The National Science Teachers Association (NSTA) acknowledges that decades of research and overwhelming scientific consensus indicate with increasing certainty that Earth's climate is changing, largely due to human-induced increases in the concentrations of heat-absorbing gases (IPCC 2014; Melillo, Richmond, and Yohe 2014). The scientific consensus on the occurrence, causes, and consequences of climate change is both broad and deep (Melillo, Richmond, and Yohe 2014). The nation's leading scientific organizations support the core findings related to climate change, as do a broad range of government agencies, university and government research centers, educational organizations, and numerous international groups (NCSE 2017; U.S. Global Change Research Program 2017). According to the National Academy of Sciences, "it is now more certain than ever, based on many lines of evidence, that humans are changing Earth's climate" (NAS 2014). Scientific evidence advances our understanding of the challenges that climate change presents and of the need for people to prepare for and respond to its far-reaching implications (Melillo, Richmond, and Yohe 2014; Watts 2017).
The science of climate change is firmly rooted in decades of peer-reviewed scientific literature and is as sound and advanced as other established geosciences that have provided deep understandings in fields such as plate tectonics and planetary astronomy. As such, A Framework for K–12 Science Education (Framework) recommends that foundational climate change science concepts be included as part of a high-quality K–12 science education (NRC 2012). Given the solid scientific foundation on which climate change science rests, any controversies regarding climate change and human-caused contributions to climate change that are based on social, economic, or political arguments—rather than scientific arguments—should not be part of a science curriculum.
NSTA recognizes that because of confusion and misinformation, many Americans do not think that the scientific basis for climate change is established and well-grounded (Leiserowitz 2005; van der Linden et al. 2015). This belief, coupled with political efforts to actively promote the inclusion of non-scientific ideas in science classrooms (Plutzer et al. 2016), is negatively affecting science instruction in some schools. Active opposition to and the anticipation of opposition to climate change science from students, parents, other subject-area teachers, and/or school leadership is having a documented negative impact on science teachers in some states and local school districts (Plutzer et al. 2016).
Teachers are facing pressure to not only eliminate or de-emphasize climate change science, but also to introduce non-scientific ideas in science classrooms (NESTA 2011; Branch 2013; Branch, Rosenau, and Berbeco 2016). This pressure sometimes takes the form of rhetorical tactics, such as "teach the controversy," that are not based on science. Scientific explanations must be consistent with existing empirical evidence or stand up to empirical testing. Ideas based on political ideologies or pseudoscience that fail these empirical tests do not constitute science and should not be allowed to compromise the teaching of climate science. These tactics promote the teaching of non-scientific ideas that deliberately misinform students and increase confusion about climate science.
In conclusion, our knowledge of all the sciences, including climate science, grows and changes through the continual process of scientific exploration, investigation, and dialogue. While the details of scientific understandings about the Earth's climate will undoubtedly evolve in the future, a large body of foundational knowledge exists regarding climate science that is agreed upon by the scientific community and should be included in science education at all levels. These understandings include the increase in global temperatures and the significant impact of human activities on these increases (U.S. Global Change Research Program 2009), as well as mitigation and resilience strategies that human societies may choose to adopt. Students in today's classrooms will be the ones accelerating these decisions well underway in communities across the world.
NSTA confirms the solid scientific foundation on which climate change science rests and advocates for quality, evidence-based science to be taught in science classrooms in grades K–12 and higher education.
To ensure a high-quality K–12 science education constructed upon evidence-based science, including the science of climate change, NSTA recommends that teachers of science
To support the work of teachers of science, NSTA recommends that school administrators, school boards, and school and district leaders
To support the teaching of climate change in K–12 school science, NSTA recommends that state and district policy makers
To support the teaching of climate change in K–12 school science, NSTA recommends that parents and other members of the community and media
To support the teaching of climate change in K–12 school science, NSTA recommends that higher education professors and administrators
—Adopted by the NSTA Board of Directors, September 2018
NSTA offers the following background information on the teaching of climate science, with additional resources found at www.nsta.org/topics/climate-change:
The Nature of Science (NOS) and Scientific Decision Making
One of the central components of the Science and Engineering Practices (SEPs) in the Framework is the expectation that students should argue from evidence. Specifically, it states "Argumentation is the process by which explanations and solutions are reached." This requires that a person be able to distinguish between opinions and evidence, and between scientific debate and unscientific denial. Good science teaching includes instructing students how to distinguish between opinion and peer-reviewed scientific evidence, helping students recognize common weaknesses in arguments, and explicitly attend to cognitive biases held by others through respectfully providing and receiving critiques about evidence and reasoning.
