Educators lack awareness of the scientific consensus on human-caused global warming, researchers find, leading to mixed messages in classrooms
By Alex Pashley
America’s schoolchildren receive “mixed messages” on whether burning fossil fuels is heating the planet, researchers have found.
Many teachers show “both sides” of the argument, according to a study published in journal Science, because they believe the science is uncertain.
Based on a survey of 1,500 middle- and high-school teachers from a national database, it found 30% emphasise recent global warming “is likely due to natural causes” – and 12% do not stress humans’ influence at all.
More than 95% of climate scientists attribute rising temperatures to human activities. But when asked to identify the level of consensus among scientists, just 30% of middle school and 45% of high school teachers selected the correct option of 81-100%.
“Mirroring some actors in the societal debate over climate change, many teachers repeat scientifically unsupported claims in class,” reads the study led by Eric Plutzer, a political scientist at Pennsylvania State University.
In America, the debate is polarised. While President Barack Obama has put climate action at the core of his legislative agenda, many in the Republican Party dispute or deny the scientific consensus underpinning it. Candidates likely to be the party’s presidential nominee – Ted Cruz, Donald Trump and Marco Rubio – all scorn the idea.
The latest study suggests those attitudes are being passed on to the next generation. The authors concluded the main reason was that teachers did not know the strength of evidence, with a minority (4.4%) facing external pressure to promote a sceptical stance.
But better information alone wouldn’t solve the problem, the report said. Efforts must address the “root causes”, which are linked to political ideology.
Those agreeing with the assertion “It’s not the government’s business to protect people from themselves”, indicating a Republican tilt, were more likely to teach “both sides”, it said.
Edward Maibach, who heads the Center for Climate Change Communication at George Mason University, Virginia, said the findings showed the effect of years of systematic climate denial by special interest groups.
“It is disconcerting that teachers are unknowingly perpetuating this disinformation that the disinformers designed for public consumption,” said Maibach, who wasn’t linked to the study.
They reflected common perceptions among US adults. A Yale/Gallup poll last year showed 71% of the American public were convinced global warming was happening, but only 48% believed there was scientific consensus.
“The authors have done American society a huge favour to have surfaced this problem, but it strikes me that it is solvable,” added Maibach. It should prompt teacher associations to “mobilise quickly” to inform their members.