Climate change education

How is climate change being taught in American schools? Is it being taught at all? And how are teachers addressing climate change denial in their classrooms, schools, and school districts?

Most U.S. science teachers include climate science in their courses, yet political inclinations and insufficient grasp of the science may be hindering the quality of their teaching, authors of this Education Forum say. Although more than 95% of climate scientists attribute recent global warming to human causes, only about half of U.S. adults believe that human activity is the predominant cause — the lowest percentage among 20 nations polled in 2014.

Yet prior surveys suggest that climate change is taught in the classroom, prompting Eric Plutzer et al. to explore the quality of these teachings in greater detail. Based on a large survey of 1,500 teachers in middle- and high-school, they found that 30% of teachers emphasise that recent global warming “is likely due to natural causes,” and 12% do not emphasise human causes at all. Plutzer et al. explore the reasons behind this. It doesn’t seem to be parents or administrators, as very few teachers reported external pressure not to teach climate change. They propose that teachers may not be very knowledgeable about scientific evidence, for example about carbon dioxide measurements from ice cores. As well, the authors propose that many teachers are unaware of the extent of scientific agreement.

This notion is supported by their survey results; when asked “What proportion of climate scientists think that global warming is caused mostly by human activities?” only 30% of middle-school and 45% of high-school science teachers selected the correct option of “81 to 100%”. The authors also note that a question measuring political ideology was a more powerful predictor of a teacher’s classroom approach than any measure of education or content knowledge. Therefore, education efforts will need to draw on science communication research and address the root causes of resistance to science, the authors conclude.

Until today’s release of NCSE’s comprehensive nationwide survey, no one knew. The survey, conducted in concert with the respected nonpartisan Penn State University Survey Research Center, grilled over 1500 middle and high school science teachers. The results may floor you.

“At least one in three teachers bring climate change denial into the classroom, claiming that many scientists believe climate change is not caused by humans” says NCSE programs and policy director Josh Rosenau. “Worse, half of the surveyed teachers have allowed students to discuss the supposed ‘controversy’ over climate change without guiding students to the scientifically supported conclusion.” Scarier still: three out of five teachers were unaware of, or actively misinformed about, the near total scientific consensus on climate change.

Teachers who want to teach climate change accurately and honestly don’t have an easy time of it. “There are some great climate education resources out there” says NCSE’s climate maven Dr. Minda Berbeco. “But many teachers don’t have time to find and evaluate these materials”.

How much climate change education are kids ultimately getting? “Not as much as we had hoped, and not enough to provide students a solid grounding in the science. Often, it’s only one or two hours in the entire year!” says Dr. Eric Plutzer, professor of political science at Penn State, who designed and implemented the survey. “The good news? Few teachers were pressured to avoid teaching about global warming and its causes.”

Still more cause for hope: “It’s clear that the vast majority of surveyed teachers are hungry for additional professional development” says Berbeco. “Even half the teachers who deny the scientific consensus on climate change say they would take this training.”

“Teachers didn’t create the polarized culture war around climate change” says Rosenau, “But they’re the key to ending this battle.”

NCSE’s paper on the survey, “Climate Change Education in U.S. Middle and High Schools,” appears in the February 12th issue of Science.