Controversy and Personal Beliefs
Efforts to properly teach the science of climate change are regularly challenged by those seeking to frame it as being different from other scientific fields, often with claims that it is either "uncertain" or "controversial." Debate as a form of dialogue can occur in any area of science, but a great amount of scientific consensus has been reached about fundamental understandings in science, and the same holds true for climate science. Any apparent controversies about the fundamental observations related to climate change science come from social, economic, or political domains, not from the scientific community. Teachers should know how to acknowledge student and parental beliefs while clarifying the difference between beliefs and evidence-based understandings. They also need tools for dealing with socially or politically motivated controversies.
The Nature of Deep-Seated Beliefs
A significant barrier to teaching climate change science derives from the cognitive biases we all carry with us. Belief systems do not necessarily arise from logic and evidence, which are the basis of scientific understanding. Belief systems develop from one's faith, family, and personal emotional experiences. An individual's desire to be a part of a specific community or group will inform his or her beliefs and affect his or her ability to change their beliefs based on the pressures applied by the community or group they belong to or wish to join. Beliefs are more likely to change when analogies, stories, and emotional messaging are used to explain evidence.
The Time Needed for Learning
An interdisciplinary approach is necessary to understand the complexity of most modern science research and how that science is contextualized in social and psychological issues. Given the human relevancy and transdisciplinary nature of climate science, which spans topics in life, physical, and Earth and space science, climate change science is an excellent source of phenomenon-based storylines through which students can learn all three dimensions of the Framework. Teaching about any form of human impact on Earth systems is most effective when encouraging students to approach the topic from the perspective of designing and revising mitigation strategies and solutions to problems, not just focusing on the problems themselves. Teachers require sufficient time to adequately plan instruction that supports student engagement with the complexity of climate change science, as well as adequate time for student understanding to progress from basic concepts to complex interactions.
Responses to Climate Change
The relative stability of the climate over the last 12,000 years has allowed agriculture and civilization to rise and flourish. Carbon-dense fossil fuels led to the Industrial Revolution and ultimately made our modern way of life possible. The continued extensive use of these same fuels now jeopardizes that very way of life. Human activity has affected the composition of the atmosphere in ways that are altering atmospheric dynamics and changing global and regional climates. The teaching of climate change science should enable learners to strategize solutions to human energy needs, examining multiple costs and benefits. Social and individual decision making will drive the development of new technologies that will in turn reduce the costs, allowing human societies to modernize. Students in today's classrooms will be the ones making these future decisions.
Branch, G. 2013. Defending science education: Climate as a second front for biologists. BioScience 63 (9): 717–718.
Branch, G., J. Rosenau, and M. Berbeco. 2016. Climate education in the classroom: Cloudy with a chance of confusion. Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists 72 (2): 89–96.
Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). November 2014. Fifth assessment report (AR5). Geneva, Switzerland: IPCC.
Leiserowitz, A. A. 2005. American risk perceptions: Is climate change dangerous? Risk Analysis 25 (6): 1433–1442.
Melillo, J. M., T. C. Richmond, and G. W. Yohe, Eds., 2014. Climate change impacts in the United States: The third national climate assessment. Washington, DC: U.S. Global Change Research Program.
National Academy of Sciences (NAS). 2014. Climate change: Evidence and causes. Washington, DC: National Academies Press.
National Center for Science Education (NCSE). Voices for climate change education (accessed October 2017).
National Earth Science Teachers Association (NESTA). 2011. K–12 climate change education survey. National Earth Science Teachers Association.
National Research Council (NRC). 2012. A framework for K–12 science education: Practices, crosscutting concepts, and core ideas. Washington, DC: National Academies Press.
Educational Research Council (NRC). 2015. Climate intervention: Carbon dioxide removal and reliable sequestration. Washington, DC: National Academies Press.
Plutzer, E., A. L. Hannah, J. Rosenau, M. S. McCaffrey, M. Berbeco, and A. H. Reid. 2016. Mixed messages: How climate is taught in America’s schools. Oakland, CA: National Center for Science Education.
U.S. Global Change Research Program. 2009. Climate literacy: The essential principles of climate science. Washington, DC: U.S. Global Change Research Program.
U.S. Global Change Research Program. 2017. Climate science special report: Fourth national climate assessment, Vol. 1 [Wuebbles, D.J., D.W. Fahey, K.A. Hibbard, D.J. Dokken, B.C. Stewart, and T.K. Maycock (eds.)]. Washington, CC: U.S. Global Change Research Program.
van der Linden, S. L., A. A. Leiserowitz, G. D. Feinberg, and E. W. Maibach. 2015. The scientific consensus on climate change as a gateway belief: Experimental evidence. PLoS ONE 10 (2): e0118489.
Watts, N., et al. 2017. The Lancet countdown on health and climate change: From 25 years of inaction to a global transformation for public health. The Lancet 391(10120), 581–630.