A Third Of Teachers Are Teaching Climate Change “Controversy”

Study reveals one in three high school and middle school teachers still bring climate change denial into the classroom

Study: 60% of American teachers don't know why there's smog in China — (REUTERS)
Feb 12, 2016 at 12:18 PM ET

There’s a scientific consensus that climate change is real. Our planet is rapidly warming, ocean levels are rising and the major cause of this disaster is human beings. But convincing high school and middle school teachers, the people who are paid to tell young adults the truth about science, is proving to be an uphill battle according to a disturbing new study published in the journal Science.

“At least one in three teachers bring climate change denial into the classroom,” said Josh Rosenau, programs and policy director of the National Center For Science Education and coauthor on the study, in a press statement. “Worse, half of the surveyed teachers have allowed students to discuss the supposed ‘controversy’ over climate change without guiding students to the scientifically supported conclusion.” Nearly 60 percent of teachers, Rosenau adds, aren’t even aware that there’s a scientific consensus about climate change.

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The United States desperately needs to produce high school graduates who, at the very least, know that climate change is real. But after reviewing a commercial database of 3.9 million teachers (and personally speaking with 1,500 randomly selected teachers from all U.S. states) researchers found that teachers tend to devote barely two hours to climate change—far less than what leading science and education bodies recommend. But given the messages that a lot of these students are getting during those brief sessions in science class, perhaps less climate education would have been preferable.

For instance, the scientists behind the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change are more than 90 percent certain that carbon emissions from human activities have caused, “most of the observed increase in globally averaged temperatures since the mid-20th century,” but some 30 percent of middle school and high school teachers (who, we’re guessing, were not invited to that particular panel) disagree. They tell their students that global warming is “likely due to natural causes,” while 12 percent of these teachers prefer not to even discuss the possibility of humans causing climate change. And roughly 31 percent of teachers report that they “teach the controversy”—which should be as terrifying as “teaching the controversy” about whether HIV causes AIDS or whether vaccines cause autism or whether lizard people are invading America.

There is still hope, however. The vast majority of teachers surveyed expressed interest in professional development and in learning more about how to teach climate change. And fortunately, most of them were not intentionally bringing misinformation into their classrooms—more than half didn’t even know that there was a scientific consensus, let alone one that they disagreed with.

But good intentions are not enough, and ignorance is no excuse for sloppy teaching. Inland flooding due to climate change threatens to displace millions, while extreme weather patterns and other evils of climate change threaten to kill as many if we don’t curb our emissions. With the stakes this high, we simply cannot afford to have ill-informed individuals teaching science.