Corrected: An earlier version of this story misstated Pari Patel’s name and grade.
High school students are more likely than adults to agree with the scientific consensus that climate change is being driven by human activity—but many teenagers remain confused about the underlying causes of global warming.
The findings, from a new nationwide survey of teenagers by the EdWeek Research Center, also reveal an education system out of step with the interest of many students on the issue: Teens are hungry to learn more about how climate change will affect the future of the Earth and society, and what they can personally do to lessen the effects. But the vast majority of states do not require comprehensive instruction on the subject outside of high school science class.
New Jersey became the first state this year to require that climate change be taught in all schools, across grade levels and subjects.
The EdWeek Research Center surveyed a nationally representative sample of 1,055 teenagers between the ages of 14 and 18 in October, probing their understanding of, and feelings about, climate change. Their generation, experts say, will be particularly affected by the changing climate, living through more severe and frequent natural disasters and extreme weather events than their parents or grandparents.
The survey found that 79 percent of teenagers said climate change is real, and it is mainly caused by human activity.
Most of the remaining respondents said they believe in climate change but don’t think it’s caused by human activity; just 3 percent don’t believe in climate change at all. Among U.S. adults, 57 percent believe that climate change is mostly caused by human activity, according to an April 2022 poll by Ipsos, an international polling firm.
The vast majority of climate scientists and peer-reviewed scientific studies on climate change agree that humans are the driving cause of rising global temperatures, which are altering weather patterns and causing sea levels to rise. Already, many students’ learning has been disrupted by wildfires, extreme heat, and flooding from more severe storms—all of which are projected to increase as the planet continues to warm.
Yet experts warn—and the survey results show—that just because the majority of students believe in human-driven climate change doesn’t mean they fully understand it.
“Teachers have this real responsibility to go beyond that [students] accept climate change,” said Ann Reid, the executive director of the National Center for Science Education, a nonprofit group of scientists and teachers. “Well, how much do they really understand? You can see very, very clearly the misconceptions that students have about climate change.”
For example, 46 percent of teenagers say that the hole in the ozone layer created by gases from spray cans and refrigerators is a significant contributor to global warming, which is not accurate. (Recent and rapid climate change has been driven primarily by humans burning fossil fuels like coal, oil, and gas, which release greenhouse gasses that trap heat in the Earth’s atmosphere. This phenomenon warms the planet, alters its weather patterns, and causes the ice caps to melt.)
More than a quarter of students say that solar flares and increased radiation from the sun have been a major driver of global warming since the 1800s, and nearly a fifth say that volcanoes are a major source of the greenhouse gases contributing to climate change—both false statements.
“Students come in with these very deep-seated misconceptions, and that’s not true with other areas of science,” Reid said.
She pointed to the students who believe that solar flares and volcanoes are a major driver of global warming: “Those are both examples of variations of this misconception that climate change is natural, there’s all kinds of natural drivers of climate change, and there isn’t any way to tell whether it’s caused by humans or not.”
The EdWeek Research Center results mirror a similar question asked by The Washington Post and the Kaiser Family Foundation, in a 2019 survey which also found that many teens lacked a firm grip on what factors are driving global warming.
Schools must teach students to develop critical thinking skills so they can distinguish between credible sources of information and manipulative ones, Reid said. The NCSE has a set of lesson plans to help students overcome misinformation and misconceptions about climate change.
Teachers are the top source of information for students on climate change, closely followed by parents, according to EdWeek’s poll. Two-thirds of teens said they learned some or a lot about climate change from their teachers, and 64 percent said they learned some or a lot about the issue from their families.
Teachers should never restate a misconception—doing so reinforces the concept in a student’s mind and gives it standing, Reid said. Instead, teachers should present students with different lines of evidence so they can look for themselves.
“When I see all of these misconceptions, I see tremendous opportunity for teachers to really think about how to help students think like scientists,” she said.
But it can be hard for teachers to even find the time to address the topic in class, said Meghan Hooper-Jackson, a 7th grade science teacher at William Davies Middle School in Hamilton County, New Jersey.
“I would say that climate change in years prior was a periphery topic, something that needs to be addressed but it’s not in the curriculum,” she said. “It’s hard to squeeze in when you have so many demands.”
