The Power of Climate Change Education

One of the most effective ways to close that gap between scientific knowledge and public understanding is to teach students about climate change.

Only 52% of American adults are “very” or “extremely” sure that global warming is occurring according to a 2019 survey conducted by the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication. One of the most effective ways to close that gap between scientific knowledge and public understanding is to teach students about climate change so that they are properly equipped with the knowledge necessary to tackle one of the greatest challenges of our generation.

Recently, a scientific study published in the Proceedings of the National Academies of Sciences found “strengthening climate education and engagement” to be one of the biggest interventions that can be taken in order to slow the rise of global warming. This is tricky in the United States, where education is primarily under state and local jurisdiction.

States are able to implement standards, which shapes things like standardized tests, but the nitty-gritty of the curriculum is ultimately determined by individual school districts. This explains how a NPR/Isos survey in 2019 found that 55% of teachers never talked about climate change in their classrooms, even though 36 states have adopted some form of climate education standards.

Today, ten states (Mississippi, South Carolina, South Dakota, Texas, West Virginia, Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Oklahoma, and Virginia) still claim that human-caused climate change is scientifically ambiguous, and consequently, lack a solid climate education in their curriculum.

These states need to quickly acknowledge the reality of our situation—in just the fall 2017 semester, nine million U.S. students across nine states and Puerto Rico missed some amount of school as a result of natural disasters which are increasing in severity and frequency as a result of climate change. Climate change has a direct effect on students, and they deserve to understand the implications of climate change for themselves, their families, and their communities.

The biggest opponents of climate change education argue that climate change should not be taught in schools because it hasn’t been scientifically proven, a claim which is clearly at odds with the scientific consensus.

Yet, the skepticism continues as a result of the fossil-fuel industry, which continues to spread a narrative of climate uncertainty. Each year, the world’s five largest oil and gas companies spend approximately $200 million on lobbying, aiming to control and delay climate-related policies. In 2017, the fossil-fuel industry even went so far as to send science teachers across the United States a book titled Why Scientists Disagree About Global Warming.

Despite the noise created from fossil fuel interests, policymakers should actively seek to promote and prioritize the wellbeing of students within their states or local school districts, whose current lack of climate education threatens the stability of their futures.

The truth about confronting climate change is terrifying. It’s an issue that threatens to overthrow every sense of normalcy we have, and there’s no clear solution ahead. However, by giving students a basic, foundational understanding of the problem at hand, they’ll be more equipped to tackle the issue with an interdisciplinary lens that is so desperately needed right now.

Climate change will affect every facet of our lives and students across all disciplines will need to have a thorough understanding of the topic in order to prevent the cycle of uninformed decision-making when it comes to the environment.

To ensure that climate change education is implemented into nationwide curriculums, the conversation cannot be solely dictated by special interest groups, think tanks, and politicians. It requires the unconditional, bipartisan support of the American public. By pushing our schools to adopt climate education curriculums, we can move towards a society where a belief in climate change is no longer an identifying political position that divides us, but a shared spirit that pushes us to innovate and enact change.

This insight is a part of our Undergraduate Seminar Fellows’ Student Blog Series. Read work from other students and learn more about the Undergraduate Climate and Energy Seminar.

Jianan Zhang

Undergraduate Seminar Fellow
Jianan Zhang is an undergraduate student studying economics at the Wharton School. Zhang is also a 2021 Undergraduate Student Fellow.