While reporting on the Birth of Climate Change Denial, an episode for the United States of Anxiety podcast, we asked listeners and science teachers across the country to tell us about the challenges of teaching climate change. Below is some of what they had to say.
For over a hundred years, the teaching of evolution has been the subject of debate in pockets of the U.S. And within the last decade or so, climate change has emerged as another area of science that is societally controversial, though scientifically established.
Every year, about a dozen states consider proposals that allow or encourage teachers to present the “strengths and weaknesses” of scientific theories. The bills usually include a list of subjects that warrant this treatment: specifically, evolution and climate change.
“Which, when you think about it, is a very odd thing to put in legislation,” said Ann Reid, executive director of the National Center for Science Education. “You’d never, for example, see the periodic table listed as something that students should think critically about.”
Some teachers prefer, though, to let students decide. Here's John, an environmental science teacher at a Catholic school in Louisiana:
"Debate is good"
Kathryn, a science teacher at a public middle school in Massachusetts, had some concerns about that approach.
"Both sides aren't equal."
Academic freedom bills like these have appeared in Ohio, Texas and Indiana, among others. While the majority fail to pass, both Tennessee and Louisiana enacted theirs into law.
And last month, the Florida legislature passed a bill allowing residents to challenge instructional material that they deemed offensive. While climate change isn’t mentioned in the bill, advocates for the measure complained that global warming and evolution were taught as facts. Florida governor Rick Scott hasn’t signed the bill into law yet.
Even without an official process, parents do voice their opposition in other ways. This is what Valerie, a public high school teacher of earth science in Michigan, told her class after she got a call from a parent upset that she was teaching climate change:
"Whether you believe it or not is irrelevant"
Brandon Haught, an environmental science teacher at a high school in central Florida, has heard from parents indirectly:
"They don't understand the question"
Most science teachers say no one has pressured them not to teach climate change. According to a 2016 survey by the National Center for Science Education, less than 5% of teachers reported any overt effort by parents or school administrators to avoid the topic.
In some places, it's their colleagues with whom teachers have to avoid the topic. Jenny, a science teacher at a public school in Wyoming, says half her department doesn't accept that human-caused climate change is real:
"We kind of stay away from each other"
Perhaps because passions run so high on this topic, teachers try to appease both sides, even if one side lacks any scientific backing. In the NCSE survey, about 30% say they teach that “many scientists” believe that recent temperature increases are natural, while at the same time emphasizing the scientific consensus about human causes.
Christina, an AP environmental science teacher at a charter school in Tallahassee, Florida, says it's important that students "make their own opinion."
"It's just playing devil's advocate"
While the classroom may be the first time kids are formally learning about climate science, they don't usually come in with a blank slate. So can a teacher really change someone's mind? Here's what Lee Anne Eareckson, a high school honors biology teacher at a public school in Idaho, had to say:
"If their family is just anti-climate change"
Is it less enjoyable to teach in an area where families might not readily accept the science behind climate change? Not at all, says Daniel Mayer, who just finished his second year of teaching in Grant Parish, Louisiana.
"Where progress can be made"
If you're a parent and want to talk about climate change with your kid, here are some resources: