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Getting Climate Studies Into Schools

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Credit…Photo Illustration by The New York Times; Shutterstock

It’s back-to-school season. Kind of. Whether children are studying at home or in person, though, they might not be learning much about the climate.

Only 36 states and the District of Columbia include the reality of human-caused climate change in their regulations that outline what students should learn. The rest reference the human role as a possibility or a matter of scientific debate, or omit it entirely.

Even when climate change is on the syllabus, its coverage isn’t necessarily comprehensive.

According to a 2016 study from the National Center for Science Education, 71 percent of middle- and high-school science teachers spent one or more classes on climate change. Of those teachers, the median amount of time they devoted was just 1.5 class hours per school year. The topic is covered most frequently in earth science, which only 7 percent of high schoolers take. Among teachers of all subjects, fewer than half say they’ve ever addressed the issue.

If you’d like your school to focus more on climate change, Glenn Branch, deputy director of the center, warns “it’s complicated.” That’s because the American education system is highly decentralized. Districts and schools base their curriculums on state standards; teachers base lesson plans upon district curriculums.

With so many cooks in the kitchen, it’s hard to know where to start.

Mr. Branch recommended approaching teachers first. He said some may lack the confidence to teach climate change, perhaps because they fear backlash from parents, or because they haven’t received enough climate education themselves.

Hearing from community members could motivate teachers to cover climate change or seek training, Mr. Branch said. He also suggested focusing on funding for climate-related professional development, instructional materials or field trips, possibly through a parent-teacher organization.

Taking it a step further, you could try to amend your district’s curriculum, as organizers did in Portland (their lessons are shared here) and Oakland.

Erin Ahlich, 19, was part of the student group behind the Oakland initiative. With the help of the local Sierra Club, which offers organizing resources on its website, the group pushed through a resolution that integrates climate literacy into the curriculums of all Oakland public schools.

Looking back, Ms. Ahlich said the group’s “most impactful” action was attending school board meetings, where she and her peers gave speeches and presented signed petitions. Ms. Ahlich met personally with board members to address their concerns as well.

Also crucial, Ms. Ahlich said, was creating an implementation plan: Rather than vague demands, the group shared ways to teach climate change at different levels, from the scientific basics to the ethical and human rights implications.

Thinking bigger? If you’d like to see climate education required statewide, Mr. Branch suggested contacting your representatives. He also advised connecting with your state’s science teachers’ association, as it’ll quite likely be involved in the revision of state standards. Just note that, since revisions generally occur every five to seven years, you’ll need to be in it for the long haul.

Whether it takes one year or seven, Ms. Ahlich said, it’s worth the fight. “If people were more educated on these facts,” she said, “they would realize now is the time to make a difference.”


Credit…Ka Young Lee

This week, we published a mini-quiz to help readers get a better sense of their everyday contributions to climate change. It’s surprisingly challenging.

That’s partly because people tend to rely on what they see in their daily lives to make decisions, but their perceptions can be skewed. Psychologists have been studying this phenomenon for decades.

In an important 1979 study, for example, a group of researchers surveyed college students in the United States about common causes of death. In the study, respondents thought roughly the same number of people died each year from accidents as from diseases. At the time, diseases actually killed 15 times as many people.

The researchers theorized that people thought accidents were more common causes of death mainly because people talked about them more and saw them more frequently on the news.

That same bias can be observed in just about any subject, including climate change. For carbon dioxide emissions, people might overestimate the benefits of turning off lights, which are visible markers of energy use, and overlook less-visible sources of planet-warming emissions, like beef or jet fuel.

Here’s why it all matters: Overcoming our misconceptions is important because the decisions we make now about climate change, collectively, can make a difference for the future.

Make no mistake. Reducing carbon dioxide emissions to curb climate change will require sweeping policy changes on the government level and an overhaul of the world’s energy grids. But lifestyle changes matter, too, and some are much more significant than others.

If you haven’t taken our quiz yet, please give it a try. Some of the answers might surprise you.

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