“Science Serves Everyone”

Supporters of the scientific consensus on the human role in climate change and those who deny this consensus are ramping up their messages these days, causing a serious dilemma for science teachers. How can educators act on this teachable moment?

The two sides of the climate-change debate—supporters of the scientific consensus on the role of human activity and those who deny this consensus—are ramping up their messages these days. That leaves science teachers with a major dilemma when it comes to how to address the topic in the classroom. But the science is clear, and this issue is too urgent to be mishandled with students.

Scientists are in near-unanimous agreement about the scale of climate change and the impact human activity has on rising global temperatures. In its 2014 assessment, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change reported, “Multiple lines of evidence indicate a strong, consistent, almost linear relationship between cumulative CO2 emissions and projected global temperature change to the year 2100.” An analysis published in January 2017 by NASA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration pointed out that 2016 was “the third year in a row to set a new record for global average surface temperatures.”

Many of the phenomena linked to climate change (e.g., extreme weather patterns, melting polar ice caps) could potentially displace whole communities, lower agricultural yields and increase the spread of mosquito-borne diseases (though climate change is one of many factors linked to such increases).

On Saturday, April 29, people from across the country will gather in Washington, D.C., to promote the necessity of doing something about these dire environmental realities. The Peoples Climate March is organized by the Peoples Climate Movement, an advocacy group dedicated to mobilizing communities around climate justice. Along with more than 200 sister marches across the country, this demonstration will bring together tens of thousands of people, including educators, to amplify a shared message: Climate change is one of the greatest threats facing humanity today.

At the same time, forces in opposition to the scientific consensus on these matters are launching major assaults on efforts to turn things around, including actual policy decisions—like the planned budget cuts to the Environmental Protection Agency and the approval of a vocal climate-change denier as its head. And, despite the scientific consensus, Americans’ beliefs about the impact of human activity on climate change and what should be done to address it do vary widely, often along partisan lines.

Another such force driving the opposition to climate science is the Heartland Institute, an Illinois-based libertarian think tank. In mid-March, the organization sent nearly 25,000 K–12 science teachers copies of the book Why Scientists Disagree About Global Warming and plans to ensure that every K–12 science teacher in the country receives one. The book came with a letter from Lennie Jarratt, project manager of Heartland’s Center for Transforming Education, that included this passage: “A recent survey found that most K–12 science teachers who address climate change in their classrooms treat the science as ‘settled.’ ... I am writing to ask you to consider the possibility that the science in fact is not ‘settled.’” 

“The educators who’ve contacted us are well aware that this is not science and not appropriate for the classroom,” says Ann Reid, executive director of the National Center for Science Education, an Oakland-based nonprofit dedicated to defending science education against ideological influence. “Often, the first inclination is to produce a point-by-point rebuttal. We think that is arguably counterproductive, as it suggests there is actually something to debate and all of their points have already been thoroughly debunked elsewhere.”

While it would be easy to classify the activism and ongoing policy debates around climate change as another example of the “red versus blue” quagmire, the key task that lies ahead—for marchers and for all concerned parties—is to find more effective ways to create sustainable, engaging and welcoming spaces for people across the political spectrum to engage with science. That’s where educators can play a key role.

The fact that tens of thousands of people are preparing to march on Washington this weekend offers a gateway to teach about the science of climate change and about the social justice and activism questions that surround it. Consider grounding a discussion of climate change within the four domains of Teaching Tolerance’s Social Justice Standards:

  • Identity: “How does my identity influence my carbon footprint?”
  • Diversity: “Who is most vulnerable to climate change?”
  • Justice: “How do power and privilege influence our ability to influence climate change?”
  • Action: “What can I do to help mitigate climate change?”

The most important thing, says Reid, is that “the message needs to be relentlessly positive and inclusive. Science serves everyone.” She hopes this message can extend the current discussion beyond party affiliations to focus on a shared human commitment and using science as a tool to create a better world.

“We really don’t want science to become any more partisan than it already is,” Reid explains. “I hope a main message of the climate marches will be that everyone wants to leave a better world to their children and we all need to work together to make that happen.” 

This blog was produced in partnership with the anti-hate news project 500 Pens.

Guidry is a novelist, essayist, poet, science writer and librettist from Boston. Her work focuses on medicine, climate science, socioeconomics, healthcare policy, medical anthropology, political philosophy and bioethics.   

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