Recently NPR released the results of a survey on teaching climate change in schools. Just over one thousand adults and five hundred teachers (presumably also adults, kind of strange wording) were surveyed. Of those surveyed, the majority of teachers, parents, and Democrats agreed that climate change and its impacts should be taught in schools. Just less than half of the Republicans surveyed (49%) thought the same. Interestingly, 12% overall thought that schools should teach students that climate change is happening but that they should not teach students about the impacts. I imagine this is because they deem the impacts “too scary” for impressionable youth. This hunch is backed up by the stat that 20% of teachers that were polled said their students were “too young” to learn about climate change. I personally think a bit (or more) of fear about climate change impacts is just what we need. I don’t sugar coat climate change when I teach my students (you should know that I teach high school students). I want them to be worried. I want them to make changes to how they live their daily lives so that they reduce their carbon footprints. I want them to demand change from their lawmakers and corporations they buy products from. People need to get scared. I asked my students about this today. They said it was important to learn about the impacts because it makes them want to do something. Some students have reported switching to a vegetarian diet. Others have reported unplugging electronics and chargers when not in use. Many have switched to reusable water bottles. They would not have been motivated to make those changes if they were not worried about the impacts of climate change.
The IPCC, at the request of the United Nations, published a report this past autumn on what effects we can expect to see if the average temperature of Earth increases by 1.5°C and 2°C. The Paris Agreement was focused on actions that would limit warming to this 1.5°C, acknowledging that greater increases would have widespread catastrophic impacts. We are going to hit the 1.5°C mark by 2030. It’s likely that we will see 3-4°C, or more, increases by the end of the century if we keep going with the current status quo. Often I don’t get much of a reaction from my students with the 1.5°, 2°, or even 3°C predictions. They, and most of the general public, don’t understand that 1.5° is an increase for the global average. The average of all temperatures on the planet. The poles are warming much faster than other places. For example, in 2016 parts of the Arctic were 6-12°C warmer than the average temperature between 1951 and 1980 (NOAA). Those differences in temperature have huge implications for the Arctic ecosystem. Warmer temperatures in the winter lead to less thick sea ice and faster melting of sea ice in the summer. Many Arctic organisms rely on the Arctic sea ice for breeding (seals) and feeding (polar bears, among many others). Additionally, increased exposed ocean surface area leads to higher rates of CO2 absorption. When CO2 dissolves in the ocean it makes an acid. The oceans are acidifying. One consequence of this is that the availability of carbonate decreases. Carbonate is a necessary ingredient for MANY organisms in the ocean to make their shells and skeletons. As carbonate decreases, so do the populations of plankton, corals, and shellfish. Many of these organisms form the base of the food chain. Reductions in plankton populations in the Arctic have reverberating consequences for most species in the North Atlantic and Pacific Oceans.
Ok, I spent more time on the Arctic than planned. That was a bit of a tangent, but all stuff people should know. If you’re reading this blog you probably don’t need convincing that climate change is real and is having impacts already and likely will have devastating impacts in the future. But there are many people out there in the world that don’t “believe in” climate change (ie people that don’t accept or understand the science). Education is so important, for students and for teachers. Part of the problem is that many teachers don’t have the science background or feel they know enough about climate change to teach about it. If you look at the graph below, 17% of the 505 teachers surveyed confirm that this lack of knowledge keeps them from teaching climate change, so we need to teach the teachers.
The main reason that the teachers surveyed don’t teach climate change is because “it’s not related to the subject(s)” that they teach. I think this is kind of a lame excuse. Climate change impacts everything: economics, migration of people, health, tourism, aesthetics. Historic climate change had major impacts on Medieval Europe and Latin American civilizations, presumably we should be learning about the future by studying our history. There is a growing genre of climate change novels that could be incorporated into English classes. There is a wealth of data to be analyzed in math and statistics classes. I think that climate change could be worked into almost any course. For example, I teach Biology and Environmental Science. Environmental Science is an elective for seniors and is the only science class in the school that teaches about climate change, so only a small cohort of students gets that learning experience, so I work in climate change into my Biology course curriculum too. I’m lucky to teach in a school in which my fellow Biology teachers agree that all students should learn about climate change, so we all incorporated climate change into our unit on photosynthesis and cellular respiration. We talk about the natural carbon cycle with those two processes and then connect to how humans are interfering with that natural cycle. This, of course, meant we had to cut back elsewhere in the curriculum to have time to fit it in and climate change perhaps intuitively makes more sense to talk about in a Biology class than an English class, but again, climate change impacts everything, so I believe we should be talking about it everywhere.
As a teacher I understand that we make choices about what we have time to teach based on the state learning standards, and usually there is not enough time. And some teachers don’t have a lot of choice in terms of what they can spend time on. So there really needs to be a push on higher levels in the education hierarchy to make climate change education a priority. That change will only come if teachers and parents advocate for it. If you think this is important, contact your school committee members, your legislators and your state’s department of education. Get a discussion going. If you have kids, at “Open House” or “Back to School” nights or parent-teacher conferences, ask their teachers to teach about climate change. If you’re a teacher, try to work climate change into at least one curriculum unit or at least one day of the school year. We need a public that understands climate change and its consequences. “Knowing is half the battle” (children of the ‘80s will get that reference).