This post originally appeared on the Eyes on Environment blog as part of Nature’s Scitable Network. The Scitable Network hosts a variety of blogs discussing the latest scientific topics in disciplines ranging from chemistry to psychology.
Regardless of new policies to reduce greenhouse gas emissions or the eventual outcomes of COP21 in Paris, the next generation will have to deal with global warming. Their cards have already been dealt by their ancestors’ (ourselves included) burning of fossil fuels that lodged carbon into the atmosphere and oceans that will drive the Earth’s climate over the next decade.
There is hope for the next generation to better understand the effects of our energy use and consumption on the planet’s trajectory and continue the transition toward sustainable forms of energy production. However, this hope depends on accurate science education using up-to-date research findings and statistics to prepare our youth to understand the climate system, how our actions have changed it, and what we can do to prevent the most dramatic consequences.
Enter our middle- and high-school science teachers! They can be the beacons of reason and scientific prudence to convey to students our role in global warming and create an army of environmentally minded citizens!
Or maybe not. A survey  discussed in Science reveals that, although science teachers do teach climate change, a large contingent avoids discussion of the human causes or provides contradicting views that will confuse students. Such data should be a wake-up call for rapid curricular reform or policy to encourage (mandate?) proper scientific education about one of the most important crises of our time.
Getting the word out
The survey collected responses from teachers in over 1500 middle- and high-schools from all 50 U.S. states. Participants taught at schools generally representing the entire U.S. population in student socioeconomic status and other economic or political categories.
First the good news. About 75% of all science teachers cover climate change, including 87% of all high-school biology teachers. At least one introductory biology class should be required in most schools, so nearly all students are receiving at least some education about climate change, the greenhouse effect, and the carbon cycle.
Unfortunately, that’s where the good news ends. Although most classes cover climate change, the median teacher only uses 1-2 hours of class time total – this means equal numbers of teachers devote more or even less time than this. One class period of information about a climate phenomenon threatening drought, sea level rise, and displacement of millions of people seems just a bit low. The National Research Council  agrees, whose framework places climate change as a fundamental concept to cover in a variety of biology and earth science classes.
Climate change confusion
As a whole, science teachers spend very little time on climate change, but what content do they provide when they do discuss the topic? Again, the results are unsettling. Fifty-four percent of survey respondents teach that scientific consensus indicates global warming is due to human release of greenhouse gases AND that recent temperature rises are not due to natural causes alone. Both of these are crucial points to address in an accurate, scientifically supported portrayal of climate change.
Unfortunately, this data leaves 46% of teachers teaching some message at least partially at odds with over 95% of the scientific community. In particular, 31% of teachers provide a mixed message – claiming anthropogenic global warming but also claim natural causes are increasing temperatures – and 15% of teachers claim denial of both statements or outright avoidance of the issue. The results are sobering: nearly half of our students are not experiencing a scientifically accurate discussion of global warming in their classrooms.
Instead of letting this news drag us into a climate change depression, we can try to understand the reasons behind these statistics to look for solutions. One reason could be community pressure preventing global warming education in districts where leaders and administrators reject climate change evidence. However, only 4% of all survey respondents reported this type of suppression (although some may have decided not to disclose this information).
What’s more likely is a lack of scientific knowledge among the teachers. Only 30% of middle-school teachers and 45% of high-school teachers gave the correct answer when asked ‘what proportion of climate scientists think that global warming is caused mostly by human activities’ (correct answer: 97%). This means more than half of teachers believe scientific consensus to be much lower than this almost unanimous majority! Such beliefs could easily lead to teachers giving mixed messages about global warming, possibly trying to give equal time to ‘both sides’ of the argument. This type of point-counterpoint lesson works well when the science is still under debate, but in the case of climate change, this tactic will likely mislead students and misrepresent the clear and present danger of global warming.
That’s the bad news, but I believe this result also gives us hope! The lack of accurate climate change conversations in classroom is not due to political ideology, which would be much more inflexible to change or intervention, but rather reflects how difficult it is for teachers to take the time to keep up with the latest scientific findings. We can change this with educational policy and improved continuing education for science teachers. Invite climate scientists or other teachers to give local seminars about the latest evidence of global warming. Give teachers more time to prepare lessons so they can look into the latest scientific evidence. Provide instructional manuals with pre-developed lesson plans covering the science of global warming. The latter already exist (e.g., NOAA’s website) and provide excellent templates for teachers.
The results of the survey highlight a major gap in our youth’s scientific education that will affect how they understand their impact on the world around them. It appears that the major culprit for poor climate change education is a lack of awareness among teachers about the degree of scientific consensus. Each school district can do its part to change this by devoting time and effort to educating its teachers and giving its students the best chance to be informed citizens who can help mitigate global warming and change the future of our civilization.
- Plutzer E. et al. “Climate confusion among U.S. teachers.” Science, 351(6274), 664-665, 2016.
- National Research Council. “A framework for K-12 science education: practices, crosscutting concepts, and core ideas.” Board of Science Education, National Academies Press, Washington D.C., 2012.
Plutzer, E., McCaffrey, M., Hannah, A., Rosenau, J., Berbeco, M., & Reid, A. (2016). Climate confusion among U.S. teachers Science, 351 (6274), 664-665 DOI: 10.1126/science.aab3907