Science Commentary

Climate Change Is Not Up for Debate. Why Do So Many Teachers Act Like It Is?

By Ann Reid — September 11, 2018 5 min read

Is it hot enough for you? Five of the hottest years on record have occurred in the last eight years. It’s not just temperature. This summer, the Mendocino Complex Fire became the largest in recorded California history. From simple increases in temperatures to complex feedback effects on ocean currents, weather patterns, and hydrological cycles, the consequences of human-driven climate change are no longer distant theoretical threats, but the subject of near-daily headline news. And yet far too many students are still not learning about this urgent problem in their science classrooms.

The consequences of global warming shouldn’t have come as a surprise. The recognition that carbon dioxide in the atmosphere keeps our planet warm dates back to the 19th century. As early as the 1950s, scientists warned that the release of carbon dioxide from fossil fuels would increase Earth’s temperature. In 1995, the international climate science community concluded that the impact of human activities on the climate was unequivocal.

Yet many Americans do not accept the scientific consensus that the world is warming owing to human activity. According to a March 2018 survey, only 58 percent of Americans agree that global warming is mostly human-caused. Alarmingly, public opinion is sharply divided along political lines: According to the same survey, 84 percent of liberal Democrats accept that climate change is caused mostly by human activities, compared to 26 percent of conservative Republicans.

The divergence between public opinion and scientific consensus on climate change is political also in its cause—the result, at least in part, of a well-funded campaign to dispute the scientific findings and discredit the climate science community, fueled by a toxic combination of ideology, politics, and corporate self-interest. Dismayingly, the campaign to cast doubt on the scientific evidence for human-caused climate change echoes loudly in our nation’s science classrooms.

In just the past three years, the legislatures in state after state—including Idaho, Iowa, Nebraska, New Mexico, and West Virginia—have launched attacks on the treatment of climate change in state science education standards. My organization, the National Center for Science Education, has worked with local educators, scientists, and concerned citizens to successfully thwart most of these attacks. Every year, we win battle after battle—but we see little sign that the war is over.

The campaign to dispute the scientific consensus has been effective even among those who are responsible for teaching the next generation about the nature of science and evidence. In the 2014–15 academic year, NCSE and researchers at Pennsylvania State University conducted a rigorous national survey asking secondary public school science teachers a series of detailed questions about what they know, and what they teach, about climate change.

When asked, “What proportion of climate scientists think that global warming is caused mostly by human activities?” only about 40 percent of the responding teachers chose the correct answer: 81 to 100 percent. It’s not surprising then that nearly 60 percent of teachers report encouraging their students to debate the causes of climate change—a topic no more scientifically controversial than photosynthesis.

It would be unfair to blame teachers for this sorry state of affairs. The sources of information on which they rely—textbooks, state science standards, and professional development—lag behind the scientific consensus. In the NCSE/Penn State survey, 57 percent of teachers reported having received no formal instruction in climate change whatsoever; only 11 percent reported having completed one or more courses entirely focused on climate change.

Inadequate training deters teachers from presenting climate change in accordance with the scientific consensus. But so does the ideological polarization of public opinion on climate change. Many educators teach in communities where fear of conflict with their students, colleagues, or other community members is reasonable. Such concerns result in the adoption of teaching practices aimed at defusing potential conflicts that are nevertheless scientifically or pedagogically problematic.

In light of all these obstacles to teaching climate change, it’s easy to feel discouraged. But three facts offer hope for the future:

1. Science teachers are hungry for more information on climate change. Two thirds of the teachers in the NCSE/Penn State survey said that they would be interested in a professional-development course focused on climate change. As more and more states adopt the Next Generation Science Standards, which cover climate change thoroughly, science teachers will increasingly receive training on climate change, boosting their knowledge and confidence.

2. There is an abundance of available evidence. There are so many different lines of evidence for climate change, and the evidence is so clear, that it is entirely feasible to develop inquiry-based climate change lessons for any middle or high school science class: general science, biology, chemistry, physics, environmental science, or Earth science. Once science teachers have the knowledge and confidence to teach climate change, they will be able to find opportunities to do so.

3. Teaching climate change is compatible with different religious and political positions. With the help of gifted climate change communicators like Katharine Hayhoe and Kerry Emanuel, who show that it is possible to accept the science of climate change while being a devout evangelical or a firm conservative, science teachers and the general public can come to appreciate that science—and science education—isn’t partisan. In fact, there is overwhelming, if unheralded, public support for teaching about climate change.

At NCSE, we are working with teachers, scientists, and climate change communications experts to develop lessons that address the most common misconceptions about climate change by engaging directly with the relevant scientific data. Early results suggest the lessons are effective, even in communities in which acceptance of climate change is low. We are now also supporting teacher “ambassadors” who will provide local peer-to-peer training in the use of these lessons.

It can be discouraging to recognize that the scientific consensus on climate change that emerged more than 30 years ago is not yet accepted by the American public. But if we work together to help teachers learn and confidently teach the science, the next generation not only will be fully informed, but also will have gained the experience of scientific thinking and problem-solving that will help them meet the challenges they will face in a warming world.

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A version of this article appeared in the September 19, 2018 edition of Education Week as How Not to Teach Climate Change


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