Climate Skepticism and Schools?

A few days ago, my wife emailed me a piece from PBS about the state of climate change education in K-12 classes:

Dueling Books Compete to Educate Kids on Climate Change:

The group that mailed books and DVDs arguing that global warming isn’t real to science teachers around the country last year is redoubling its efforts: It plans to publish and distribute a new book — this one aimed at both teachers and students — in the coming months.

But this time, teachers looking for alternative resources will find far more options available than they did just last year: At least three books about how to teach human-caused climate change to middle- and high-school science students will be published by early next year.

The dueling education campaigns are the latest sign of the extent to which children’s understanding of climate change is seen as up for grabs — a fight FRONTLINE and The GroundTruth Project have been reporting on over the past year.

“The public school science classroom is where the majority of U.S. citizens will get any formal instruction on climate science — if they get any at all,” said Glenn Branch, deputy director of the National Center for Science Education. “So it makes sense that classrooms would be a battleground for those who want climate change to be taught — and those who want it to be mis-taught.”

A 2016 nationwide survey of 1,500 public school science teachers found that 31 percent reported they teach that causes of climate change are up for debate, 10 percent teach that humans have no major role in climate change and 5 percent avoid the topic. Less than half of middle-school and high-school teachers reported they understood that scientists are in consensus that humans are causing climate change.

Last year, the Heartland Institute, a libertarian think tank that has dedicated itself for more than a decade to opposing action on climate change, said it mailed more than 200,000 copies of a book titled Why Scientists Disagree About Global Warming and an accompanying DVD to science teachers; the material was criticized by climate scientists for misrepresenting climate research and manipulating data. Democrats in the U.S. House of Representatives decried the campaign, and Democratic senators questioned Education Secretary Betsy DeVos.

Now, Heartland senior fellow James Taylor says he is editing a new “global warming guide” that presents “brief summaries of global warming topics.” Details about the Heartland book are still scarce — Taylor did not provide its title, and the distribution plan for the new book is not yet finalized, though Taylor said another mass mailing campaign is under consideration. The initial book they mailed out was for a general audience; this will be aimed specifically at educators and students, he said.

The article continues to list denier publications that will put our schools, our children, and our future voters in greater educational peril than they are in already. It will likely be left to politicians to mandate the books used by schools under their jurisdiction, specifically those that are dependent upon them for manpower and budgets. We don’t have a constitutional separation of State and schools.

I will follow these new denier books and the marketing campaigns of their politically divergent publishers as they come out.

I have been teaching climate change at a university for many years now, offering both general education classes and more specialized advanced courses. I have come to believe that education of the voting public (or more accurately, those eligible to vote) is probably the most promising tool for effective mitigation and prevention of the collective disaster of further climate change. The potential fallout from our continued ignorance is immense.

This blog, which I use as a supplement for my classes, started as a direct consequence of my wish to have some impact on the issue. I have discussed the importance of educating students on all levels several times here (see the March 4March 25, 2013 blogs on educational transition, the June 14, 2016 blog on education in the Anthropocene, or search for “education” in the box above).

I have yet to do any in-depth research on where we stand in training our future teachers (and retraining our working teachers) to cover climate change. My emphasis up until now has been on the necessity of multidisciplinary training but the PBS article has convinced me we need more than that. We need database-anchored training, independent of conclusions drawn by others, regardless of their notoriety or political affiliations.

Agencies and societies that deal directly with climate change are also realizing the need for teacher training on this issue. Good examples are NASA and the American Meteorological Society. Hopefully they are just the start of a much larger movement.

I will try to contact the School of Education within my university and see what can we do. Meanwhile, keep pushing and have a happy Thanksgiving.

About climatechangefork

Micha Tomkiewicz, Ph.D., is a professor of physics in the Department of Physics, Brooklyn College, the City University of New York. He is also a professor of physics and chemistry in the School for Graduate Studies of the City University of New York. In addition, he is the founding-director of the Environmental Studies Program at Brooklyn College as well as director of the Electrochemistry Institute at that same institution.
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