How Teachers Could Be Raising A Generation Of Climate Change Deniers

When teachers believe that climate change isn't real their students tend to adopt those beliefs, study finds

Graffiti art is seen on a wall next to the Regent's Canal in London — (REUTERS)
Sep 07, 2016 at 2:00 PM ET

Virtually every climate scientist in the world believes that climate change is real and caused by human activities, but one in three high school and middle school teachers beg to differ. That’s obviously disappointing — these are the people entrusted with molding young minds — but until recently it was unclear whether these teachers and their opinions were in fact harming students.

Now, a new study in PLoS One demonstrates that middle school students tend to share their teachers’ beliefs about whether or not climate change is happening — but are not necessarily beholden to their specific opinions on why it could be happening, if they believe it is.

As to whether teacher opinions directly affect student opinions on climate change, “The answer is yes and no,” said coauthor Kathryn Stevenson of North Carolina State University, in a statement. “While students generally mirror a teacher’s belief that global warming is happening, when it comes to the cause of climate change, students reason for themselves and reach different conclusions than their teachers do.”

More A Third Of Teachers Are Teaching Climate Change “Controversy”

Thanks to climate change our planet is rapidly warming, ocean levels are rising, dangerous weather patterns are becoming commonplace, and rare species are dying out. Our best hope for a better future is a scientifically literate electorate: high school graduates who, at the very least, recognize that climate change is real and that human activities cause it. But a recent study found that most high school teachers devote barely two hours to climate science, and that one in three elect to “teach the controversy” surrounding climate change — even though no such controversy exists.

On the heels of this research, Stevenson and her team compiled a list of all 353 middle school science teachers in North Carolina and randomly selected 150 for their study. After 114 of these teachers declined to participate in the study (or were prevented from participating by their school districts) those remaining were asked to randomly select a class by flipping a coin. Then the researchers visited each classroom and interviewed the 24 teachers and their 369 students.

Stevenson and her colleagues did not directly ask how climate change was taught in these classrooms. Instead, they asked each teacher and student about his or her private beliefs regarding climate change — namely, whether global warming is real and whether it is caused by human activities. The good news is that 92 percent of teachers said they believe that climate change is happening. The bad news? Only 12 percent said they believe that it’s caused by human activities.

But how did these beliefs affect the students? The researchers found that middle school students more or less followed their teachers’ leads when it came to belief in climate change, but that they appeared to draw their own conclusions regarding the causes of climate change. In this sample, that proved to be a good thing — 82 percent students said they believed climate change was happening and a full 30 percent told researchers that they assumed it was caused by humans.

“Research suggests that individuals are more receptive to climate change communication from trusted messengers, and our results support findings suggesting that teachers are among the trusted messengers for adolescents,” the authors write. “Teachers are more polarized on the causes of global warming, but encouragingly, our results suggest that these beliefs do not transfer to students.”

Stevenson suggests that policymakers could use this information to re-channel efforts to ensure that science teachers stay on message. Because convincing middle school teachers that climate change is happening isn’t nearly as difficult as convincing them that it’s caused by humans (at this point, even many climate change deniers admit that the planet is getting warmer). And since students will draw their own conclusions about the causes of climate change anyway, we can focus on a significantly lower bar — ensuring that all science teachers at least believe that climate change is real.

“Convincing teachers that climate change is real, but not necessarily human caused, may have profound impacts on students,” the authors write. “It is possible that if teachers are effective messengers of the reality of climate change, students are able to distill its anthropogenic [human] causes even when teachers do not believe in anthropogenic [human] causes.”