Climate Change Is Real. So Why Isn't It Being Taught in US Schools?
The political struggle over climate change hits the classroom, but obstacles are more fundamental.
Climate change is a well-known and verified science that draws on mountains of data and analysis. More than 97% of scientists believe that climate change is happening.
Yet it remains a contentious political issue in the US and around the world. This politicization makes acting on climate change difficult and renders the discussion of climate change controversial to the point of stalemate.
A number of recent large-scale surveys revealed that the state of US climate change education is, for the most part, in bad shape. While there are teachers and schools in the country delivering excellent and useful lessons on the subject, many schools face challenges like a lack of resources, insufficient training programs, and local political pressure.
“Climate change is such a daunting challenge,” said Joel Tolman, director of Impact and Engagement at Common Ground High School in New Haven, Connecticut. “It's complex, it's overwhelming. But the fact that it's complex and overwhelming also means we — and our students — can tackle it from so many angles.”
“We need a new, diverse, powerful generation of environmental leaders, who understand the complexity of climate change, and who can use all the tools at their disposal to confront it,” he said.
To get to that level, schools across the country have to transform how they approach the subject, Tolman said.
Students of Common Ground High School
On average, climate change is covered for only an hour or two each year in US middle- and high-school classrooms, according to a survey of 1,500 science teachers across all 50 states published in the February 2016 issue of Science.
A third of science teachers include climate change denial in their lesson plans and half of surveyed teachers allow students to discuss the “controversy” of climate change without bringing in evidence to encourage a science-based understanding.
In some school districts, getting students relevant information is undermined by opposition from members of the community or teachers who do not agree with the science, the survey found.
In the vast majority of instances, however, inadequate education stems from more fundamental issues — curriculums that haven’t been updated to include climate change and a lack of training for teachers.
“The principal challenge we’re finding is that climate change really isn’t, in any formal way, in the curriculum that the schools have at the moment,” said Dr. Donald Boesch, president of the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science.
“We’re tying to make sure that climate change concepts — the underpinnings, the causes, and the consequences — are actually included in the cross-disciplinary teaching that forms the basis of the next generation of science standards,” Boesch told Global Citizen.
“And frankly, the teachers haven’t been trained.”
There’s always a lag between new knowledge and the discussion of that knowledge in the classroom — the process of getting new information into textbooks can take many years as it travels through approval stages.
This is especially true for climate change, which is a vast science that evolves on a daily basis. Unlike more static and theoretical forms of knowledge, climate change is dynamic and is readily seen in everyday life — from the recent floods in Louisiana to the forests being razed by beetles in the Midwest and the forest fires raging across the west.
This makes deciding on what to include tricky since the data is constantly updated. Figures and explanations from five years ago could be outdated by the time students encounter them. It also means that students can’t wait around for curriculums to change — they need the knowledge now.
Balancing these two demands — timeliness and accuracy — has confounded schools across the country.
Some schools, however, specialize in weaving the subject into a broader curriculum and are providing students with robust educations.
For example, Common Ground High School in New Haven, Connecticut, is a charter school that “integrates conservation, sustainability, and environmental studies into the curriculum and across disciplines.” It’s part of a pioneering movement that connects every subject to the environment to emphasize how interconnected the consequences of climate change are.
“That idea of a ‘holistic understanding of climate change’ allows me, as a history teacher, to bring in the social justice aspect of climate change and how those changes show up and affect the most vulnerable members of our global society,” Brian Kelahan, a global studies teacher at Common Ground, told Global Citizen.
“It allows me to present climate change as not just a scientific issue, but as a justice issue and high school students are more engaged and interested if they believe there is an injustice involved,” he said. “In addition, they are captivated by the challenge of thinking about what they can do to solve this problem.”
The school has an urban farm that shows students the principles of sustainable food management and classes regularly head out into nature to conduct studies of the environment.
Common Ground High School farm
“The students attending Common Ground live in a coastal community where sea level rise is impacting homes and businesses right where they live,” said Michelle Eckman, Education Director at Connecticut Audubon, which works with Common Ground.
“A number of Common Ground students participated in a community volunteer effort to help restore the coastline of Far Rockaways in Queens, NY, three years after Superstorm Sandy,” she said.
