Climate Confusion Among U.S. Teachers

Most teachers only spend one to two hours teaching climate change per year.

A recent study by ACE partner, the National Center for Science Education (NCSE) and Penn State University, highlights critical gaps in the teaching of climate science in the U.S.

The study, published in the journal Science and featured in the New York Times, surveyed 1,500 middle and high school science teachers from across the country on how they cover climate change in the classroom. Some findings were encouraging. 70% of middle school science teachers and 87% of high school science teachers spend at least an hour covering climate change. And just over half of all teachers, 54%, focus on the scientific consensus that climate change is largely the result of human activity.

On the other hand, there are also many causes for concern. 31% of teachers send mixed messages to students: teaching both that scientists agree on the human cause of climate change, as well as teaching that scientists believe that natural causes are responsible. And of those teachers who do teach climate change, most spend only one to two hours on the subject in total.

The authors propose several reasons for the inaccurate teaching on climate and for the limited amount of time spent on the subject. Because of the relatively recent nature of the topic, many teachers never learned about climate change in their own education and lack confidence in spending any length of time covering it. Another powerful factor is a teacher’s own personal values. A question on political beliefs was a better predictor of a teacher’s approach to climate change than were questions about content knowledge or education.

This study reveals some uncomfortable truths about the state of climate education in our country. Due to uncertainty or conflicting values, many teachers choose to put their energy into other topics, leaving behind uninformed or misinformed students who are unprepared to inherit a climate-changed world.

ACE strives to meet this need and fill this gap every day. Our education program, the ACE Assembly, educates thousands of young people a year on the science of climate change. ACE’s leadership program, the Action Fellowship, gives students the knowledge, skills, and confidence to be lifelong climate leaders.

Just last month, ACE launched an online climate education resource, Our Climate Our Future. Our Climate Our Future brings the award-winning ACE Assembly on climate science and solutions online for the very first time. This interactive web experience includes animated climate science, stories from young people impacted by climate change from across the country and opportunities for students to take action via trivia, texting and social media.

Our Climate Our Future is just one of several high-quality climate education resources available online. The CLEAN Collection (Climate Literacy and Energy Awareness Network) is a collection of climate and energy lesson plans all vetted by educators and scientists. Teachers now have increased motivation to teach climate science as more states continue to adopt the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS). Climate science, as well as climate solutions, is addressed at all grade levels of NGSS, providing a framework that allows the climate education community to support the teaching of consistent climate science across the country.

Through further development and dissemination of resources like these, we can continue to improve the state of climate education in our country.


Rebecca Anderson

Rebecca Anderson is ACE’s Director of Education. She came to ACE in its inception in 2008. Rebecca develops ACE's science content, manages the online climate education resource Our Climate Our Future, oversees the ACE Teacher Network, and works with schools in the Reno-Tahoe area. Prior to ACE, she did paleoclimate research in the Arctic and Antarctica.