Photos by Scott Buschman
Last spring, when U.S. Rep. Doug LaMalfa came to visit Oroville High School, science teacher Rich Hogan asked him a question about climate change. The congressman’s reaction — in front of students and staff — surprised the Oroville Secondary Teachers Association member.
“He got pretty defensive and asked me how long I had been a teacher,” recalls Hogan. “He wanted to know if I was teaching both sides of the issue. It created quite a stir. I didn’t know he was a climate change denier.”
The heated exchange occurred very close to the Oroville Dam, where 200,000 people were evacuated last winter after the emergency spillway began to erode, threatening catastrophic flooding. Scientists assert that we can expect to see more flooding emergencies in a hotter world due to climate change.
Politics should not determine what is taught in science, says Hogan, who recently received a book in the mail from the Heartland Institute (which is funded by the Koch brothers) challenging scientific evidence of human-caused climate crisis. According to the Associated Press (AP), thousands of teachers were mailed Why Scientists Disagree About Global Warming, a book that the National Science Teachers Association calls “propaganda” and encourages educators to recycle.
“We need to teach students to wade through information and become independent critical thinkers and be socially aware of issues that will affect their generation more than mine,” says Hogan, who has taught science for more than 20 years and is a member of the Instructional Leadership Corps (ILC), a partnership between Stanford University and CTA that promotes best practices for the new standards. “And we need to do it fast, before we get past the tipping point.”
Teaching the facts
The debate over teaching about global warming in schools is heating up, according to the AP, which reports several states have considered measures to teach opposing points of view about climate change. In 2012 in the Southern California community of Los Alamitos, for example, the school board told teachers they must prove climate change lessons are “politically balanced” rather than scientifically accurate, which created an outcry.
Science has shown conclusively that human activity is changing the global climate. Even the 2017 “Climate Science Special Report,” authored by scientists from 13 federal agencies as part of the congressionally mandated National Climate Assessment done every four years, forcefully supports this view. (The report is pending approval by the current administration.)
This and many other scientific studies, and President Trump’s decisions to withdraw America from the Paris climate accord and dismantle environmental protections, have given many educators a renewed sense of urgency to teach about the subject.
“We have a responsibility to teach about climate change. It’s happening in our world today.”
—Darlene Killgore, Oxnard Educators Association
“We have a responsibility to teach about climate change,” says Darlene Killgore, an Oxnard Educators Association member and science teacher at R.J. Frank Middle School. “It’s happening in our world today. You teach the facts, and students make their own decisions. You can look at changes during the Ice Age and warming trends that are documented historically — and see that now our planet is warming up at an increased rate that has never been seen before.”
Indeed, Earth reached its highest average temperature on record in 2016, breaking the record set just a year earlier in 2015, which beat the previous record in 2014. Most climate scientists think global warming has contributed to unusually devastating weather patterns in recent years such as drought, heat waves, and intense precipitation and storms. The massive rainfall from Hurricane Harvey in August may have been exacerbated by climate change.
Killgore incorporates global warming into multiple lessons and units in hopes students will understand that climate change affects where they live.
“We talk about solar power, wind and other sustainable energy versus the burning of fossil fuels. We can start with small ways to change our dependence on fossil fuels by walking to school, riding a bike or taking mass transit. These students will be voters soon, and the next generation will need to decide what laws should be in place.”
One of her students, seventh-grader Harmony Svestka, admits she worries about climate change. “It’s scary to me because it could cause our world to end. It will affect my generation, but it’s not our fault.”
Teaching about climate change is challenging, says Killgore, because schools are in the process of transitioning to the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS), and teachers desperately need new curriculum with up-to-date information.
Climate change challenges teachers
Under NGSS, teachers are being asked to teach not only the causes and impacts of climate change, but how science and engineering can help solve problems and inform policy. But materials are lacking.
A 2015 Stanford University study found textbooks used in California schools — the same books still in use — contain misleading information about climate change. The good news is that new NGSS-aligned science textbooks will become available in 2019. Meanwhile, teachers must find supplemental materials themselves, and they are not always sure these materials are accurate, says Lisa Hegdahl, a science teacher at McCaffrey Middle School, member of the Galt Elementary Faculty Association, and former president of the California Science Teachers Association.
Nearly two-thirds of students in the U.S. are taught about climate change at school, but there is a great deal of room for improvement, say researchers from Pennsylvania State University, Wright State University in Ohio, and the National Center for Science Education in California. Their 2016 nationwide survey of 1,500 science teachers finds most students spend only an hour or two per year learning about climate change in middle and high school — and much of what they are taught is confusing or wrong. For example, only 38 percent of schoolchildren are taught that climate change is linked to fossil fuels. Seven percent of teachers surveyed attribute recent warming to natural causes. Another 22 percent say there is “significant disagreement” among scientists about the cause of global warming, when in fact 97 percent of climate scientists agree that it is caused by human activity.
Many teachers surveyed say they lack training to teach about climate change, and the information is changing so rapidly, it is difficult to keep up.
The study, published in the journal Science, concludes that giving short shrift to the subject — and sending mixed messages about climate change in the media — leaves students more susceptible to disinformation spread by political or corporate interests once they enter adulthood. The study also notes that the energy industry spends millions on climate denial research and supporting candidates who deny global warming.
Environment as a teaching tool
Science lab teacher Laurie Scheibner, Tahoe Truckee Education Association, recalls that California experienced a multiyear drought that was devastating for families in the area, many of whom depend on the skiing industry for their livelihood.
