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Why Our Students Need Us To Teach About Climate Change

It’s Earth Day and I’m writing this blog after hearing a story about teaching climate change on NPR, “Most Teachers Don’t Teach Climate Change; 4 In 5 Parents Wish They Did.”

More than 80% of parents in the US support the teaching of climate change. And that support crosses political divides, according to the results of an exclusive new NPR/Ipsos poll: Whether they have children or not, two-thirds of Republicans and 9 in 10 Democrats agree that the subject needs to be taught in school.

A separate poll of teachers found that they are even more supportive, in theory—86% agree that climate change should be taught.

But when it comes down to the actual teaching of climate change, the news is mixed. Most teachers say they don’t teach climate change because they feel it’s outside their subject area. Yet we English language arts teachers know better.

Three NCTE authors (Richard Beach, Jeff Share, Allen Webb) demonstrate how we can address this subject with “with enormous ethical, social, political, and cultural dimensions” within our own curriculum. Teaching Climate Change to Adolescents: Reading, Writing, and Making a Difference illustrates how the NCTE Resolution on Literacy Teaching on Climate Change can come to life when we fit the subject into existing courses and use already available materials. The book gives teachers tools and teaching ideas to support building climate change material into their own classrooms and features a complementary website. You can listen to the authors talk about the book in their interview on Education Talk Radio.

But I’m writing about teaching climate change not just because today is Earth Day or because NCTE has a resource on the issue but because 2/3 of the teachers surveyed don’t teach about climate change because they worry about parent complaints if they do.

Their worry is not unfounded for “science battles” continue to be fought in many communities and states. In fact, numerous state bills have been introduced over the past several years to prevent the teaching of climate change: in Connecticut, Iowa, Arizona, Maine, South Dakota, Virginia, and Florida. While bills in nine of the states have not moved forward, Florida’s SB330 which prescribes “balanced” teaching for “controversial” science subjects has not yet been defeated.

Florida has become a hotbed for science battles and challenges to teaching pedagogy and the students’ right to read. Because of this, NCTE is a member of the Florida Education Defenders whose other members include the National Coalition Against Censorship, the American Library Association, the Florida Education Association, Pen America, The Authors Guild, the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund, the Florida Citizens for Science, the Florida Association for Media in Education, the American Civil Liberty Union-Florida, and the Florida Conference of Historians. As a group, we offer guidance, support, and resources for those who support the rights of Florida students to read, learn, and express themselves freely. We work together to:

A 2017 Forbes article mentions Florida’s HB 989 bill which was signed into law in June 26,2017, and which permits any county resident—not just any parent with a child in the country’s public schools, as was the case previously—to file a complaint about instructional materials in that county’s public schools and stipulates that the school will have to appoint a hearing officer to hear the complaint rather than following previously established reconsideration procedures. This legislation is making text challenges daily events in Florida with the Florida Citizens Alliance leading the charge.

The irony when it comes to complaints about teaching climate change in Florida is that, according to the Forbes article and a 2017 study estimating economic damage from climate change which was published in Science, Florida is one of the states most vulnerable to the bad effects of climate change. The study examined economic damage as a function of crime, energy, storms, human mortality, and labor. A key finding is that there is an economic cost of about 1.2% of gross domestic product (GDP) for every 1°C rise in temperature. The study found that the Southern states in the United States are most vulnerable, particularly Florida—see a map of the most economically-vulnerable counties

My Earth Day wish is that more teachers will (as the NCTE resolution states) . . .

  • resist the politicization of climate science by evaluating curricular texts for scientific credibility;
  • lead students to engage thoughtfully with texts focusing on social and political debates surrounding climate change; and
  • work with teachers in other fields to implement interdisciplinary instruction on climate change and sustainability.

I hope that more teachers will be able to stand up against those who challenge and would prevent the teaching of this and other important topics that truly affect our lives. The NCTE Intellectual Freedom Center and the Florida Education Defenders or other Defenders groups we can set up in your state are poised to stand with you. Surely, we owe our students the opportunity to wrestle with this subject that will no doubt affect their futures.

Listen and discuss as teachers talk about teaching about climate change in the April 23, 2019, edition of 1A.

Read more about the Florida Education Defenders in this blog, Defending Florida.