U.S. science teachers are offering mixed messages on climate change.

Is Climate Change Real? Don’t Ask Most of America’s Science Teachers.

Is Climate Change Real? Don’t Ask Most of America’s Science Teachers.

With Columbia Journalism School’s Teacher Project.
Feb. 12 2016 11:41 AM

Is Climate Change Real? Don’t Ask Most of America’s Science Teachers.

Who's responsible for the melting ice caps? Anyone? Anyone?


So, assuming that we’re not on the stage of a GOP debate, most of us can agree that climate change is a fact-based, human-caused phenomenon, right? A commanding 95 percent of climate scientists certainly think so, but—alas—the majority of U.S. science teachers are only providing students with at best cursory and at worst contradictory instruction on the topic, according to a report published Friday in the academic journal Science.

The report, culled from surveys of teachers at 1,500 schools in all 50 states, found that, while most science teachers do devote time to climate change, it’s usually minimal—about 1 to 2 hours a year. And, more worrying, the information they do deliver, particularly about the widely agreed upon causes of global warming, tends to be muddled or even outright inaccurate. To wit:

Notably, 30% of teachers emphasize that recent global warming “is likely due to natural causes,” and 12% do not emphasize human causes (half of whom do not emphasize any explanation and thereby avoid the topic altogether). Of teachers who teach climate change, 31% report sending explicitly contradictory messages, emphasizing both the scientific consensus that recent global warming is due to human activity and that many scientists believe recent increases in temperature are due to natural causes.

The problem here doesn’t seem to be explicitly political: Only 4.4 percent of teachers reported pressure not to teach climate change (and only 2 percent denied the phenomenon altogether), compared to 6.1 who were pressured to teach it. It’s more an issue of insufficient training and incomplete knowledge, since many of the surveyed teachers were simply “unaware of the extent of scientific agreement” on the causes of global warming. The result is that

[W]hen asked “what proportion of climate scientists think that global warming is caused mostly by human activities?”—only 30% of middle-school and 45% of high-school science teachers selected the correct option of “81 to 100%.”

Since the widespread scientific consensus on climate change often postdates current teachers’ undergraduate careers, many of them never received formal instruction on the topic themselves. And the obvious remedy—teach your teachers well, so that they can teach the students—is easier said than done at a time in our history when “[r]ejection of sound scientific conclusions is often rooted in value commitments rather than ignorance.” Or, as in so much in this country, a heady mixture of both.