of data mean that practically all students who graduate from an
American high school will have had the opportunity to receive some
education on climate change.
Yet these reports only show that teachers are offering lessons on
climate change; they give no details about the nature of those lessons.
Lessons on climate change can be exceedingly different if taught in
accordance with the scientific consensus or instead presented as a matter of controversy, conspiracy, and debate. A 2011 study conducted by
the National Earth Science Teachers Association found that 47% of
teachers were in fact teaching “both sides” of the climate change
“debate” – thereby mispresenting climate science as a scientific controversy (Johnson & Holzer, 2011; Branch et al., 2016). Another study,
conducted by the National Center for Science Education, showed that
30% of these teachers state in their lessons that scientists are not in
agreement regarding the reasons for global warming ( i.e., human activities vs. natural causes; Plutzer et al., 2016b). This confusion among
school teachers regarding the scientific consensus of evidence for climate change reflects the fact that there is a major lack of formal education for preservice teachers. In fact, studies have shown that about a
third of American teachers who do not receive formal education on climate science during their preservice training rely instead on climate-change-denial websites to gather information for their classes (Branch
et al., 2016). This finding is very concerning because it has already
been established that readers often gather and assimilate evidence in
a manner that is biased toward their existing attitudinal position, causing attitude polarization (Corner et al., 2012).
Yet even with better teacher training, one major hindrance
remains – how can teachers effectively teach about climate change
when lessons on climate change are actively resisted and rejected by
students due to their own existing beliefs on the subject? How can
we deal with students’ misconceptions about anthropogenic climate
change at a classroom level? How do we get our students to think critically when it comes to climate science? As pointed out by Weber and
Stern (2011), climate change denial in the United States is not caused
by a lack of information but instead by the need for conceptual
change, as research on science education has shown that preconceptions that conflict with scientific understanding can be obstinate and
that instruction will need to address these in order to help students
adopt mental models that are scientifically accurate (National
Research Council, 2005; Weber & Stern, 2011).
Teaching about climate change can be particularly difficult emotionally for educators because of the politicization and polarization of
views on the topic (Swim & Fraser, 2013). Moreover, it has been
found that the topic of climate change often causes emotional debate
within a science classroom due to students’ religious beliefs (Quigley,
2016). These same studies have shown, though, that through certain
teaching practices, teachers can either create a productive space where
students can reflect on the science and their own views or close down
the conversation entirely. I propose that by teaching students about
the general nature of science and by reframing climate change mitigation as practical risk management, teachers can deal with the topic of
climate change more effectively and hopefully diminish the amount of
negative emotional states within the classroom.
Lessons on the Nature of Science
While it is necessary to address students’ false preconceptions that
make them resistant to science teachings, science education should
never be used to force students to believe things (Taber, 2017). In fact,
for students to be considered “scientifically literate,” they need to be
able to make scientific, evidence-based judgments for themselves and
not simply memorize and repeat facts (DeBoer, 2000; Oulton et al.,
2004). Therefore, it is imperative that, in addition to straightforward
lessons on humans’ effect on the environment, students learn about
the nature of science so that they can better understand how scientists
around the world have come to a consensus about anthropogenic climate change. By educating students about the nature of science and
about how scientists come up with theories, it may be easier for teachers to deal with ideological resistance by explaining to them more
about how our understanding of anthropogenic climate change came
to be, instead of just stating that this is a fact that needs to be accepted.
Moreover, by helping students understand the nature of scientific
discovery in general, this approach presents teachers with the opportunity not only to increase their students’ understanding of climate science but also to increase their students’ general level of science literacy
and socioscientific decision making (Clough, 2017; McComas, 2017).
It has also been argued that including lessons on the nature of science
is essential because it helps students develop into future scientists,
informed citizens, and cultured members of society (Taber, 2017).
Table 1. Overview of the NGSS focused on teaching high school students about climate science and the
impact of human activity on the environment.
HS. Human Sustainability Students who demonstrate understanding can:
HS-ESS3-1 Construct an explanation based on evidence for how the availability of natural resources,
HS-ESS3-2 Evaluate competing design solutions for developing, managing, and utilizing energy and
mineral resources based on cost-benefit ratios.
HS-ESS3-3 Create a computational simulation to illustrate the relationships among the management of
natural resources, the sustainability of human populations, and biodiversity.
HS-ESS3-4 Evaluate or refine a technological solution that reduces impacts of human activities on natural
HS-ESS3-6 Use a computational representation to illustrate the relationships among Earth systems and
how those relationships are being modified due to human activity.