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Addressing Doubt and Denial in the Classroom

Climate Change Denial: by Paula Spence for NCSE, 2012

Because climate change is a matter of social — although not scientific — controversy, it is important to be ready to address climate change doubt and denial in the classroom.

Science teachers have a responsibility to help their students understand, to the extent appropriate, the central methods and results of contemporary science. There is substantial scientific agreement around climate change: 97% of scientists who have published peer-reviewed scientific articles on climate change agree that humans have caused most of the increase in global temperature over the last 150 years (see Anderegg et al., “Expert credibility in climate change,” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences USA 2010). Science teachers thus have a responsibility to help their students understand climate change, the evidence for climate change, and the fact that the scientific community agrees that the evidence is convincing.

Science teachers should therefore:

  • be prepared, by understanding the content of climate science, using the most effective pedagogical methods for conveying it, and understanding the claims of climate change deniers
  • be ready to cite the consensus of the scientific community on the reality of climate change and the consensus of the science education community on the importance of climate change education
  • be respectful of student concerns (which are likely to reflect those of their parents or other trusted adults), while not engaging them in fruitless debate

By the same token, science teachers should not:

  • misrepresent the scientific consensus by suggesting that climate change is a matter of scientific controversy or by presenting “the other side” as though it were scientifically credible
  • conduct debates in class about whether climate change is happening (as opposed to issues about which there is a genuine scientific debate or policy issues that aren’t decidable by the science alone)
  • use or invite guest speakers to misrepresent climate science

If you are being pressured not to teach about climate change or to teach “both sides” by a parent, colleague, administrator, or anyone else, get in touch with NCSE and we may be able to help.

The primary focus of the science classroom is, of course, science. While it is not necessarily inappropriate, and may be useful, to discuss climate change denial in the classroom as a social controversy, it is important not to do so in such a way that hinders student understanding of the science by misrepresenting the scientific agreement around climate change.

Similarly, although it is not necessarily inappropriate, and is indeed clearly useful, to discuss climate policy issues — in particular, what, if anything, should be done to mitigate or adapt to climate change — in the science classroom, it is important not to do so in such a way that wrongly suggests that science on its own is capable of deciding such policy issues.

Climate Change Denial discusses doubt and denial in detail, and the links in Resources for Teaching and Learning about Climate Change provide more information especially useful for educators. Or continue to the next section, and find out how to go about making climate change relevant in the classroom.