World leaders are meeting in Paris this week to negotiate a new agreement on slowing global climate change. Many observers say the chances for success are good: more than 180 countries have already pledged to take steps to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions. But a recent study published in the journal Environmental Education Research suggests that U.S. text books are not teaching American students accurately about the scope of global climate change or the risks that it poses.
The study authors analyzed four sixth-grade earth science textbooks adopted in California to see how the texts described climate change. They found that although 97 percent of climate scientists agree that human activities are causing current warming, the books did not reflect this high level of certainty. Instead they made statements such as: “Some scientists believe that human activities can affect the climate of our planet,” obscuring both the strong consensus among scientists about impacts of human action and the fact that those impacts are occurring now. All four books also pointed out that “some” scientists believed current warming was due to natural variations in Earth’s climate. Only two texts listed specific actions that humans could take to slow climate change, and none specifically told students what they could do.
“The message was that climate change is possibly happening, that humans may or may not be causing it, and that we do not need to take immediate mitigating action,” the authors observed. This view, they contended, misrepresented the state of climate science. It also poorly described what scientists do: the texts often said scientists believed or thought certain things instead of describing how researchers analyzed data and drew conclusions from it.
What can teachers do to present a more accurate understanding of climate science? The study authors, Diego Roman of Southern Methodist University and K.C. Busch of Stanford University, offer some strategies:
- Clarify what is known and unknown. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s fifth assessment report, published in 2013, states unequivocally that “Human impact on the climate is clear,” and describes many observed changes on land and ocean systems. Journalists covering the Paris conference have also written stories quantifying the impacts of climate change since 1997, when nations last tried to negotiate a global treaty to slow warming.
- Explain the role of uncertainty. Two factors influence the strength of IPCC findings: the quality of the evidence (limited, medium or robust), and levels of agreement among scientists (low, medium, high). Statements expressing the panel’s confidence in various outcomes reflect specific judgments of how likely they are: for example, “virtually certain” means a probability of 99 to 100 percent, and “very likely” means 90 to 100 percent. Section 12 of The Habitable Planet, “Earth’s Changing Climate,” explains how scientists measure and analyze impacts of climate change to discern the human role. (Note, however, that the IPCC observations described in The Habitable Planet are drawn from an earlier report; the 2013 report linked above reflects the panel’s most recent statements and how Earth is warming and what impacts can be measured.)
- Discuss the role of humans as agents in causing climate change. Roman and Busch argue that many texts obscure the human role in climate change by attributing rising emissions to abstract processes such as burning fossil fuels, without ever explaining who is doing the burning. Making the human role explicit leads to discussions about what humans can do to help solve the problem.
Beyond understanding climate science, deciding how society should respond to climate change is a social and political process. The California Education and the Environment Initiative, supported by the Annenberg Foundation, presents environmental science within a broader context of history and human development. To adjust to a changing climate, humans will have to develop better ways of sharing resources and protecting the most vulnerable nations from impacts like drought and floods. The Paris negotiations are just the first step.