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How teachers are getting it wrong on climate change

Credit: NOAA

major new survey of U.S. middle school and high school science teachers has found that across the country, a majority are teaching about climate change in their classrooms — but a significant percentage are also including incorrect ideas, such as the notion that today’s warming of the globe is a “natural” process.

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The study, published in Science Thursday by Eric Plutzer of Penn State University and a number of collaborators from Wright State University and the National Center for Science Education — which supports the teaching of evolution and climate change in schools — consisted of a mail survey of 1,500 teachers nationwide. They included both middle school science teachers and also high school biology, chemistry, physics and Earth sciences teachers, since it wasn’t entirely clear which classes might cover the subject (unlike evolution, which clearly belongs in biology class, climate change stretches across many disciplines).

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) released this video animation Jan. 20 2015, illustrating how warmer waters led to shrinking older ice. White indicates ice more than nine years old, whereas dark blue is ice created in the most recent winter. (Video: NOAA)

One of the most striking findings: 30 percent of teachers said in the survey that they tell students that the current warming “is likely due to natural causes” — contradicting major scientific assessments of the matter. Thirty-one percent of teachers also said that they include both the scientific consensus position — that global warming is human-caused — but then also a “natural causes” position that contradicts it, thus presenting “both sides,” in the study’s words.

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“We think any amount of legitimization of nonscientific perspectives sends a message to students that this may be a matter of opinion and values, and not one that can be adjudicated by evidence,” says Plutzer, who has also conducted research on the prevalence of the teaching of creationism and intelligent design in high school science classes.

The issues, says Plutzer, are “actually pretty comparable” in some respects, such as when teachers present the topic as “controversial” and air “both sides” rather than clearly guiding students to where the weight of evidence lies. When it comes to the teaching of climate change, Plutzer says, “the percentage of teachers giving mixed messages is somewhat less, but we also have a substantial number of teachers who are not covering the topic at all.”

Watch: The Paris climate change talks, explained in two minutes. (Video: Gillian Brockell/The Washington Post, Photo: Thibault Camus/The Washington Post)

The study also found that most teachers are unaware of the strength of the scientific consensus about the human causes of climate change. The survey asked them “what proportion of climate scientists think that global warming is caused mostly by human activities?” For middle school teachers, 30 percent chose the option “81 to 100%,” which the researchers identified as the correct answer. High school teachers were only a little better, at 45 percent.

In addition, many teachers seemed misinformed about the subject matter. When asked what they would include in their courses on climate change, almost half selected off-topic items like “pesticides, ozone layer, or impacts of rocket launches.”

Teachers themselves showed much skepticism in their personal beliefs, too — while just 2 percent were in total denial of climate change, around 30 percent either said they believed it came from natural causes or that natural and man-made causes were equal contributors.

But David Evans, the executive director of the National Science Teachers Association, said he actually found it positive that the study suggests that teachers were interrogating climate science on their own. He pointed out that even if teachers struggled when asked to state how many scientists support the scientific consensus, 68 percent themselves said that global warming is “mostly caused by human activities.”

“It seems to me that the teachers are actually evaluating the data, and drawing their own conclusions, rather than relying on somebody else’s opinion,” Evans said to the Post after reviewing the study. “I think that’s a really strong signal.”

Evans said that there are reasons to be “disappointed” about some of the study’s results, but added that this is a new subject for many teachers. He said he feels that teachers have a hunger to know more about climate science, something the research itself underscored in finding that teachers want continuing education on the subject.

“When we have climate scientists speak at our conferences, it’s standing room only,” Evans said.

A U.N. report released Monday in Japan said global warming is affecting food and water shortages, economic livelihoods and raising the risk of wars. (Video: Reuters)

Interestingly, just 4.4 percent of teachers in the study said they felt pressure to avoid teaching climate science from parents, school administrators, or others. The survey notes that in contrast, in the evolution wars, far more teachers tend to report feeling such pressure. Teachers who espoused conservative ideological beliefs about government’s role in people’s lives tended to be more likely to present an “on the one hand, on the other hand” version of the climate issue in class.

At the same time, though, the large majority of teachers said they were indeed bringing up climate change in class, despite its novelty as a topic in science classrooms. Seventy percent of middle school science teachers and 87 percent of high school biology teachers said they covered it for at least an hour.

But what they say in that hour is, it seems, the bigger issue. “Even if teachers aren’t being pressured overtly, they’ve picked up this idea that climate change, they have to handle it differently than they would handle other scientific ideas in their classrooms,” says Joshua Rosenau, one of the study’s co-authors and an evolutionary biologist with the National Center for Science Education.

Rosenau said that while he does believe that what’s happening here amounts to “misinforming kids,” he adds that “I’m hesitant to say that it’s teachers’ fault. There are teachers who are deeply motivated to misinform kids about climate change, but I think that that’s a really small fraction of what’s going on.”

For the most part, he emphasizes, it’s more about teachers conforming to what they feel are expectations within their communities, or themselves falling prey to rampant misinformation. It doesn’t help that this is a new subject to include in classes.

“The science is moving forward in ways that the education system has not caught them up with,” Rosenau says, noting that the average teacher is 40 years old, and so probably went to college in the 1990s, when the role of humans in climate change was much more disputed in the scientific world than it is today.

A key problem, Plutzer emphasizes, is how many teachers are presenting climate change as something to be debated in class.

“I think the message that students take away is that this is unsettled, that this is a matter of opinion and everyone is entitled to their opinion, and the details of evidence are not being presented in a way that is consistent with the scientific record,” he says.

More at Energy & Environment:

Why so many economists back Obama’s idea of a tax on oil

The Supreme Court could block Obama’s climate plans — but it can’t stop clean energy

It’s not just Flint: Poor communities across the U.S. live with ‘extreme’ polluters

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