don’t always feel supported by their administrators or the community.
The NAAEE survey found that most teachers aren’t confident that administrators and education policymakers want climate change to be taught.
Just 36 percent said they believe either administrators or state education officials want students to learn that scientists agree climate change is real and human-caused, and 33 percent said the same about school board members.
Teachers were even more skeptical about parents: Just about a quarter said they think parents support teaching the scientific consensus that climate change is real and human-caused. And about half of teachers say they worry about parent complaints when it comes to teaching climate change.
Administrators were even more likely to worry about parent complaints, the survey found. But 80 percent of administrators agreed that there is a responsibility to address the problem of climate change and solutions in school.
A 2019 poll by NPR and Ipsos found that more than 80 percent of parents in the United States support the teaching of climate change. While Democrats were more likely to support the subject being taught in school, Republicans were still largely supportive.
However, the last few years have brought more intense scrutiny to what’s being taught in classrooms, and the National Science Teaching Association has said “the elimination of teaching about evolution and climate change” is a present threat, as legislators and local school boards attempt to restrict what materials teachers can use and what they can say in the classroom.
During these polarized times, teachers may want to “avoid anything that feels like a lightening rod,” Bodor said.
Clear signals from the top that it’s OK and expected to teach climate change matter, she said. When climate change is part of the school’s formal curriculum, teachers are more likely to feel prepared, have the appropriate resources, and spend more time teaching about the subject, the NAAEE survey found.