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Teaching Climate Change To School Children

By Eugenie Scott

11 February, 2012

Imagine you’re a middle-school science teacher, and you get to the section of the course where you’re to talk about climate change. You mention the “C” words, and two students walk out of the class.

Or you mention global warming and a hand shoots up.

“Mrs. Brown! My dad says global warming is a hoax!”

Or you come to school one morning and the principal wants to see you because a parent of one of your students has accused you of political bias because you taught what scientists agree about: that the Earth is getting warmer, and human actions have had an important role in this warming.

Or you pick up the newspaper and see that your state legislature is considering a bill that declares that accepted sciences like global warming (and evolution, of course) are “controversial issues” that require “alternatives” to be taught.

Incidents like these have happened in one or more states, and they are likely to continue to happen. Teachers are encountering pushback from many directions as they try to teach global warming and other climate science topics.

The importance of climate change education is, to the RealClimate community, a no-brainer. Numerous professional science organizations, from the American Chemical Society to the American Geophysical Union to the Geological Society of America have stressed the imperative of climate science being an integral part of science education.

So What’s a Teacher to Do?

Long a defender of the teaching of evolution, the National Center for Science Education has recently launched an initiative to support and defend the teaching of climate change science.

The “support” part has challenges all its own. Unlike evolution, which easily fits into biology and other life science courses, climate science spans multiple disciplines and can fall through disciplinary cracks in biology, chemistry and physics, or appear briefly in more specialized disciplines like ecology or Earth sciences. Moreover, climate science is complex and often non-intuitive, and students (and all too often teachers) stumble over misinformation and misconceptions that are hard to overcome. Many educational institutions are wrestling with how to support climate science in the K-12 curriculum.

But the “defend” part is where NCSE will make a unique contribution. Our experience over the decades helping teachers and school boards resolve the problems that have arisen over the teaching of evolution should stand us in good stead in helping them deal with this newer “controversial science”. Of course, there are many perspectives affecting the objections to climate science education, and each requires its own response.

Some of the denial is literal (It’s not happening! The science is bad!), some of it may be interpretive (it’s maybe happening but people aren’t to blame), and some of it stems more from the implications of climate change (it’s happening and maybe humans are responsible, but someone else is to blame and/or there’s nothing I can do about it). We’re going to help teachers understand where pressure against climate science education comes from, as the first step in helping them construct a response. From the evolution education controversy we learned long ago that one does not solve these problems merely by piling on more or better science: the underlying, motivating issues must be addressed. The science is essential, but not sufficient.

Climate change education should be an integral part of science education. Students should graduate from high school and certainly college with at least a basic understanding of the foundational concepts of climate science so they can understand human activities and how they are impacting climate and other aspects of the earth system.

This is no small task, and obviously NCSE as a relatively small non-profit can only do so much. We need your help.

We have been successful because we marshal allies, like scientists, teachers, parents, and other citizens, at the grassroots. NCSE’s success over recent decades in defending the teaching of evolution has been due in large measure to scientists and others who are willing to support good science education locally and at the state level. We also need scientists to provide us with their scientific expertise.

If you are a climate scientist, please give us your contact information so we can consult with you. Also, your contact information will be helpful to us if something occurs in your region or state where we need a scientist to write a letter, testify before a committee, support a teacher, or help in some other way.

Of course, an obvious way you can help is to join NCSE, but even if you don’t, your expertise will be helpful to us.

Visit our website, and contact our new Programs and Policy Director, Mark McCaffrey, who will be helping spearhead the new initiative, to let us know you support our effort. Teachers will thank you.

Eugenie Scott, a former university professor, is the Executive Director of National Center for Science Education (NCSE.) She has been both a researcher and an activist in the creationism/evolution controversy for over twenty-five years. She holds eight honorary degrees from McGill, Rutgers, Mt. Holyoke, the University of New Mexico, Ohio State, the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, Colorado College, and the University of Missouri-Columbia. Scott is the author of Evolution vs Creationism and co-editor, with Glenn Branch, of Not in Our Classrooms: Why Intelligent Design Is Wrong for Our Schools.




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