“Students were able to see firsthand the destruction caused by this storm [and they] learned about how lower income residents were more impacted within a mile of higher income residents who lived in more protected homes.”
Common Ground finds a way to bring climate change into all subjects — writers and artists collect stories that make the challenges seem real and approachable, math students devise formulas to reduce personal eco-footprints, science and history students team up for social justice mentorship programs.
Students in Kelahan’s class Skyped with students in a small island village in Alaska who described how their island was disappearing because of rising sea levels. For the students in New Haven, this exchange was a powerful reminder that climate change is not an abstract phenomenon, but has a very real, and very urgent, impact on people’s lives.
This is a school on the frontier of climate education, preparing, as Tolman said, the next generation of environmental leaders. And while the model isn’t feasible for all schools, integrating climate change into the curriculum shouldn’t just be the realm of specialty schools.
One public school teacher doing all he can to empower his students is Christopher Tait, the head of the science department at New Fairfield High School in Connecticut.
“I have a tremendous sense of urgency around climate change education,” Tait, who teaches AP environmental science, told Global Citizen. “I think the way students interact with the subject matter makes all the difference.”
“Climate change is a major topic within the curriculum,” he said. “I try to have students learn the drivers of climate and the impacts humans are having on the system without creating a sense of despair. We work to understand the science and look for opportunities for solving the issue. This issue is one of the defining issues facing our students today.”
“[One] challenge faced is the amount of content that is expected for a high school student to master,” he said. “Most classes can only hit upon climate change as it relates to other topics. Unless a student takes an environmental science course where climate change is 10% to 15% of the curriculum, they don't get a full picture of the issue.”
Not all teachers actively incorporate climate change into the curriculum. Sometimes unfamiliarity with the subject gets in the way, other times there’s resistance in the community.
In Portland, Oregon, an effort to modernize textbooks with information about climate change faced community backlash that almost dead-ended the project. This kind of sabotage is uncommon, but it can make the introduction of climate change a headache for educators, and lesser forms of obstruction occur regularly.
A 2011 poll by the National Science Teachers Association found that 82 percent of teachers encountered skepticism about climate change from students, and 54 percent had faced skepticism from parents.
The good news is that the majority of teachers are open to training programs that would better prepare them to effectively teach the subject and navigate potential pushback. Standardizing and making such programs available is a different story.
“We approach this initially as just teaching the science,” said Boesch. “So they understand the greenhouse gas effects, the CO2 concentration and that it would be obvious that the Earth would warm [under current circumstances].”
“We’re also trying to get the teachers to let the students understand that we have choices as a society, as individuals in your own lifestyle,” he said. “So the students can think through the process, and look at the choices, and see that with each choice there are consequences."
Boesch is currently working with the National Science Foundation to revamp science education in Delaware and Maryland. The program will help teachers learn how to explain concepts and what to focus on, and provide them with the resources they need to be effective.
“The idea is that we need to teach students science in different ways, promoting critical thinking, promoting debate and argument, but also increasing the understanding across the silos,” Boesch said.
For now, teachers without better support in their school districts have to be resourceful when it comes to bringing climate change into the classroom. There are numerous online resources that teachers can access as they wait for textbooks to catch up.
NASA, for example, has easy-to-incorporate lesson plans for all grade levels for most aspects of climate change.
The National Center for Science Education has a “Climate Change 101” database for educators unfamiliar with core concepts, holds regular webinars on best practices, and allows teachers to work together and crowdsource.
And then there’s the media, which churns out reams of easily understandable information on climate change every day. The New York Times even has a resource center for learning how to approach climate change education.
All students will have to contend with climate change in the future and teachers everywhere have a responsibility to give their students a foundational understanding of the issues.
“This is all such a work in progress,” Tolman, of the Common Ground school, said. “There's so much more we can do, so many more opportunities to integrate climate justice and climate change into all parts of our curriculum.
“We don't see ourselves so much as a model, as a catalyst,” he said. “We want to find other schools who share this purpose, and work with them to grow that new, racially and economically diverse generation of environmental leaders that we need.”