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Why Climate Change Isn't Taught: Problems and Solutions

Teaching about the science of climate change, both in formal and in informal education, is necessary in order for future citizens to be able to make scientifically informed decisions about the consequences of climate change. Yet climate is often absent from the public school science classroom. There are various reasons for its absence — and, correspondingly, there are different solutions.

Classroom: Source: NRELClassroom: Source: NREL
  • Climate change deniers undermine the teaching of climate change. Climate change denial is already threatening to harm the integrity of science education in formal and informal education settings, as explained elsewhere. The solution: for local citizens to work together to defend climate change education in their own communities.
  • Educators are unprepared to teach climate change. Science educators often have not learned the relevant science or assimilated the relevant pedagogy, which have been neglected in both pre-service teacher education and in-service professional development. Part of the solution: the increasing number of high-quality scientific and pedagogical resources for teaching climate change.
  • Educators worry about overwhelming or depressing students. Climate change is not a cheerful topic, and science educators are often concerned about provoking emotions such as fear, grief, and hopelessness in their students. Part of the solution: improving and reinforcing climate change education by making climate change relevant to students — making it local, human, pervasive, and hopeful.
  • There is no room in the science curriculum for climate. Due to the traditional biology-chemistry-physics sequence of science education in the United States, courses in earth sciences, atmospheric sciences, ocean sciences, and environmental sciences — where the topic of climate change arises naturally — are often omitted or scanted. The solution: raising expectations so that climate science will be included as necessary components throughout science education curricula.
  • Climate change is underemphasized. Even in courses in environmental sciences, the topic of climate change is sometimes neglected, and the details of the science — which are often complex and interdisciplinary — are not conveyed. The solution: support efforts to emphasize climate change in courses, textbooks, and state science standards in earth sciences, atmospheric sciences, ocean sciences, and environmental sciences.
  • There is no room in existing science classes for climate. If it’s not feasible to have a course in which the topic of climate change arises naturally, it may seem difficult to find a place to discuss it in the science classroom. The solution: incorporate a discussion of climate at appropriate points within biology, chemistry, and physics classes: e.g., by discussing ecozones in biology, the carbon cycle in chemistry, how CO2 absorbs infrared energy in physics.
  • Climate change is not adequately covered in state science standards. The treatment of climate change in state science standards varies widely, from the abject to the excellent. Even in the excellent there is room for improvement. The solution: improve the treatment of climate change in state standards. The new national standards to be based on A Framework for K-12 Science Education are expected to provide a model.
  • Society as a whole is still “in denial” about climate change. We have not yet come to terms with the reality of climate change, and a consequence is that we have not taken sufficient steps to ensure that students learn the climate science they need to learn to make scientifically informed decisions in the future. Part of the solution: understand the obstacles to translating acceptance of climate change to action and develop effective strategies for overcoming them.