American children deserve to be educated about the climate crisis

The Scopes lawsuit on the evolution of teaching in schools has made headlines in the United States. (Image: Lib. of Congress)

American society is changing. Or does it? Nearly 100 years after Scopes’ “trial of the monkeys” pitted evolution against creationism, school science is still in the crosshairs, especially the science of climate change. In State of Tennessee v. John Thomas Scopes of 1925, a public school substitute teacher was prosecuted for violating the newly passed law. Anti-evolution law, who made it a crime “to teach any theory which denies the story of the divine creation of man as taught in the Bible and to teach instead that man is descended from a lower order of animals”. The law was the first of its kind. Tennessee lawmakers acquiesced to church leaders who embraced a strict interpretation of the Bible and frequently spoke out against the threat they saw in Darwinism.

The fervent fundamentalist and populist triple candidate for the presidency William Jennings Bryan, who believed teaching children about evolution would threaten the moral compass of the nation, agreed to pursue the case. The trial was a movie-worthy sight, immortalized in the 1960 Hollywood film Inherit the wind, and although Bryan came out bruised, he ultimately made it through. Scopes was found guilty by a jury of violating the Anti-Evolution Law.

Other states have followed Tennessee’s lead. Surprisingly, it took until 1987 for the United States Supreme Court tear down all laws prohibiting the teaching of evolution because they represented an unconstitutional promotion of religion.

Today, however, fundamentalism has taken on a new form.

The Florida Department of Education recently rejected 54 math – yes, math – textbooks because they alluded to “prohibited subjectsincluding climate change, social-emotional learning (which conservatives say it’s a gateway to liberalism), and critical race theory. How? In one case, the legend of a bar chart describes how the data “measures levels of racial prejudice.” Even the idea that racism might still exist in the United States is considered forbidden in Florida.

It’s quite catchy and clearly a case of fanning the flames of current-era conservatism by Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, who likely has presidential aspirations. I say “clearly” because the state Department of Education has no say in approving or banning textbooks — local school districts do. Therefore, there is little significance in the entire state review process other than making headlines.

But what also caught my attention was this comment of a reviewer who rejected a textbook called Mathematics for College Liberal Arts for “talking about a climate crisis as if it were a proven fact.” She pointed to an exercise in which “you can say” the playbook “favors Al Gore and dislikes Rush Limbaugh” in “an argument” about climate change.

In many school districts across the country, it’s typical for a handful of individuals to have the power to dismiss physical and social science facts if they don’t fit their worldview. Just as the teaching of Darwinian evolution has been banned for decades and American history has been whitewashed in schools today, anthropogenic climate change is often called too controversial to be taught properly in some of the most populous states in the country.

According to a study published in 2020 by the National Center for Science Education and the Texas Freedom Network Education Fund, 10 states received failing grades or failing grades (D and F) for their climate change education standards, four of them among the 10 states the most populous in the United States: Florida (D), Ohio (D), Texas (F) and Pennsylvania (F). With the exception of Keystone State, all other northeastern states received A or B grades, as did the west coast states. The South performed poorly, with Alabama, Georgia and Virginia all receiving failing grades. As journalist and author Katie Worth points out in her recent book Bad education: how climate change is taught in Americathe model suggests that there is a red-blue policy divide between states that properly teach climate science and those that seek to water down the science.

It remains to be seen whether the textbook revisions at the Florida state level will have any effect at the school district level. But because the federal government is mostly indifferent in terms of pedagogy, textbook publishers have to contend with fifty powerful education departments and indeed hundreds of local districts. It may be easier for them to answer to the lowest common denominator.

When climate change is not properly taught, students are not the only ones affected. Parents are also affected. A study middle school students in North Carolina found that parents were increasingly concerned about the climate crisis after their children learned about it. This intergenerational effect manifested itself most strongly in conservative families. Daughters were particularly influential and fathers were particularly influenced.

It is important to note that people who align themselves with the political right are not the only ones with blinders. Despite the lack of scientific evidence, unfounded fears about genetically modified crops and vaccines are harbored by people from all political backgrounds. The scientific community has, until now, struggled to counter this kind of confusion, which can lead to hostility towards life-saving genetic and medical advances.

When it comes to accepting or “believing” in climate change, opinion polls have found that answers can say more about their values ​​and social identity than about their actual knowledge of climate science. Like the theory of evolution, pre-existing worldviews as well as commitments to religious and social groups can interfere with a person’s understanding of climate science.

We are therefore in a positive feedback loop that perpetuates climate inaction. Politicians and parents, true to their beliefs, are pressuring school districts not to teach the state of the science of climate change, i.e. it’s real, it’s us, it’s bad, and there’s hope. Fewer students are coming to a deep understanding of the climate threat, and fewer still are talking about it to their parents and extended family. Students remain misinformed and parents remain misinformed.

In contrast, young people who have been made aware of the climate crisis have proven capable of leading by example. Researchers at San José State University students followed who had taken a crash college course in climate change and found they were making more environmentally friendly decisions than their peers for years afterwards. These decisions—which car to buy; what foods to eat; how to get rid of waste – added up to 2.86 tonnes less carbon dioxide emissions per student per year.

There are people and organizations trying to correct things. The National Center for Science Education asks that states reflect the scientific consensus on climate change in their state science standards. The Next Generation Science Standards, based on the collective advice of the National Research Council, the National Science Teaching Association, and the American Association of the Advancement of Science, among others, have been used to formulate teaching standards in 20 states and the District of Columbia . This supports 36% of public school students nationwide, but what about the remaining 64%?

It may take time, but I think there is a good chance that a strong climate program will spread to the rest of the country. So far, the so-called adults in many school district council rooms have seemed so indifferent that they are willing to sacrifice the future of their children and grandchildren. But as the climate crisis worsens, more americans internalize the threat. Four out of seven people today are at least concerned about global warming. The number of people alarmed by the rapidly changing climate reached 33%.

Redoubled efforts to properly educate about the state of climate change science and solutions to the crisis will outlast national moods and political swings. As the National Center for Science Education deputy director Glenn Branch wrote in the Newsletter more than five years ago, “effective action against climate change will necessarily be a long-term, multi-generational project”. Over time, the younger generations can only benefit from this education. And they may just save the planet.

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