Poll: Americans Overwhelmingly Want Climate Change Taught In Schools
So why isn’t it happening?
When I was in high school, I had to memorize the entire taxonomic hierarchy of the American moose. But I never learned about greenhouse gases.
This never struck me as odd until I read a recent op-ed in The Boston Globe by Anita Soracco, a professor of physics and environmental science at Massachusetts’ Quinsigamond Community College. “Over the past 13 years,” she wrote, “my students have consistently expressed disappointment and dismay that they hadn’t previously been taught about the climate crisis or the many environmental justice issues that plague their communities as a result.”
What’s perhaps even more dismaying is that most Americans want climate education in schools. A recent Heatmap News poll found that three-quarters of Americans (74%) believe that the government should encourage schools to incorporate climate change into their curriculum, including over half of Republicans (59%) and 75% of Independents. A full third of Americans (33%) said they strongly support such a proposal. In a separate question, 62% of Americans called it “important” for schools to incorporate climate change education, a number that is roughly on par with how many agree with the scientific consensus that climate change is a result of human activity (68%).
Patrick Belmonte, the co-founder of Change Is Simple — an organization that helps to bring hands-on environmental education programs to schools primarily in the Northeast — told me the poll results didn’t surprise him. “How could you not want to educate children who are going to inherit this planet to understand it?” he asked, adding: “I don’t even understand how you can be asked that question and say, ‘No, I don’t want them to know!’”
But when it comes to the state of climate education across the country, it can be — forgive the pun — all over the map. I asked Soracco, the author of the Boston Globe op-ed, what letter grade she’d give the nation for its climate education programs and she cringed and answered “probably a D.” While the Next Generation Science Standards — a framework adopted by 20 states so far and that covers a little over a third of all U.S. students — recommends teaching climate change in science classes beginning with grade five, “it’s not very specific,” Soracco went on. “And the standards are voluntary, and so even if we put them in the state standards, it can be very performative.”
Back in 2020, the National Center for Science Education and the Texas Freedom Network Education Fund looked at this problem more closely. According to their findings, “a bare majority — just 27 — of the 50 states and District of Columbia have standards that earned a B+ or better for how they address climate change” with “only six non-NGSS states [earning] a B+ or better for their science standards.”
While some of these results cut across partisan lines in a way that might be expected, that isn’t always the case. Wyoming, the country’s second-biggest oil and gas producer on federal lands, was the only state in the nation to earn an A grade in teaching climate change, leading the study’s authors to write that “education policymakers can do a reasonably good job of adopting science standards that reflect the scientific consensus” — even against politically or economically hostile backdrops.
Still, even the most motivated educators face an uphill battle, Belmonte said. “Not only do they have to teach to a designed curriculum and help their students achieve their goals, but they are also social workers and psychologists to all these kids in their classrooms. To ask them to figure out how to teach thoughtful and meaningful climate education, which is such a deep and profound existential thing that we’re all dealing with — it seems just far too much on their shoulders.”
Belmonte’s organization helps alleviate some of that pressure on teachers by traveling to classrooms to teach climate science programs to students. “But we can’t fulfill the needs that the schools have,” he confessed. “Schools all over the country are reaching out to us — and we have a scaling plan, but we’re still trying to get the funding.”
Critically, a K-12 climate education is about more than just preparing students for an Intro to Environmental Science course in college. According to a 2020 study by Eugene Cordero, college students who took a one-year course on global climate change at San Jose State University “reduced their individual carbon emissions by 2.86 tons of CO2 per year,” even five years after taking the class. As Soracco marvels in her op-ed, “Consider the impact if that education began in kindergarten instead.”
What’s more, kids love learning about the climate, Belmonte told me. “They can’t wait to help this planet. They can’t wait to help their home. They want to live healthy lives and help their communities.” And out of the 50,000 or so students his organization has helped to teach so far, “I’ve run into very few children who are resistant to this. I mean, we can count on two hands the kids that are like, ‘Meh, I don’t want to do this’ — and most of the time it has nothing to do with climate and has more to do with just their state of being, whatever they’re going through in their lives.”
There is, however, an obstacle that is perhaps even more worrying than climate denial or funding. When asked about the trustworthiness of various sources of information on climate change, just 21% of respondents told Heatmap they trust local teachers on the issue. By comparison, 45% said they trust climate scientists and 35% said they trust their friends and family for information.
Belmonte speculated the low response might be because of “a lack of confidence in the potential curriculum” in places like Florida, where climate curriculum has stirred up controversy, or Oklahoma and Ohio, where fossil fuel trade groups sponsor classroom teaching aids. When I looked at the crosstabs after our call, it was the Midwest that had the lowest confidence in teachers (15%) and, surprisingly, the South with the highest (24%).
I asked Soracco the same question and she circled back to the fact that teachers often feel underprepared to teach about climate change “because they haven’t had adequate training.” But any ignorance in our school systems is a luxury that comes from not being on the very front lines of this crisis, she stressed.
Students, however, are smart. Even if climate change isn’t in their classrooms yet, it’s certainly in the world they’re living in. They “look around now and they see it,” she told me. “They’re like, ‘Man, we don’t really have winter anymore.’”
The Heatmap Climate Poll of 1,000 American adults was conducted by Benenson Strategy Group via online panels from Nov. 6 to 13, 2023. The survey included interviews with Americans in all 50 states and Washington, D.C. The margin of sampling error is plus or minus 3.1 percentage points. You can read about our results here.