America's School Teachers Are Confused About Climate Change

Nearly a third offered students the flawed mixed message that modern warming is caused by both humans and natural temperature shifts.

Image AP Photo/Thibault Camus, Pool
Ice has retreated by more than half a mile since 1931 at Iceland's Solheimajokull glacier, shown on October 16, 2015. (AP Photo/Thibault Camus, Pool)

Any concerted effort to fight climate change requires a strong public consensus that people are the primary cause of the problem, but many Americans aren’t so sure that’s the case. In one recent poll of 20 countries, the U.S. was the least likely to agree that modern climate change is “largely the result of human activity,” at just 54 percent. That’s well below the poll’s world average of 76 percent and way below the 95 percent (or more) of scientists who attribute warming to we the people.

An informed media could help correct the misperception that recent global warming is just a natural occurrence (or, worse, nonexistent). But given the topic’s partisan grip in the U.S., with many conservatives unlikely to trust mainstream news outlets, early education has a huge role to play, too. That’s a problem, according to a new study in the journal Science, because many middle- and high-school teachers are confused about climate change themselves.

“Without strong training in college, many teachers get information in a highly contested political environment,” the political scientist and study co-author Eric Plutzer of Penn State tells CityLab via email. “It is easy to get the false impression that the most important conclusions of climate science are tentative and debated by scientists.”

Plutzer and collaborators conducted what they call the “first nationally representative survey of science teachers focused on climate change.” During the 2014-15 academic year they collected data on lesson plans and personal views from 1,500 middle- and high-school science teachers across the country. Every U.S. state was represented in the sample, which captured a range of school sizes, socioeconomic status, and local economics and politics.

The researchers found that most teachers devoted only about an hour or two of class time to climate change. “As important as climate change is, it is not required to be taught extensively,” says Plutzer. But the quality of that education was often as poor as the quantity: only 54 percent of teachers emphasized the consensus view among scientists that modern warming is the result of human activity and not likely due to natural causes.

Instead, a considerable share of teachers (roughly 31 percent) offered students the mixed message that current climate change is caused by both humans releasing greenhouse gases and natural shifts in temperature. The survey found that one in 10 teachers denied the human source of global warming in the classroom—only telling students that it’s the result of nature. Another 5 percent offered no causal explanation for climate change at all.

A key problem, according to the researchers, is that teachers themselves seem to be “unaware of the extent of scientific agreement.” When asked to choose the correct share of scientific consensus on the human source of climate change, only 30 percent of middle-school and 45 percent of high-school teachers picked the right answer: “81 to 100%.” Yet more worrisome: even among teachers who personally agreed that warming has been caused mostly by people, only a slight majority (52 percent) got the question right.

It’s no wonder so many teachers offer a mixed message, write Plutzer and company:

If a majority of science teachers believe that more than 20% of climate scientist disagree that human activities are the primary cause, it is understandable that many would teach “both sides,” by conveying to students that there is legitimate scientific debate instead of deep consensus.

Continuing education programs could help those teachers who truly don’t know the state of climate consensus. But the survey found that ideological values mattered as much as ignorance: teachers who agreed that “It’s not the government’s business to protect people from themselves” were most likely to tell students that warming came from both human and natural causes. To the extent that such personal views infect climate facts, educating the educators wouldn’t always lead to better lessons.

“All of us interpret information through the lens of the values we hold,” says Plutzer. “In the case of climate science, some people's reaction to school lessons or documentaries is defensive—they feel like they are being made to feel guilty for driving an SUV, perhaps, or they are suspicious that reporting of the science is slanted in order to advance a particular political agenda. When that is the case, simply providing information may not be enough.”

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