K-12 climate science education: the worldwide picture.

“For the sake of ten year’s benefit, we must plant trees. For the sake of a hundred years’ benefit, we must cultivate the people.” – Ho Chi Minh

Today’s K-12 schoolkids worldwide will be coping with climate change and its impacts throughout their adult lives. Some will make such work their career. How effectively they are schooled, and how adeptly they apply their schooling to the task of planetary stewardship, will determine humanity’s future every bit as much as will the skills, decisions, and actions of the adult workforce currently in place.

Which raises the question: is the global “Educational Enterprise” – comprising the teachers, the school administrators, and the global mix of national and local governing policy frameworks – up to the climate-change challenge? Will the current generation’s youth leave school adequately equipped and motivated?[1]

Recent LOTRW posts have reflected on the situation domestically, here in the United States. Experts seem to agree that US K-12 climate science education could stand improvement. But the US makes up only some 4% of the world’s population. What’s the condition of K-12 (or equivalent) education worldwide? The state of climate-change education in particular?

Unsurprisingly, it turns out the international state of affairs is no better[2]. Perhaps three-quarters of a billion people worldwide are illiterate. Gender inequality in education, though falling, persists. Teacher qualifications are minimal. In many countries, teacher absenteeism is even a significant problem. Worse still, in these countries, teachers, even when physically present in the classroom, may not actually be teaching.

Surveys find that school-age children think climate change is a serious problem and that children are frustrated by their inability to understand the problem or explain it to others. And most countries pay some attention to climate-change education, many even making it mandatory. However, at the classroom level, teachers feel untrained and under-resourced with respect to the issue; in practice, it often remains untaught. And educational emphasis can vary significantly from nation to nation. Some countries, e.g., China, downplay attention to needed national policy change versus exhortations for individual reductions of carbon footprints.

All these shortcomings were exacerbated by the covid pandemic. Not all school systems remained open. Many went virtual, or closed entirely. Rapidly kluged virtual-education performance was mixed at best, and access limited to the well-off. Student test scores took a knock; return to pre-covid performance remains slow. This recent history bodes poorly for the needed climate-change education.

The needed improvements in climate change education can’t be addressed and resolved internally, within the Educational Enterprise. They arise from larger societal attitudes and policies towards education at national- and local levels[3]. Two policy realities stand out. First, there’s the underinvestment in K-12 education generally. Teacher salaries are poor. And school facilities are too often rundown and under-resourced; teachers too often lack the tools they need. Anyone with the needed subject-matter expertise and desire and aptitude for teaching can be paid far more and endure less frustration in other lines of work.

Second, societies worldwide are leaving problems that should be addressed elsewhere – poverty, security and safety, children’s physical and mental health, and much more – on the doorsteps of the schools. Teachers are expected to shoulder what amount to additional unfunded mandates at the same time they increasingly face conflicting and even vehement community guidance and constraints on what should be taught and how.

Climate change science education is vulnerable to all these threats. Societies remain polarized with respect to the issue of climate change and what to do about it. But the focus – and the heat – of public debate has moved on, to controversies on gender, racism, inclusion, equity; immigration, drugs, guns; and the like. At the same time, recent weather extremes such as cycles of flood and drought, waves of heat and cold have intensified; they’ve graduated from background disturbance to visible disruption. These realities have sharpened minds. Here in the United States, for example, recent Congressional legislation has increased investments in renewable energy and other infrastructure. This has linked the climate change issue to job creation and thus motivates improved education.

The moment offers opportunity to scientific and professional societies such as the AMS (which has long made K-12 education in weather, water, and climate topics a priority, offering a variety of resources to educators and students). The increased breadth in interest in the topic should portend an expanded range of possible funding sources for support of AMS educational work, not just in the United States, but abroad. To the extent AMS educational initiatives integrate use of AI into the content and materials (along lines advocated, say, by Sal Kahn), they will find wider application and greater demand not just domestically but internationally.

(A final aside: Annually, the United States government spends about $50 billion in economic and military assistance to foreign countries. Of this total, some $40 billion dollars is designated for economic assistance – including about $25 billion dispersed by USAID. A little over $1B/year is targeted at educational assistance – clearly an important investment in the world’s future, viewed in light of the issues raised here.)

Time to cultivate the people!

[1] For the small minority entering directly-climate-change-related fields professionally, ”equipping” means the basics of science and mathematics. The majority of young people who will go on to careers in other fields will also need an awareness and understanding of climate-change issues that can guide and sustain political support for climate-change action at national and international levels.

[2] This matters. A World-Bank blogpost makes a persuasive call for better education, citing a Pew Research Center survey suggesting that people with more education tend to be more concerned about climate change.

[3] For example, a UNICEF study notes the many ways climate change education in India is affected by and intersects with conditions in the larger society.

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One Response to K-12 climate science education: the worldwide picture.

  1. Bill:-

    I couldn’t agree with you – less.

    At a time when too many of our schools are actively scorning merit in a seeming search for mediocrity, it’s hard for me to buy into one more distraction. As you pointed out, too few educators feel equipped to teach the subject. Further, our pool of teachers is sadly shrinking – today’s news called the loss of teachers an epidemic.

    But how about a compromise? More emphasis on reading, writing, arithmetic and reasoning (my 4R’s). Basic information about weather as part of science, along with physics, chemistry and biology. Personally, I’d steer away from “climate science” until much later if at all – too political, and young minds too easily manipulated by false “facts” (I’m looking at you, Greta Thunberg). Too many of the projected consequences based on the highly implausible RCP 8.5. Far too little effort by the modelers to look at where current trends in CO2 are taking us. Too much ignoring of studies like that of Masselot (https://www.thelancet.com/journals/lanplh/article/PIIS2542-5196(23)00023-2/fulltext) showing far more deaths from cold than from heat and calling into question the idea that we’re living in the best of all possible climates (and worlds). If our descendants can read and reason, I have some hope that they will act for the best. If they receive flashy snapshots that take away from the time needed for the 4Rs, then both they and the earth will suffer.

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