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How American Teachers Are Miseducating Kids About Climate Change

A lot of U.S. secondary school teachers are skeptical of climate change—or wary of teaching it. The good news: Many of them are still persuadable.
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Students and families at the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C. (Photo: Woodley Wonderworks/Flickr)

Why are many Americans so reluctant to acknowledge the reality of climate change? Perhaps some of the trouble starts quite early.

A large portion of America's middle and high school science teachers teach inaccurate information about climate change, according to a survey published today in the journal Science. Many hold inaccurate beliefs themselves; others hedge on the issue, which can leave students confused. Still, there's a silver lining: Some of those teachers may be open to changing their minds, if they're presented with the right information in the right way, the results suggest.

First, a quick overview of the facts: The overwhelming scientific consensus says that the Earth is warming, mostly due to human activity, including our reliance on burning oil and coal for electricity and transportation. A recent Pew survey suggests that 87 percent of American scientists, including those in unrelated fields, think that global warming is real and caused by humans. Scientists within the field have compared their certainty about anthropogenic climate change to medical researchers' certainty that smoking causes lung cancer—95 percent, or about as close to 100 percent as science can get.

American science teachers, however, tend to see the issue differently.

In a nationally representative sample made up of 1,500 teachers from all 50 states, 30 percent reported teaching that global warming "is likely due to natural causes," as opposed to human activity. Twelve percent said they don't emphasize to their students that people are the main driver of climate change. Six percent avoid mentioning why climate change is happening at all.

Thirty-one percent of teachers "teach both sides": On the one hand, they tell kids there's a scientific consensus that climate change is caused by humans, and on the other that "many scientists" think climate change is due to natural causes. Confusing!

Fifteen percent of teachers believe global warming is due mostly to natural causes. Seventeen percent believe natural and human causes are equally important.

Not all the news is bad, though: Some of these teachers may be teachable. The survey's results suggest that some careful fixes could make climate-change education in the United States more accurate.

The survey found that teachers' personal beliefs about the reality of climate change are related to their beliefs about the extent of the consensus among scientists. A majority of teachers believe that at least 20 percent of scientists don't think climate change is caused by humans, which might explain some of their own skepticism. Maybe it would help to disseminate studies like that Pew poll.

Fewer than half of teachers said they had learned about global warming in college, but they're willing to get extra training. Two-thirds said they would be interested in continuing education classes entirely focused on climate change.

So, more information and education could be a fix. We'll need to make sure those classes are structured carefully, however. As this survey and others have found, what people believe about climate change is often more strongly related to their political leanings than to their education. In other words, simply hammering them with the truth won't work, and can, in fact, cause entrenchment. Luckily, there's good research out there about best practices for teaching science to people across ideologies.


"Catastrophic Consequences of Climate Change" is Pacific Standard's aggressive, year-long investigation into the devastating effects of climate change—and how scholars, legislators, and citizen-activists can help stave off its most dire consequences.