Climate change as a unifying theme for science literacy

#ClimateEdNowThe Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, in its recently released 2021 Sixth Assessment Report (ARG) of the physical science, predicts with high confidence that “global warming of 1.5°C and 2°C will be exceeded during the 21st century unless deep reductions in carbon dioxide (CO2) and other greenhouse gas emissions occur in the coming decades.”

Climate science is robust and unequivocal: all life on Earth is impacted by climate change. The ultimate cause of the planet’s current warming is anthropogenic and our ability to avoid the worst possible outcomes is quickly diminishing.

Effective response to complex environmental problems requires understanding of the natural and built environment, awareness of environmental problems and their origins (including those in urban areas), and the skills to solve these problems. Development of effective solutions to environmental problems and effective implementation of environmental programs requires a well-educated and trained, professional workforce. (National Environmental Education Act, 1990)

Given the impacts that any of the warming scenarios portend — as the Earth will continue to warm until at least 2050 no matter what humans do now — it is critical to elevate the teaching of climate science in classrooms and education as a whole to better prepare current and future generations for what is to come. This includes teaching how changes in climate and ecological systems inform our evolving understanding of the life sciences, physical sciences, and earth/environmental sciences.

If done well, climate science education, with its inherent foci of equity, inclusion, and justice, models what good student-centered, culturally-relevant education looks like.

It also means acknowledging that climate change will not affect everyone equally. Women and children, those of lower socioeconomic status, the elderly, people of color, the disabled, refugees — all will bear more of the brunt of climate impacts. If done well, climate science education, with its inherent foci of equity, inclusion, and justice, models what good student-centered, culturally-relevant education looks like.

The consequences of not teaching climate science, or only relegating it to a unit in an earth science course, are too severe. For all life on Earth, including humans, climate science is as unifying a concept as evolution. Like evolution, climate science is best taught when it is woven through the curriculum of as many courses as possible.

This does not mean doom-and-gloom on a daily basis, however. Our students, as they move forward collectively, must not only be able to anticipate the challenges, but also recognize potential opportunities, posed by the environment they are inheriting. Educators should provide practical courses of action and a deep knowledge-base that will help their students temper the worst impacts of climate change through technological and behavioral solutions.

As the 2020 NABT Position on Teaching Climate Change states:

Instructional frameworks should engage students in classroom discussions and in laboratory investigations that incorporate best practices in inquiry teaching to scaffold students' use of science practices and concepts to support the learning of core ideas of climate science. The instructional outcomes should focus on developing individuals with the capacity to predict the consequences of climate changes for human civilization and provide opportunities for them to propose possible mitigation and adaptation responses.

Educating current and future generations about what a warmer world entails must be considered one of the core goals when striving for a scientifically-literate society and it starts in the classroom.

Read other essays from our #ClimateEdNow series.

Jacki Reeves-Pepin
Short Bio

Jaclyn Reeves-Pepin is the Executive Director of the National Association of Biology Teachers.

Tara Jo Holmberg
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Tara Jo Holmberg is the President-Elect of the National Association of Biology Teachers and Professor of Environmental Science & Biology at Northwestern Connecticut Community College.