Friday, February 26, 2016

Teaching Climate Change in America

While 95%+ of the relevant scientific community has sustained that man-impacted climate change is real, as hard facts from government sources (NASA, NOAA, etc.) confirm a steady rise in average global temperatures and natural phenomena/disasters confirm the nasty results of such temperature rises, about half of adult Americans still doubt that human activity is the relevant cause. This level of skepticism is the highest among twenty nations polled (as reported in Science Magazine, February 16th), making what should be a technologically advanced nation like the United States seem to be substantially out of touch with global scientific sensibilities in the general public. Why?
Strong religious beliefs (unlike most non-U.S. Evangelical movements and the Catholic Church which accept the notion, American Evangelicals remain man-induced climate change skeptics). And Tea Party Evangelicals seem to be calling the shots these days across the entire GOP. The fact that school districts are highly politicized (whether elected or appointed). That gerrymandering has awarded political control to Republican climate change deniers in a majority of states. But how does this reduce to classroom practices?
So Science Magazine decided to mount an objective study of how climate change is taught in our public schools. According to the U.S. Census, we have over 14,000 separate public school districts. How objective was the study? “We undertook the first nationally representative survey of science teachers focused on climate change. Working from a commercial database of 3.9 million teachers, we drew a stratified probability sample of 5000 names and implemented a multiple-contact paper and Web survey protocol during academic year 2014–15. We collected data from 1500 public middle- and high-school science teachers from all 50 U.S. states, representative of the population of science teachers in terms of school size, student socioeconomic status, and community economic and political characteristics.” Visit the article if you want to see the specific numbers, but the general results are below.
The first question asked was whether teaching climate change was even an important part of public school curricula? Results: “Three in four science teachers allocate at least an hour to discussing recent global warming in their formal lesson plans, including 70% of middle-school science teachers and 87% of high school biology teachers... Because virtually all students take middle-school science and 97% enroll in a general biology class…, the likelihood of any student missing instruction in climate change altogether is low—on the order of 3 to 4%. Most teachers reported covering the greenhouse effect (66%), the carbon cycle (63%), and four or more observable consequences, such as sea-level rise, or changes in seasonal patterns, like the flowering of plants and animal migrations. Teachers also discuss responses to climate change and careers addressing the challenges it poses.
“Although most students will hear something about climate change in a science class, the median teacher devotes only 1 to 2 hours to the topic…, inconsistent with guidance from leading science and education bodies.” Science Magazine. So on average, students are virtually all exposed to the subject, albeit not with sufficient time needed. Got it. The next issue is, of course, what is being taught and how accurate (a quality assessment) is the average lesson?
Here what the survey tells is actually taught: “Notably, 30% of teachers emphasize that recent global warming ‘is likely due to natural causes,’ and 12% do not emphasize human causes (half of whom do not emphasize any explanation and thereby avoid the topic altogether). Of teachers who teach climate change, 31% report sending explicitly contradictory messages, emphasizing both the scientific consensus that recent global warming is due to human activity and that many scientists believe recent increases in temperature are due to natural causes (see the first chart). Why might this be the case? Some teachers may wish to teach ‘both sides’ to accommodate values and perspectives that students bring to the classroom... Beyond that, the survey data allow us to evaluate three explanations.
And, of course, the most interesting questions revolve around why science teachers do not remotely align with the scientific community on the issue. The Science Magazine survey numbers tell us: “First, teachers might experience overt pressure from parents, community leaders, or school administrators not to teach climate change. Only 4.4% of teachers reported such pressure (6.1% reported pressure to teach it, mostly from fellow teachers). This is less than the 15% reporting pressure in Wise's pioneering study…, and far less than biology teachers reported in a survey on teaching evolution...
“Second, teachers also may not be very knowledgeable about a wide range of evidence—e.g., CO2 measurements from ice cores and from direct measures at Mauna Loa—and how climate models work. Given the relative novelty of the topic in classrooms, instructional materials, and preservice training, this would not be surprising, and nearly 50% said that they would prioritize one or more unrelated topics (e.g., pesticides, ozone layer, or impacts of rocket launches)…
“Third, many teachers are unaware of the extent of scientific agreement. This is critical because we might expect that, with limited technical mastery, teachers may defer to scientific expertise. Yet, when asked ‘what proportion of climate scientists think that global warming is caused mostly by human activities?’—only 30% of middle-school and 45% of high-school science teachers selected the correct option of ‘81 to 100%.’ Even among teachers who agree that human activities are the main cause of global warming (a large majority of all science teachers), only 52% know the percentage of scientists who share their view. If a majority of science teachers believe that more than 20% of climate scientist disagree that human activities are the primary cause, it is understandable that many would teach ‘both sides,’ by conveying to students that there is legitimate scientific debate instead of deep consensus.
“The combination of limited training and uncertainty about the scientific consensus affects teachers' acceptance of anthropogenic climate change. Although only 2% of teachers personally denied that recent global warming is happening, almost one-sixth (15%) believe that it is mostly driven by natural causes, and another one-sixth thought that human and natural causes are equally important. Indeed, teachers' assessment of the scientific consensus is intertwined with their personal conclusions about global warming and its causes.”  
For many folks on the east coast recently slammed by some of the coldest temperatures in decades, the notion of global warming seems absurd, but in fact the redirection of the Gulf Stream to slant downwards, bringing frigid Arctic air to lower reaches, is actually a product of global warming itself. “Arctic warming is leading to declines in sea ice and increased snowmelt on land. Because ice and snow are bright, they reflect sunlight back into space. When they melt, more solar energy can be absorbed by the Arctic.” (Huffington Post, 1/23/14). This results in warming in the north, creating high pressure zones which push a weakened Gulf Stream south, which brings that Arctic Vortex to regions unused to such levels of cold.
In the end, just looking at the United States without reference to the massive related problems elsewhere, we are going to be faced with trillions of dollars of additional costs to pay for the damage caused by newly migrating diseases, storm surges eroding coastal land, food-growing droughts that decimate farmer and consumer alike, growing fire storms, flooding in other regions, etc., etc., etc.  All from climate change. This will slam homeowners and businesses, kill jobs, destroy infrastructure, sap government treasuries and push insurance rates through the roof. So maybe having another generation of climate change skeptics, unwilling to take the steps to prevent these massive losses, just might be one of the most expensive mistakes our nation can make. 
I’m Peter Dekom, and human history is replete with societies that have slowly died or declined because they simply were unwilling (unable) to recognize the patterns of serial damage they have inflicted on their own environments… and we may be next.

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