"Climate change should be everywhere in the curriculum, but as a result of its complexity it is nowhere," said Jill Karsten, program director for education and diversity at the geosciences directorate of the National Science Foundation.
The push to broaden climate science curricula brings up the second problem: By embedding climate change into an economics or ecology lesson, schools and teachers expose themselves to charges that they're politicizing the classroom.
Roberta Johnson, executive director of Boulder, Colo.-based National Earth Science Teachers Association, recalls an incident reported by an Indiana teacher on a recent survey: The teacher had started a climate change unit. A parent, angry at the lesson plan, threatened to commandeer the classroom and dispute the legitimacy of the science. The teacher, thinking the dispute could lead to a useful discussion on science and truth, welcomed a debate. But before any such thing could happen, school administrators killed the entire unit.
That teacher's struggle is not unique, Johnson noted. Last fall the association surveyed 555 kindergarten through 12th grade teachers across the United States who teach climate change. Forty percent said they were pressured not to teach climate change at all. A separate poll conducted by the National Science Teachers Association in Arlington, Va., found that 82 percent of high school and middle school science educators have faced skepticism about climate change from their students.
"It is disheartening to see the struggle teachers are having in the classroom," Johnson said.
As of 2008, the latest year available, 29 states taught climate change directly, via a course that specifically covered it, according to an analysis by NOAA and the Technical Education Research Center for earth and space science education. Twelve others taught it indirectly – mentioning it, for example, in a chemistry lesson on greenhouse gases. Eight states failed to adequately address atmosphere, weather or climate concepts: Florida, Kentucky, Maine, Nebraska, North Dakota, Oklahoma, Wisconsin and Wyoming. Iowa had no state standards.
State laws in Texas, South Dakota, and Louisiana require that any lesson on climate science be balanced equally with instruction that other scientists dispute the consensus findings that society's greenhouse gas emissions are altering planetary systems such as the atmosphere and oceans. The newest is in Tennessee, where state law, enacted in April, allows teachers to challenge climate change and evolution in their classrooms without fear of sanction. Gov. Bill Haslam, noting the bill passed the Legislature by a three-to-one margin, allowed the measure to become law despite misgivings, saying he did not believe the legislation "changes the scientific standards that are taught in our schools."
Tennessee, Texas and South Dakota aren't alone.
In state legislatures and before local school boards across the country – Oklahoma, Mississippi, Washington State, Wyoming, Colorado, California, among others – political battles over the teaching of climate change in public schools have flared [Sidebar: Conflict abounds in climate education].
In many ways the political debate over climate science mirrors the fight to teach evolution theory, a battle that has been waged in the nation's classrooms and courts since the Scopes' Trial in 1925. But there is a key difference. The teaching of evolution today enjoys constitutional protections separating church from state. Unless all elements of the causes and impacts of climate change are clearly laid out in state standards, no legal mechanisms require that climate science be taught accurately.
Across the country, scientific accuracy is being compromised in schools, say science educators. Even when teachers and school districts include lessons on climate change, earnest teachers think teaching "both sides" of the climate debate is scientifically valid. The Earth Science Teachers Association survey found 36 percent of the teachers polled nationally had been urged to teach "both sides." In southern states, 12 percent of those teachers said they were required to do so, whereas just 1 percent of teachers in the Northeast reported such a mandate.