Mixed messages can create hazy climate change understanding

Ice melt Northwestern Glacier Alaska
Northwestern Glacier. With few exceptions, glaciers around the world have retreated at unprecedented rates over the last century. Left: 1940 photo taken by unknown photographer Right: 2005 photo taken by Bruce F. Molnia. Courtesy of the Glacier Photograph Collection, National Snow and Ice Data Center/World Data Center for Glaciology.

If you gave a weather report on climate change, you would need to issue two forecasts. For climate scientists — at least 97 percent of them — it’s absolutely clear and bright: global climate change is happening and humans are the primary cause. For the general populace, it’s cloudy and unpredictable: while they believe the climate is changing, only half say it’s humans who are at fault, according to Eric Plutzer, professor of political science and academic director of the Survey Research Center, Penn State, and his colleagues.

The researchers report in the current issue of Science that the key to this discrepancy may lie in how climate science is being taught in schools. Science teachers are offering lessons in climate science, it seems, but their own values and knowledge may be causing a mixed message for students.

I caught up with Plutzer for a brief question and answer on this paper, which was published yesterday afternoon.

Keep reading for the Q&A. 

Although 97 percent of climate scientists believe that humans are behind climate change, only half of adults in the U.S. believe people are the primary reason for global warming. Why is there such a large disconnect?
Ordinary citizens rarely take the time to read highly technical scientific papers, and modern news media sometimes feel an obligation to give “equal time” to contrarian views. Those who hope to defeat or delay new regulations or a carbon tax have engaged in a deliberate strategy to sow doubt among the public and take advantage of journalistic norms to cover both sides. The result is a lot of misleading information and a disproportionate emphasis on what we don’t know (the precise rate that sea level will rise) which can obscure what we do know (sea levels have risen and will rise ever more quickly).

Are teachers not teaching climate science, or are they just not teaching it correctly?
Roughly three in four middle and high school science teachers are discussing recent global warming in their classes. But there is no cumulative curriculum for children. So teachers are likely to cover the basics, but not go far enough to help students develop a solid scientific understanding. In addition, about one in three teachers gives voice to non-scientific alternatives, sending mixed messages to students.

What are some theories as to why teachers are sending these mixed messages on climate science?
It is important to recognize that climate science is difficult to teach. Most teachers were not required to study the topic when they went to college and it is not prioritized in state-mandated curricula or high-stakes tests. Teachers who cover the topic therefore have to do so in addition to other high-priority topics. Because climate change has become politicized, teachers themselves may get their information from political rather than scientific sources. And they may be timid in providing a forthright discussion of the scientific consensus for fear of generating controversy in their own classroom.

Is it a bad thing that some teachers feel the need to present both sides of the debate on climate change?
Controversy and debate can be a valuable tool to engage and motivate students. But such debate should be limited to genuine disagreements. Students should debate whether descendants of slaves are deserving of reparations, but not whether slavery existed. Similarly, students can debate the best ways to slow climate change or engineer solutions, but in a science class it is not appropriate to debate settled science.

What are some solutions?
To better prepare future teachers, colleges of education can work with the various science departments on their campus to ensure that all future science teachers receive some formal instruction in climate science. Our study also shows that most current teachers would welcome the opportunity to take one or more continuing education courses on the topic — school districts and communities should support teachers in this.

Members of the news media interested in talking to Plutzer should contact Casey Fenton at 814-865-8696 or cjf181@psu.edu.

Leave a Reply