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Exploring New Paths: What’s Missing in How We Teach Climate Change?

For an increasingly frustrated adult population, a miraculous youth solution to climate change can seem like an ideal happy ending. With the rise of youth activists like Greta Thunberg, Vanessa Nakate, and Jamie Margolin, and organizations like Zero Hour, Sunrise Movement, and Fridays for Future, the youth movement has taken center stage. But for young people to fight against climate change, they need to learn about it. In the United States, despite attempts to include it in curricula across the country, there is no universal set of education standards that cover the topic of climate change.

Education is mentioned in most of the leading international plans and organizations dedicated to addressing climate change. Article 6 of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change focuses in a broad sense on climate education, entreating participating parties to “promote and facilitate at the national and, as appropriate, subregional and regional levels…the development and implementation of educational and public awareness programmes on climate change and its effects.” The Paris Agreement and the old Kyoto Protocol both also mention climate education and public awareness–but, as the U.S., under President Donald Trump, has officially begun proceedings to withdraw from the Paris Agreement, such educational provisions don’t apply.

The U.S. version of a climate change education plan is a lot less widespread and standardized, with most guidelines only being aimed at specific states or groups of states. K-12 education standards in the United States are typically determined on a state-by-state basis, but the discrepancies are also affected by the politically charged nature of the narrative around climate change. The Yale Program on Climate Change Communication found that in 22 out of 50 states, the number of people who believe climate change is caused primarily by humans is below 50%. While 77% of Americans believe global warming should be taught in schools, there is not yet a consensus on how and to what extent this teaching should take place.

The Next Generation Science Standards is an effort across 26 states to develop new and updated science education standards for public schools. These guidelines, created in 2013, were one of the first to officially recommend discussion of anthropogenic climate change in its curriculum. Similar to the widespread Common Core standards system, the NGSS are an optional set of standards, adopted on a state by state basis. The guidelines explicitly state that students should know that “human activities, such as the release of greenhouse gases from burning fossil fuels, are major factors in the current rise in Earth’s mean surface temperature (global warming), and that adaptation and mitigation efforts depend on a thorough understanding of both climate science and human behavior.” 

However, the NGSS has only been enacted by 20 states and the District of Columbia so far, which is a long way from a universal plan. The NGSS guidelines were also a compromise from an earlier draft-an earlier draft which had lent considerably more weight to climate change. These edits sparked frustration and outcry from some activists, who felt that climate change had been intentionally “buried” among other material in the new version. In fact, in the new version, the recommended time allotment for teachers to spend on climate change was cut down to a third of the original amount. 

Individual states’ recommendations for climate change education beyond inter-state standards have fallen prey to partisan battles as well. In Idaho in early 2017, lawmakers tried to erase climate change from the state’s recommended education standards, and faced public backlash that resulted in a revised set,including climate change discussion,being adopted in 2018. Yet, similarly to the NGSS standards, there was frustration among climate advocates that the revised standards were too “watered down” in order to satisfy lawmakers, and lacked the supporting materials needed to help teachers provide a full exploration of the subject.

On a closer level, the climate education teaching practices of individual schools and teachers vary widely. A study conducted in 2016 by the National Center for Science Education (NCSE) and Penn State University’s Survey Research Center, published in Science magazine, examined instruction on climate change in US public schools. After surveying 1,500 public school teachers, across all fifty U.S. states, the study found that while 90% of all public middle schools and 98% of public high schools in the US address climate change in some way, the quality and quantity of coverage varied widely.

The median amount of teachers spent only a few lessons, amounting to around 1-3 hours, on climate change over the course of a year. The depth and content of discussion varied widely, especially with regards to the causes of global warming. Some 12%of teachers specifically de-emphasized human causes of climate change, and 31% provided contradictory messages by emphasizing both the scientific consensus on anthropogenic climate change and the premise that some scientists believe global warming is due to natural causes.

So, what would an ideal climate education program look like? Educators would need to take into account the heavy emotional weight that climate discussions can sometimes hold. Beyond political conflict, presenting students with projections of a possibly disastrous future can be discouraging, and climate change education straddles a thin line between realism about the issues and intimidation away from them due to their severity. A future climate standards program might be able to combat this by exploring potential solutions and current activism efforts, while still being firm on the science and reality of anthropogenic climate change. And in the end, even if a universal standard doesn’t exist at the moment, rising interest and concern around climate change are likely to keep the problem as part of the conversation for a long time to come. 

Sources:

About the Next Generation Science Standards. (2014). Retrieved March 6, 2020, from https://ngss.nsta.org/about.aspx

Albeck-ripka, L. (2018, February 7). In Fight Over Science Education in Idaho, Lawmakers Move to Minimize Climate. Retrieved March 6, 2020, from https://www.nytimes.com/2018/02/07/climate/idaho-climate-change.html

Final Next Generation Science Standards Released. (2013). Retrieved March 6, 2020, from http://www.nextgenscience.org/news/final-next-generation-science-standards-released.

Goldenberg, S. (2013, April 9). Climate change included in US education guidelines for the first time. Retrieved March 6, 2020, from http://www.theguardian.com/environment/2013/apr/09/climate-change-us-science-teaching

Marlon, J. et al. (2019). Yale Climate Opinion Maps 2019. Retrieved March 6, 2020, from https://climatecommunication.yale.edu/visualizations-data/ycom-us/

Plutzer, E., et al. (2018). Climate Confusion among U.S. Teachers. Science, vol. 351, no. 6274, pp. 664–665., doi:10.1126/science.aab3907.

“What Is Education and Outreach? (2018) UNFCCC. Retrieved March 6, 2020, from unfccc.int/topics/education-and-outreach/the-big-picture/what-is-education-and-outreach

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