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Do Teachers Shape Kids’ Beliefs About Climate Change?

Teachers don’t have much influence when it comes to the causes of climate change—but that might be a good thing.

By Nathan Collins


(Photo: Jean-Christophe Verhaegen/AFP/Getty Images)

As the discussion around climate change shifts from theoretical predictions to real consequences, there remains a gap between the scientific community and the general public: While the vast majority of scientists believe humans are responsible for our warming planet, around one-third of Americans disagree. Now, researchers have asked whether teachers could do something to change that, and the answer is, well, yes and no: Teachers’ beliefs about the existence of climate change influence their students, but their beliefs about the causes of climate change do not.

“Our findings suggest convincing teachers that climate change is real, but not necessarily human caused, may have profound impacts on students,” North Carolina State University biologists Kathryn Stevenson, Nils Peterson, and Amy Bradshaw write in PLoS One.

For their study, Stevenson, Peterson, and Bradshaw focused on schools in coastal North Carolina, an area likely to be hard hit by the rising sea levels associated with climate change.Ultimately, 24 teachers in the region agreed to participate in the research, and the study authors surveyed not only the teachers, but also 369 sixth-, seventh-, and eighth-graders about their knowledge of—and beliefs about—climate change.

Only 12 percent of students had a teacher who thought climate change was real and believed humans were largely to blame.

Nine in 10 students had a teacher who believed climate change is indeed happening, although nearly all of those teachers thought a mix of human and natural causes was to blame. Only 12 percent of students had a teacher who thought climate change was real and believed humans were largely to blame. Eighty-two percent of students knew climate change was real, yet only 30 percent knew that humans were responsible.

The real question, however, is how much teachers’ beliefs affect their students. The answer: quite a lot, when it comes to believing in climate change. The study found that, for every increase of 10 percent in teachers’ confidence that climate change is indeed real, students’ confidence increased by an average of 2.4 percent. While that may not seem like a lot, teachers’ personal convictions had the same impact on students as did actual knowledge of climate change facts.

The flip side: Teachers’ beliefs about the causes of climate change had little discernible effect on students—in fact, hardly anything but kids’ own knowledge of climate change influenced whether they believed humans were responsible. (Curiously, there was some evidence that students were more likely to believe humans had caused climate change when teachers believed climate change is real, whether or not those teachers thought humans were the primary cause.)

The latter conclusions may have a silver lining, however. “Most teachers …believe that global warming is happening, and our results suggest that those beliefs may transfer to their students,” Stevenson, Peterson, and Bradshaw write. “Teachers are more polarized on the causes of global warming, but encouragingly, our results suggest that these beliefs do not transfer to students.”