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Year! Review! Read our 2022 Year in Retrospect Issue!

How public education is tackling climate change conversations

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NOVEMBER 16, 2022

When I was growing up, my family and I would go to the Sierra Nevadas every winter to ski, enjoy the beauty of snow in the mountains and take a break from the reality of daily life. This tradition has been in my family for generations, but with the changing climate there are years when there is more snow, unpredictable severity and frequency of storms — then weeks of dryness. In the summers, Lake Tahoe’s shoreline is retracting inwards, a trend I’ve even started to see over the past decade. 

Older generations may recount this not always being the case: there used to always be enough snow to ski and plenty of water in the lake. Besides the drought of 1976-1977 in California, they recall droughts were never constant in the yearly cycle of life. Now we can almost depend on a prolonged dry season where we go into water conservation mode and check the AQI before leaving the house once fire season comes around.

As climate change is becoming more prominent in our day to day lives, we see it everywhere from the newspaper to TV and pop culture. Inherently, the topic of climate change will be brought into the classroom anywhere from primary to secondary school because of its wide public attention. 

When I was in elementary school, I remember doing a project on endangered species, where we researched an animal of our choice and presented it to the class. Although we did not mention climate change in the project, I can’t help but wonder about the obvious missed learning opportunity between threatened species and a changing climate. This prompts the questions: How is climate change being addressed in the United States? Is it being addressed at all? Is there a “correct” way to approach this conversation?

When I took AP Environmental Science in high school, the teacher of the course — who had been teaching the class for around 10 years — noted that at the beginning of her career she would often receive hate mail from parents about the invalidity of the content being taught. Keep in mind, this was in the Bay Area in California: an area and state that is largely accepting of climate education. This pushback can innately create a sense of fear and anxiety among instructors, deterring them from teaching about climate change. 

In a podcast from the Harvard Graduate School of Business, Katie Worth, author of “Miseducation: How Climate Change is Taught in America,” explains that most students receive a mean of 0-2 hours of climate education per year. For the more than 49.5 million students enrolled in public education, this simply does not seem like enough time to understand what climate change is. 

By the time students reach middle school and high school, they are already pretty aware of the term climate change and the basics of what it entails. In order to truly understand climate change, Smith asserts that it is important to make sure all students are well equipped with the skills of math, English and science. With a solid foundation of education, students can then create a viable analysis of what climate change means to them and the planet.

A schoolteacher from Sonoma County, Mr. Kessler explains that science is about discovery and making your own predictions and analysis. He is presenting reliable data from NASA, the UN and the IPCC, and allowing students to draw their own conclusions on the information presented. Most instructors come to the consensus that students do not need to be climate change experts; all they need to know are the basics: what is climate change, how it affects wildlife and humans and there is hope for change.

Unfortunately, not all teachers present information in an unbiased way, and may not even properly understand what climate change is. Recent research published by the journal Science reveals that only 30% of middle school and 45% of high school science teachers understand the overwhelming scientific consensus on climate change. The study also found that 30% of teachers incorrectly teach about climate change, often explaining it as a natural phenomena. However, more than 95% of credible climate scientists agree that climate change is caused by human activity. 

This discrepancy is huge, showing an extreme disconnect between credible research and school teachers’ understanding of the data. It also prompts the question at large on why the public is misinterpreting the meaning of climate change when a strong consensus has already been reached in the scientific community. As such, it is debated when and if climate science will ever be widely accepted and accurately taught in public schools. 

Undoubtedly, when evolution was first presented in education in the late 19th century, there was pushback among the public, who opposed the idea. Now, it is accepted and taught in schools without second thought. Implying the same pattern, we should be able to teach about climate change in an accurate way eventually, but do we have time to wait given the quickly impending effects?

The various conflicts of interest warrant the question: Do we risk having teachers incorrectly teach about climate change or not teach it at all? These issues show, at large, the current state of the U.S. education system and the obvious variations of instructor knowledge and presentation.

Although this issue is of heated contention within the media, if educators are able to successfully equip students with the skills of math, science and English they should be able to draw their own conclusions on the situation. When I was in school I recall celebrating Earth Day every year, but as our earth is changing, is it unfair to not warn young generations — who will be the hardest hit — of their incoming reality? As educators of the youngest generations, do we morally owe it to kids to educate them on the state of the world? Is it ethical to leave them with no knowledge of how the world is and will be changing in the following decades?

These questions will become more and more debated as we start to see increased effects of climate change, prompting the discussion of the extent to which climate change will be taught in public education. 

Contact Ashley Carter at 


NOVEMBER 17, 2022