Schools Are Failing to Teach Climate Change
Education Policy Brief #61 | By: Lynn Waldsmith | December 1, 2021
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Global warming is, above all else, a looming crisis for children.
With extreme weather events such as heat waves and wildfires expected to rise in frequency, intensity and duration under global warming, it should come as no surprise that younger generations will face many more such events over their lifetimes compared to their parents and grandparents. In fact, a new survey published in Science magazine predicts children born in 2020 could face seven times more climate disasters than those born in 1960.
Yet, what should come as a surprise is how so many American kids fail to understand the gravity of the issue. While Gen Z and Millennials are notably leading the fight against climate change, about a quarter of American kids surveyed in 2020 rejected the idea that global warming was some kind of emergency, more than in any other country surveyed in Western Europe or North America. In Miseducation: How Climate Change is Taught in America, a new book by investigative journalist Katie Worth, she discovered many U.S. kids don’t believe in human-caused global warming because they are not being taught about climate change in school, while others are not being taught accurately.
America has no national curriculum, leaving states to decide their own academic standards. Thus, an education in modern climate science is required in some parts of the country and nonexistent in others. Political divides across red and blue states are a major factor in fostering inequities in children’s science education. The Texas Freedom Network and the National Center for Science Education graded each state’s academic standards based on how well they taught climate change. No blue state got less than a B plus, and there were a few red states that got B pluses or even As, but the majority of red states did considerably worse.
Worth reviewed scores of textbooks, built a 50-state database and visited more than a dozen communities to talk to kids about what they’ve learned about the climate crisis. She found that from kindergarten to high school, students are either not being taught anything about climate change, or are still being taught that the climate “has always changed”, or reading textbooks that present global warming as a “debate.”
“It’s safe to say that across the country, intrepid teachers rigorously educate their students about climate science,” she writes in Miseducation. “It’s also safe to say that commonly, a teacher down the hall is miseducating them about it.”
There are numerous reasons behind the miseducation of U.S. students concerning global warming. First, many teachers, particularly those who are climate deniers themselves, are unable or unwilling to teach the science of climate change. The United Nations’ IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) report concludes that countries must stop adding fossil fuel emissions and other greenhouse gases to the atmosphere to stop the planet from getting hotter. But teaching or discussing that reality seems risky for many science teachers, who feel that they need to avoid politics in the classroom.
Other teachers lack the resources or knowledge to impart climate science. According to a 2016 study from the National Center for Science Education, fewer than half of all teachers listened to at least one lecture on climate change during their schooling, and most have never pursued continuing education on the topic after college.
But teachers don’t deserve all the blame. According to Worth, the fossil fuel industry is largely responsible for sowing seeds of doubt. And it’s little wonder so many children fail to take climate change seriously when their parents consider it to be a hoax.
“There’s been a multibillion-dollar campaign to make the American public doubt climate change,” she said, “and some of it has been specifically targeted at children.”
In her book, Worth describes how the industry has zeroed in on children for decades with fossil fuel–friendly educational materials, including an ExxonMobil comic book that taught kids about fossil fuel supply and demand in the 1970s to fossil fuel–funded educational programs in use today in at least 18 states that use friendly cartoon characters like “Oliver Oilpatch” and “Petro Pete.” These programs emphasize the free market, equating energy with freedom and promoting the idea that energy regulation will hurt the economy.
Photo taken from: NRDC
Worth found that many school districts still teach that global warming is a scientific debate when it is not. A 2016 survey led by Eric Plutzer of Pennsylvania State University found that one-third of American science educators teach students that “many scientists believe” global warming is natural, but a survey published two years ago by the Bulletin of Science, Technology & Society concluded 100 percent consensus was reached among research scientists on human-caused global warming, based on a review of 11,602 peer-reviewed articles.
John Cook, a research assistant professor at the Center for Climate Change Communication at George Mason University, wrote in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, “The problem with ‘teach the controversy’ when it comes to human-caused global warming . . . is that there is no controversy—not a scientific one, at least. Teaching that scientists have major disagreements where they do not is simply to spread misinformation.”
In 2020, the National Education Association (NEA) issued a statement saying that it “recognizes the scientific consensus that global climate change is largely caused by human activity, resulting in significant, measurable damage to the earth and its inhabitants.” The same statement went on to challenge educators by noting, “Educators have the opportunity to embed elements of climate change into their lessons to ensure these students have the knowledge they need to address the issue in the capacity they see fit.”
Photo taken from: The Climate Center
Misinformation equals miseducation. And a mess of myriad viewpoints. Worth found teachers who disagree over whether to teach climate change, students who want to learn about the subject but are not taught, students who are taught about climate change but reject what they learn, and parents who are both proponents and opponents of teaching it.
With some parents targeting the teaching of critical race theory, works of literature they consider inappropriate, or mask mandates, Dr. J. Marshall Shepherd, a leading international expert in weather and climate, worries that climate science may be next.
“I cannot imagine a parent or organization objecting to school lessons about photosynthesis, the water cycle, or temperature,” he wrote in an article that he recently wrote for Forbes. “Yet, these same concepts are fundamental to climate science and would likely be challenged by someone if framed from the perspective of global warming.”
Despite the climate crisis itself and the bleak circumstances surrounding the way it is currently being presented to young people, those who are tasked with educating the younger generation are trying to focus on engaging students to focus on solutions.
The National Science Teaching Association says that climate science lessons should include discussing how to address the problem, namely by analyzing different strategies to reduce carbon emissions as well as ways to build resilience to the effects of climate change. Putting a focus on taking action is considered the right approach in terms of students’ mental health. In a 2016 National Center for Science Education survey of middle and high school science teachers who teach climate change, 88 percent said they talked about personal responsibility, like turning off lights or walking to school.
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Miseducation: How Climate Change is Taught in America:
The National Science Teaching Association’s position statement on The Teaching of Climate Science:
National Center for Science Education Survey — Mixed Messages: How Climate Change is taught in America’s Public Schools:
NEA 2020 statement on climate change:
Climate Change Education: Essential Information for Educators from the NEA:
Pew Research Center findings on Americans’ attitudes about climate change:
UNDP-Oxford Peoples Climate VoteResults: