Americans Overwhelmingly Support Teaching Climate Science to Kids

But denialist lawmakers aren’t going to make it easy.

May 04, 2018

Blend Images/Alamy

Despite all evidence to the contrary—the decades’ worth of data, countless peer-reviewed articles, etc.—we’re still asked to believe that climate change is a “controversial” topic. So effective has a small (and dwindling) minority of special interests been at portraying the illusion of fervid national debate that many of us simply assume that Americans are evenly split over the subject, without questioning whether that assumption is valid.

In truth, as a new report published by the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication (YPCCC) shows, a sizeable majority of people from across the political and ideological spectrum profess to believe in climate change. Even more importantly, 78 percent of Americans believe that we should educate the next generation about it.

Researchers spent the better part of March 2018 interviewing nearly 1,300 adults across the country, asking them for their views on climate change. Among their findings:

  • Americans who believe that global warming is real now outnumber skeptics and/or deniers by a margin of 5 to 1.
  • Those who believe that climate change is happening are expressing greater certainty than they did three years ago, with 49 percent of respondents saying they’re “extremely” or “very” certain that global warming is real. That’s a 12 percent increase from 2015.
  • Support for teaching children about “the causes, consequences, and potential solutions to global warming” is overwhelming, with majorities approving of such efforts “in all 50 states and 3,000-plus counties across the nation, including Republican and Democratic strongholds.”

The report, hearteningly, suggests that a public consensus is emerging to match the 97 percent consensus within the climate-science community.

If we could only get America’s political class to join the rest of us, we’d be in pretty good shape.

As it is, though, politicians and other public officials may be among the last holdouts in this protracted, if waning, culture war. Exhibit A: the House Education Committee of the Idaho state legislature, which last year voted to remove all mentions of anthropogenic climate change from the state’s science guidelines. In the words of the legislator who spearheaded the removal, the original standards, which acknowledged rising global temperatures as well as their detrimental impact on biodiversity and natural systems, didn’t “present both sides of the picture.”

Thus began an acrimonious yearlong tussle between legislators and the State Board of Education that was finally and awkwardly resolved in February, when the standards—plus supporting materials for teachers, designed to help them shape their coursework—were approved, sparing Idaho from the ignominy of becoming the only state in the country to legislatively excise climate change from its science curriculum requirements. As this comprehensive story from the Weather Channel points out, lawmakers have tried, unsuccessfully, to do the same thing in six other states: Iowa, Michigan, Kentucky, Oklahoma, West Virginia, and Wyoming.

Things could have turned out much worse for Idaho’s schoolchildren. Dell Raybould, the chairman of the state legislature’s Environment, Energy & Technology Committee, once advised a reporter who had asked him about climate change to “[l]isten to Rush Limbaugh once in a while. See what he thinks about it. He’ll tell you that this is just a bunch of nonsense.” He and the other legislators that stood in the way of science education for the young people in their state ought to feel ashamed; instead, they’ve been able to convince themselves and others—for years—that they’re simply encouraging balance and reflecting the diversity of their constituents’ opinions.

But that already flimsy line of reasoning is just getting flimsier. According to the YPCCC’s report, more than three-quarters of Idahoans support science-based climate education. In Idaho, as well as nationally, as the report suggests, the percentage of people who believe in climate change—and in teaching it—will only get higher, not lower. And as it does, lawmakers are ultimately going to have to come to terms with the fact that climate denial, in whatever form it may take, runs counter to the beliefs and values of the vast majority of their constituents.

Until then, though, we’ll probably have to put up with more transparent attempts by lawmakers to hoodwink the public and obfuscate the truth. But they can’t get away with it for much longer. And by the time those same kids they tried to cheat out of an education grow up and take over, they won’t be able to get away with it at all.

onEarth provides reporting and analysis about environmental science, policy, and culture. All opinions expressed are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the policies or positions of NRDC. Learn more or follow us on Facebook and Twitter.

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