Beginning later this year, every public-school student in Italy will spend a week’s worth of classroom time learning about climate change.
Beginning later this year, every public-school student in Italy will spend a week’s worth of classroom time learning about climate change. (Photo: FatCamera/iStock)

American Kids Aren’t Learning About Climate Change

Italian students will soon be required to learn about global warming. American kids? Not so much.

Beginning later this year, every public-school student in Italy will spend a week’s worth of classroom time learning about climate change.

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Beginning later this year, every public-school student in Italy will spend a week’s worth of classroom time (33 hours per year) learning about a vitally important topic: climate change.

“I want to make the Italian education system the first education system that puts the environment and society at the core of everything we learn in school,” education minister Lorenzo Fioramonti told Reuters.

Italy’s national commitment to climate education puts the country in sharp contrast with the United States, where individual states, school districts, and even teachers are free to decide how students do—or don’t—learn about climate change. That’s because the United States has “a remarkably decentralized education system,” explains Glenn Branch, deputy director of the nonprofit National Center for Science Education (NCSE). Each state implements its own standards, around which things like standardized tests are based. But state standards are just guidelines; the information actually taught in classrooms depends largely on curriculum, and each of the country’s 13,000-odd school districts can write its own. As a result, what students learn varies not just from state to state but from one county to the next. “It’s all very patchworky,” he says.

In 2013, a consortium of states tried to instill some uniformity by developing the Next Generation Science Standards, which say that “human activities, such as the release of greenhouse gases from burning fossil fuels,” are making the planet hotter and less hospitable. But only 36 states have adopted these or comparable standards. (See the list below.) Ten other states insist that anthropogenic (human-caused) climate change is a mere possibility or scientifically controversial (it’s not; 97 percent of climate scientists agree that human actions contribute to global warming), while four fail to mention human responsibility at all.

Complicating the matter further, even teachers in states that do include anthropogenic climate change in their standards are often unsure of how to teach the topic. When the NCSE surveyed 1,299 middle and high school science teachers five years ago, 71 percent taught students about our warming climate; but of those, only 54 percent told their students that scientists agree human actions are driving it. That’s in part because teachers “themselves are unaware of the depth and solidity of the scientific consensus,” Branch says. 

The fossil-fuel industry is only stoking instructors’ uncertainty. In 2017, the Heartland Institute, a conservative think tank funded in part by fossil-fuel interests, sent every science teacher in the United States a misleading book called Why Scientists Disagree About Global Warming. Meanwhile, politicians—often with ties to the Heartland Institute or oil and gas interests—keep introducing legislation that would limit or muddle how climate science is taught in public schools. In 2019 alone, a dozen states from Florida to Connecticut to Arizona fielded such measures. 

Still, there are signs of hope. In schools that use the Next Generation Science Standards, students spend up to 30 percent of their science classes learning about climate change, compared to 1 percent before the standards were created. Washington State recently allocated $4 million to train teachers on climate science. And many efforts to strip climate science from state-education standards have failed. In Connecticut, for instance, a state representative’s attempt to revert from the Next Gen standards to an outdated standard died without so much as a hearing.

Educators like Mary Morrow, who teaches ninth-grade geoscience at Lincoln East High School in Lincoln, Nebraska, are also making a difference. Although Nebraska doesn’t mention human responsibility for climate change in its state standards—and some students come to class already convinced that climate change isn’t real—Morrow determinedly presents facts and data showing that humans are warming the planet. “I’m direct with how I address it,” she says. “I want to empower my students.” Morrow also trains Nebraska teachers on climate change. “If you have some teachers who are trained on climate science and some who are not,” she says, “that’s not an even playing field for the students.” 

While it’s unlikely that the United States will take Italy’s lead and mandate national standards anytime soon, efforts like Morrow’s are nonetheless paying off. Morrow says her students are less likely to dispute lessons on global warming than they were ten years ago. Nor are kids falling for oil and gas companies’ propaganda. Eric Fishman, a third- and fourth-grade teacher from Massachusetts, wrote in the magazine Rethinking Schools that after he showed students the Heartland Institute’s climate-denial book, a pupil emphatically crossed out the title and bestowed a new one: Stupid Book of Wrongness.

States that recognize the reality of anthropogenic climate change in their science standards: Alaska, Arizona, Arkansas, California, Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, Hawaii, Idaho, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Nevada, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, New Mexico, North Carolina, North Dakota, Oregon, Rhode Island, Tennessee, Utah, Vermont, Washington, Wisconsin, Wyoming 

States that mention human responsibility for climate change only as a possibility or a possible factor: Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Oklahoma, Virginia

States that do not mention human responsibility for climate change: Montana, Nebraska, Ohio, Pennsylvania

States that misrepresent anthropogenic climate change as scientifically controversial: Mississippi, South Carolina, South Dakota, Texas, West Virginia

(Information from Glenn Branch, National Center for Science Education)