01/27/2012 01:39 pm ET | Updated Mar 28, 2012

The State of the Union's Climate Education

Does racing to the top include no opinion left behind when teaching climate science?

In his State of the Union speech this week, President Obama did not have a whole lot to say about climate change. But he did emphasize education, and specifically the need for education to prepare Americans for high-tech jobs. Well, climate science is pretty technical, so let's take a look at how climate science fares in our nation's schools and among our nation's teachers.

Does climate change science get a passing grade in America's classrooms?

Two Sides?

Part of the controversy surrounding climate science education is how to teach it. For example, is it a settled topic on which most scientists agree, or are we so unsure about the causes of global warming that competing theories need to be taught as equally valid explanations? Should teachers be required to teach climate science skepticism and denial along with scientific evidence pointing to human activities as the cause of global warming trends?

Two states -- Texas and Louisiana -- have taken a definitive stand on those questions, requiring that teachers teach climate science denial as a valid scientific position. Two other states -- Tennessee and Oklahoma -- have introduced legislation that would bring climate science skepticism into the classroom.

Such requirements would find little support from the U.S. National Academy of Sciences, arguably the nation's premier scientific organization, an organization of scientists, governed by scientists and created by Congress when Lincoln was president to advise the nation on scientific and technical issues.

A recent report by the academy concluded that "the preponderance of scientific evidence points to human activities -- especially the release of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases into the atmosphere -- as the most likely cause for most of the global warming that has occurred over the last several decades" and that there is a "pressing need for substantial action to limit the magnitude of climate change and to prepare to adapt to its impacts." Period.

So there's a bit of disagreement between some state legislatures and the scientific community. What do our nation's teachers perceive about their duties when it comes to climate change instruction?

A survey (survey pdf) of 555 K-12 U.S. science teachers conducted by the National Earth Science Teachers Association (NESTA) indicates that while 5 percent are required to teach both sides (12 percent of which reside in the South) 47 percent report that they do so simply because they believe "both sides" have validity. Another 36 percent report that they have been influenced, either directly or indirectly, to teach "both sides."

Skepticism in the Classroom

Another survey, this one conducted by the National Science Teachers Association, showed that:

  • 82 percent of science teachers faced "skepticism" on the topics of climate change and climate change education from students,

  • 54 percent faced skepticism from parents, and

  • 26 percent faced skepticism from administrators.

On the other hand, it appears that teachers are for the most part "OK" with the state of climate education: 60 percent report that they were not concerned with how climate change is taught in their schools. This would seem to imply that teachers are not concerned that some 80 percent of their students take issue with the conclusions of the National Academy of Sciences on a scientific issue, and begs the question of how educators themselves view climate change science. Do they see themselves sufficiently qualified to disagree with the academy?

Teachers' Climate Science Beliefs

As it turns out, a small but not negligible percentage of the teachers surveyed by NESTA see climate science differently from how the National Academy views it. Of the survey's (pdf) 555 respondents, 6 percent reported that they don't believe global warming is happening at all while 13 percent attribute it to natural causes.

Teaching Climate Change on Par with Evolution?

In part as a reaction to these statistics, the National Center for Science Education, known for its advocacy of teaching evolution, recently announced a new initiative "to defend and support the teaching of climate science" in the classroom. The effort will put resources in the hands of teachers who teach climate science as well as provide pushback against increasing attacks on teachers who engage students on the

In making this announcement, Eugenie Scott, the organization's executive director, averred that, "Climate change in the classroom is where evolution was 25 years ago." Twenty-five years ago? I'd have to say that Dr. Scott's got some powerful rose-colored glasses. Consider this: only about 28 percent of 926 public high school biology teachers surveyed in a study reported in the journal Science last year are strong advocates for and consistently teach the evidence of evolution.

Strange way to race to the top.

Crossposted with TheGreenGrok.