A state adopts climate change education standards
What students learn about climate change differs depending on where they go to school. Only 20 states, and the District of Columbia, have adopted the Next Generation Science Standards, which explicitly addresses the rise in global temperatures and the factors behind the changing climate in middle and high school. Across the country, experts say climate change education is spotty and limited.
But Hooper-Jackson said she is thankful that New Jersey, which adopted the NGSS in 2014, is now going well beyond them: Starting this school year, all students in all grades are required by the state to learn about climate change.
And it’s not a topic relegated to science class, said Roxann Bryant, the director of curriculum and instruction for Hamilton Township schools in New Jersey. Teachers in every subject for every grade are required to incorporate climate change awareness into their classes. For English/language arts, this might mean making climate change the topic of students’ speech writing assignments, Bryant said.
“In social studies, say you’re talking about the Revolutionary War, what does the climate look like this time of year?” she said. “When the crossing [of the Delaware River by George Washington] happened, it was winter, and the men stayed in the barracks and it froze. What does the climate look like now?”
Educators have an opportunity to respond to students’ hunger to learn about the warming planet, experts say.
Nationally, the majority of students want more information on climate change. Sixty-five percent of the students responding to the EdWeek survey said they want to learn more about how climate change will affect the future of the Earth and society. About half said they want to learn what they can do personally to lessen the effects of climate change and to better understand the science behind it.
Just 10 percent of students said they didn’t want to learn more about any climate change topics or issues, underscoring a real curiosity for the subject among this generation.
“In our classes we have definitely touched upon water usage and how other stuff impacts the environment and climate change,” said 17-year-old Dylan Jeffrys, a senior at South Plainfield High School near Newark, N.J.
But it was through getting involved in his school’s environmental club that he and his schoolmates have had the opportunity—prior to the new standards—to explore how individuals impact climate change, and they are eager to spread the word.
“I feel like a lot of people don’t realize that climate change stems from social constructs [like] fast fashion, and how social standards of keeping up with the newest trends and following social media on TikTok and Instagram, it all contributes to the fact that we keep buying these clothes from Forever 21 and Fashion Nova and ... ultimately lead to climate change,” said 17-year-old Deep Patel, also a senior.
Fast fashion, or buying inexpensive clothes in the latest trends and wearing them only a couple of times, contributes to climate change because of the greenhouse gasses produced during the manufacturing process. Some teenagers are opting instead to buy their clothes secondhand from thrift stores, in part for sustainability reasons. EdWeek’s survey found that nearly a quarter of respondents buy secondhand instead of new.
“We can’t control manufacturing or gas prices, but we can choose to not to buy clothes,” said 16-year-old Pari Patel, who is in 10th grade and no relation to Deep.
The teens estimate their environmental club is far and away the most popular club in school. The three were part of a team that was recently recognized in a statewide climate change challenge for raising awareness in their community about buying and eating locally grown produce as a way to combat climate change. Up next for the teens, Dylan said, is an awareness campaign for teachers in their school about how they can reduce energy use.
“Learning about that in clubs has made me think, hey, I should unplug things in my house and turn off the lights before I leave and look at my waste output,” he said.
Teens are conscious of their own impact on the environment
The EdWeek Research Center survey asked students what, if anything, they did to lower their carbon footprint. The most common responses were recycling, turning off lights and unplugging devices when they’re not in use, washing clothes in cold water and/or waiting until there’s a full load, and selling, recycling, reusing, or donating unwanted or unneeded items.
While many students expressed an interest in learning more about how they can personally make a difference when it comes to climate change, Reid urged caution on that front. Teachers, she said, should make clear that fossil fuel companies are the main drivers of climate change—a complex task for teachers, especially in communities that depend on oil and gas for jobs.
Some teachers will do exercises with students to calculate their individual carbon footprint, which Reid said could be a worthwhile lesson as part of a larger conversation, but “kind of a terrible thing to do in isolation because it does suggest this is a matter of individual action, which is not a full response.”
Still, she added, teachers should “not leave them with, ‘You can’t do anything, you’re too small to do anything,’ but to say, ‘You can do something—these things help—but we also need to be advocating for bigger changes.’”
Coverage of how climate change is affecting students’ learning and well-being is supported in part by a grant from the Education Writers’ Association Reporting Fellowship program, at www.ewa.org/fellowship. Education Week retains sole editorial control over the content of this coverage.
A version of this article appeared in the November 30, 2022 edition of Education Week as Teens Know Climate Change Is Real. They Want Schools to Teach More About It