In Legislation to Support Climate Change Education, Symbolism is Not Enough by Glenn Branch

It’s a perfect storm. No fewer than fifteen measures to support climate change education in the public schools have been introduced in the statehouses of ten states so far in 2020. Why? Perhaps legislators are beginning to heed public opinion. A large majority of registered voters — 79 percent — agree that schools should teach children about global warming, including its causes and consequences,¬† according to the latest national survey from the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication.

Such legislative support for climate change education is welcome, especially considering that in recent years proposals aimed at undermining climate change education have been introduced in state after state — even in a solidly blue state like Connecticut in 2019. No such measures have surfaced in 2020 yet, although the Idaho House Education Committee recently voted, for the fourth year running, to repeal the state science education standards there, partly in reaction to their inclusion of climate change.

These measures to support climate change education take a variety of forms: revising the state science standards (as in Arizona), demanding the development of a model curriculum on climate change (as in New York), mandating a certain number of classroom hours devoted to climate education (as in New Hampshire), requiring high school students to study climate change to graduate from high school (as in California), or simply encouraging educators in the state to teach climate change (as in Rhode Island).

Clearly there is a need to improve climate change education. A national survey of public middle and high school science educators conducted in 2014-2015 by the National Center for Science Education and researchers at Penn State found that only a slim majority — 54 percent — was presenting the scientific consensus on climate change to their students, while a sizeable minority — 41 percent — was emphasizing the scientifically unwarranted idea that natural causes are responsible for global warming.

So the intention behind these measures is commendable. But not all of their sponsors seem to have come to grips with the practical issues of improving climate change education in the public schools. In particular, science educators are seldom adequately prepared to teach climate change as it is understood by the scientific community. More than half of the teachers in the 2014-2015 survey reported not having received any formal instruction on climate change  themselves, either before or after becoming teachers.

The solution to the problem is obvious: ensure that science teachers are equipped to teach climate change effectively. Accordingly, the National Science Teaching Association, in its recent position statement on the teaching of climate science, emphasizes the necessity not only of teaching climate change but also of supporting teachers in doing so, calling on educational leaders to ensure that teachers have “adequate time, guidance, and resources to learn about climate science.”

That’s why two pairs of bills — House Bill 1496 and Senate Bill 5576 in Washington and Assembly Bill 9831 and Senate Bill 6837 in New York — are especially praiseworthy. These bills would directly improve the quality of climate change education by funding programs to increase the scientific knowledge and pedagogical knowhow of teachers. (A similar bill was enacted in Washington in 2018.) The sponsors of these bills aren’t merely paying lip service to the goal of improving climate change education: they’re putting their money where their mouth is.

In the justification accompanying the New York bills, their sponsors explained, “This bill will improve climate literacy for students by supporting the development of climate education programs in schools. Additionally, the bill recognizes our teachers also deserve support … with the needed tools and resources to bring climate change education to their classrooms.” They added, “By incorporating climate change education into the curriculum, children will be better prepared for the future they are inheriting.”

Preparing children for the future is the responsibility of all of us, of course. We delegate part of that responsibility to the elected representatives in state legislatures, on state boards of education, and on local school boards, who govern the public education system. But we remain responsible for monitoring their performance — and rewarding them for their successes or punishing them for their failures on Election Day. Increasingly, they will be judged by their success or failure in equipping today’s children to flourish in tomorrow’s warming world.


Glenn Branch is deputy director of the National Center for Science Education.

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