Americans want climate change taught in schools. Political parties aren’t so sure – Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists
Support for climate change education is strong across the political spectrum. In a 2021 survey, the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication found that a solid majority of Democrats, independents, and liberal and moderate Republicans somewhat or strongly agreed that schools should teach our children about the causes, consequences, and potential solutions to global warming. Even among conservative Republicans, nearly half, 46 percent, supported climate change education.
In light of the ongoing political polarization of public opinion in the United States, which notoriously extends even to the reality of climate change itself, such widespread support for climate change education is both surprising and gratifying. But it is natural to wonder whether America’s political parties reflect the public’s attitude. What—if anything—do political party platforms say about climate change education?
Even though the federal government is not directly involved in curriculum and instruction, the 2020 national Democratic platform expresses support for “K–12 instruction in … climate literacy.” The national Republican platform of 2016, readopted in 2020, is silent on the topic, although it attempts to impugn the scientific credibility of climate change, misdescribing the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change as “a political mechanism, not an unbiased scientific institution.”
At the state level, only two political party platforms contain statements hostile to climate change education: those of the Republican parties in Oklahoma and Texas. Perhaps not coincidentally, these states are among the top producers of fossil fuel energy, with Oklahoma third in natural gas production and Texas leading in both crude oil and natural gas production. And both rely on fossil fuels for at least 7 percent of their state and local tax revenues, according to a recent study by Resources for the Future.
The relevant plank in the Texas Republican party platform reads, in its entirety, “We support objective teaching of scientific theories, such as life origins [i.e., evolution] and climate change. These shall be taught as challengeable scientific theories subject to change as new data is produced. Teachers and students shall discuss the strengths and weaknesses of these theories openly, without fear of retribution or discrimination of any kind.”
What’s objectionable here is the insinuation that climate change (as well as evolution) is distinctively “challengeable” and likely to be taught dogmatically. With over 97 percent of climate scientists in agreement on the basics, climate change is as solid as any topic presented in K–12 science education. And Texas’s state science standards already provide adequate guidance to the state’s science teachers about presenting well-established scientific theories as reliable but in principle revisable.
A different, though equally wrongheaded, approach is represented by the relevant plank in the Oklahoma Republican party platform, which reads, in its entirety, “We oppose the teaching of the theory of anthropogenic global warming without providing equal time for instruction in the complex systems of geo-physics [sic] that cause observable climate change, such as solar variations, plate tectonics, and volcanic eruptions.”
Here the problem is a false antithesis. It’s because we understand the natural forces at work in the climate system that we are able to identify human activities—especially the release of greenhouse gases through the burning of fossil fuels—as responsible for the current, unprecedentedly rapid increase in average global temperature and the consequent changes to Earth’s climate. It’s not possible to teach about climate change properly without discussing both its natural and its anthropogenic causes.
The Sooner State, as it happens, is the only state in which the major political parties take opposing positions on climate change: the Oklahoma Democratic party platform supports climate change education, if only briefly and parenthetically. Similar, if not quite so terse, endorsements of climate change education appear in the platforms of the state Democratic parties in California, Massachusetts, Oregon, South Dakota, and Washington.
Why are such positions important for the quality of climate change education? Because education policymakers, whether elected or appointed, are immersed in partisan politics, and political party platform planks reflect the views of party leaders and loyalists. While state legislators, members of state boards of education, and superintendents of education are not strictly bound by their party platforms, they are surely susceptible to the same political influences that produce their planks.
Thus the legislatures of California and Washington—where Democrats enjoy solid majorities—have recently appropriated millions of dollars specifically for preparing their state’s public school science teachers to meet the demands of teaching climate change in accordance with the Next Generation Science Standards, which forthrightly acknowledge at the middle school level that human activities “are major factors in the current rise in Earth’s mean surface temperature.”
In contrast, a Republican majority on the Texas state board of education blocked attempts in 2021 to revise the state’s eighth-grade science standards to convey the fact that human activity is responsible for recent climate change, as Scientific American reported. Will Hickman, a member of the board who successfully urged the removal of a proposed requirement that students learn about effort to mitigate climate change, is not only a Republican but also a lawyer for Shell Oil.
Texas’s state science standards previously received the grade of F for their treatment of climate change in a 2020 study by the National Center for Science Education and the Texas Freedom Network Education Fund, and they have improved only slightly since. The effects of their inadequate treatment of climate change are not limited to Texas, since the content of textbooks used across the country is developed with attention to large markets, and Texas is the largest market for K–12 science textbooks.
Moreover, planks like those of the Republican parties of Oklahoma and Texas magnify the opposition to climate change education in those states, obscuring the presence of large minorities within those parties who recognize the need for climate change education. Even in ruby-red Oklahoma, for example, data from the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication and the electoral rolls imply that at least 43 percent of registered Republicans there are in favor of climate change education.
It is not unusual for party political platforms to diverge from the opinions of the rank and file, of course, and there is reason to hope for a generational correction. After spending time in Texas in 2017, Bob Inglis, a former Republican member of Congress who now advocates for free enterprise solutions to climate change, proclaimed, “Young conservatives will lead the GOP to action on climate change.” Embracing the need for climate change education would be a welcome step forward.
Today’s students are going to be tomorrow’s citizens, confronted for the rest of their lives with the challenges of mitigating and adapting to the disruptions caused by climate change. It is therefore imperative to equip them with the knowledge and knowhow they will need for the task. And that’s why it’s important to let politicians and policymakers everywhere know that a healthy majority of Americans support, expect, and demand climate change education.