“But we shouldn’t get excited, just because we had normal snow last year,” she says. “We had a lot of rain-on-snow events, which caused immediate runoff, and then because of a winter with lots of snow, we also had big spring runoff. Students noticed how different this is in their short lifetimes. The runoff impacted everyone along the Truckee River and caused some flooding issues downstream.”
A study of the snowpack found last winter’s snow to be wetter (containing more water) than usual, which caused flooding and avalanches. In February, an avalanche buried the crest of the main mountain highway between Reno and Lake Tahoe beneath about 20 feet of snow. Climate change is also heating up the lake, causing algae to bloom and reducing clarity.
“Because of climate change, we’ve had either no snow and drought conditions, or heavy wet snow because the ocean is warmer and is affecting global patterns,” says Scheibner.
She often asks students how people can adapt to climate change and how engineering might help. During a lesson last spring at Tahoe Lake Elementary School, she asked students to design dams to hold back runoff water, with a variety of manmade and natural materials including Popsicle sticks, rocks and pine needles, to see what worked best.
Beforehand, she showed clips of the Oroville Dam at its crisis point as an example of the need for engineering designs as the climate changes.
“This way I’m not just telling them what happens; they have to figure it out themselves,” she says. (To see more about this lesson, visit the PBS Kids website.)
Kelsi Himmel, who teaches AP environmental science and chemistry and biology at Argonaut High School in Jackson, takes students on wilderness excursions in nearby El Dorado National Forest to make them more aware of how climate change impacts their environment.
“I’m a firm believer that if my students are going to make any real connection with their curriculum, they must view the impact of climate change firsthand, so we can discuss what we love about our area, why we live here, and why we want to keep it that way. They’ve seen the effects of multiple years of drought on our forest with bark beetles. You can see ridges of dead trees. Plants are more susceptible to beetles and other diseases after multiple years of drought and not having cold winters to kill them off.”
She recalls that when she was in college, there were very few degrees in environmental science, called the “gloom and doom” department. But today there is much to be hopeful about, with alternative energy sources and green technology. The challenge is finding a collective will to implement changes that can save the planet.
“We need to start talking to our friends, our families and politicians. We can cry about it — or we can examine ways to find solutions to our problems together.”
—Aba Ngissah, Inglewood Teachers Association
Al Gore’s new documentary, An Inconvenient Sequel: Truth to Power, asserts that the stakes have never been higher, but the perils of climate change can be overcome with human ingenuity and passion. A sequel to An Inconvenient Truth (2006), the documentary addresses the progress that’s been made to tackle the problem of climate change and Gore’s global efforts to persuade governmental leaders to invest in renewable energy, culminating in the landmark 2016 signing of the Paris climate agreement.
Climate change as a social justice issue
Aba Ngissah has been teaching climate change for two years at Hudnall Elementary School in Inglewood. She uses free materials available from a state program, the California Education and the Environment Initiative, to supplement her school’s science books. The ILC instructor and Inglewood Teachers Association member has also signed up for the organization’s in-person trainings and webinars.
“We talk about glaciers that are shrinking and how that affects animals, plant life and tundra,” says Ngissah. “We look at the rising waters and how that will affect islands. Students learned that some islands will disappear due to rising sea level. There’s going to be displacement of people and animals in coastal communities. One student was very aware of the social issues, noting that climate change affects poor people and those who live in Third World countries the most, where it becomes difficult to grow crops and sell them in the marketplace.”
Indeed, climate change disproportionately affects minority and low-income communities, notes the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, particularly regarding heat waves, poor air quality, and increasingly powerful events such as hurricanes. A United Nations report warns that up to 122 million more people worldwide could be living in extreme poverty by 2030 as a result of climate change and its impact on farmers’ incomes, which in turn would impact the ability of poor people to receive education and health care.
Ngissah believes students can relate more to climate change when it is viewed through a social justice lens, since most of her students are from low-income communities.
“It’s crazy to think about,” she says. “Climate change affects every part of humanity. My students ask how they can help change this. I tell them we can’t sit back; we need to start talking to our friends, our families and politicians. We can cry about it — or we can examine ways to find solutions to our problems together.”
Tools, Resources for Teaching About Climate Change
• An Inconvenient Sequel: Truth to Power (2017), Al Gore’s sequel to An Inconvenient Truth (2006).
• Resources and professional development available from the California Education and the Environment Initiative.
• Videos on climate change produced by National Geographic, including “Climate Change 101 with Bill Nye.”
• Content from NASA Global Climate Change and Climate Kids: NASA’s Eyes on the Earth, a website for young learners.
• Global Oneness Project offers free resources and toolkits examining the impact of climate change on people and communities.
• Earth-Now, a free app that allows students to manipulate color scales on a 3-D model of Earth and see reports on temperature, carbon dioxide, sea level and other climate factors.
• National Center for Science Education
Facts About Climate Change
- Global sea level rose about 8 inches in the last century. The rate in the past two decades, however, is nearly double that of the last century.
- Earth’s average surface temperature has risen about 2 degrees Fahrenheit since the late 19th century, driven largely by increased carbon dioxide and other human-made emissions into the atmosphere.
- The oceans have absorbed much of this increased heat, with the top 700 meters (about 2,300 feet) of ocean showing warming of 0.302 degrees Fahrenheit since 1969.
- The Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets are shrinking. Together, they’re losing more than 100 cubic miles of ice every year, which flows into the oceans and contributes to sea level rise. And the rate of ice loss is accelerating.
- Since the Industrial Revolution, the acidity of surface ocean waters has increased by about 30 percent due to humans emitting more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere and from there into the oceans.
- Ninety-seven percent of climate scientists agree that climate-warming trends over the past century are the result of human activity.