After nearly two decades of climate change research, over 95% of climate scientists have independently concluded with confidence that human-caused climate change is occurring. Despite this overwhelming degree of scientific consensus, only 57% of Americans see scientists as generally in agreement that the earth is getting warmer due to human activity. Evidently, personal conclusions about the changing climate impact peoples’ assessment of this scientific consensus.
A study published in Science earlier this month showed that even though 98% of science teachers personally believe that climate change is happening, only 30% of middle school and 45% of high school teachers are aware of the scientific consensus that climate change is human-caused. This is a problem because 31% of teachers that do teach their students about the changing climate choose to teach “both sides” (anthropogenic vs. natural causes), and this gives students the impression that there is still a debate among climate scientists.
Markedly, advances in climate science have surpassed textbooks and teachers’ training. Less than half of U.S. biology teachers have received formal climate science instruction in college. Even though 3 out of 4 teachers in the U.S. teach at least an hour of climate science in their curriculum, about 50% of these teachers prioritize one or more unrelated topics of climate change rather than discuss a wide range of evidence. Two-thirds of teachers would welcome continuing education focused on climate change. This education must be focused on content knowledge of a wide range of climate change evidence (e.g., CO2 measurements from ice cores and at Mauna Loa) rather than separate topics (e.g., pesticides, ozone). Continuing education must also clearly distinguish what is scientifically uncertain (e.g., rate of sea level rise) from what is well supported (e.g., sea levels have risen and are rising quicker due to human causes).
In addition to content knowledge, the study found that political ideology also plays an important role in how teachers approach climate change in their classrooms. Some teachers, mainly political conservatives, reject sound scientific conclusions due to their value commitments. Because of this, continuing education efforts should draw on scientific research and address conflicts between values and the science to promote climate science literacy.
Teachers must stop teaching the false debate of climate change and instead educate students about the consensus on human-caused climate change. Using sound science rather than political ideology is imperative in communicating one of the world’s most serious threats. Properly educating the public on human-caused climate change consensus will help build public support for policies and actions that slow global warming.
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