What Does A Trump Presidency Mean For Climate-Change Education? : 13.7: Cosmos And Culture Commentator Tania Lombrozo turns to the executive director of the National Center for Science Education to find out how science and climate-change education might change under a Trump administration.
NPR logo What Does A Trump Presidency Mean For Climate-Change Education?

What Does A Trump Presidency Mean For Climate-Change Education?

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A bulletin board reads "Climate Change" at the Doctor Tolosa Latour public school in Madrid. How might climate change education look in the U.S. during a Trump presidency?
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On Nov. 8, the World Meteorological Organization published a press release summarizing the findings from a report on global climate from 2011-2015.

The report identified the last five years as the hottest on record, with 2015 marking the first year with global temperatures more than 1 degree Celsius above the pre-industrial era. Arctic sea ice declined, sea levels rose and many extreme weather events occurred — events that were "made more likely as a result of human-induced (anthropogenic) climate change."

The same day the press release was published, Donald Trump was elected as the next president of the United States.

This combination of events is deeply troubling. Trump has called climate change a hoax and has threatened to withdraw from the 2015 Paris agreement to limit climate change. Already, Trump has named climate skeptic Myron Ebell to head his Environmental Protection Agency transition team.

More generally, there's speculation and concern about what a Trump presidency will mean for scientifically informed policy, for science funding and for science education. In an evaluation by Scientific American of four presidential candidates' responses to 20 questions about science posed by ScienceDebate.org, Trump came in last, with 7 points out of a possible 100. (For comparison, Clinton earned the highest score at 64).

"The good thing about science," says Neil deGrasse Tyson, "is that it's true whether or not you believe in it." But the bad thing about science — at least when it comes to issues like climate change — is that it's true whether or not government policies take it into account.

In sum: The next four years aren't looking good for science (or for the natural world). Concerns are especially acute when it comes to climate change and science education, where today's policies will have effects that extend well beyond a single presidential term.

To help me think about the implications of a Trump presidency for climate change education and for science instruction more generally, I was fortunate to reach Ann Reid, executive director of the National Center for Science Education (NCSE), a non-profit organization with the stated mission of defending "the integrity of science education against ideological interference."

Reid answered several questions about the future of science education in a conversation by email:

The National Center for Science Education initially focused on evolution education, but since 2012 climate-change education has also been a core focus. Why do you think climate-change education is so important?

Climate-change education is important because climate change is important — certainly the most important environmental challenge of our age. But the now-robust scientific consensus about its magnitude and potential consequences has emerged relatively recently; few people over 30 learned anything about it when they were in school. So making sure that the next generation understands what we know, how we know it, and what we can do about it, is absolutely essential.

What is NCSE's particular mission when it comes to climate change education? Historically, we focused on evolution — an area of the science curriculum that faced (and continues to face) relentless interference by those who reject the vast and varied evidence for evolution for religious reasons. We added climate change to our mission because we were seeing the same kinds of tactics that had long been used against evolution being deployed against climate change. Calls for teachers to "teach both sides," "teach the controversy," or "emphasize the strengths and weaknesses" of the science. All of these approaches are insidious: superficially banal but substantively dangerous. There are not two scientifically valid "sides," nor is there a scientific "controversy," nor are there "weaknesses" in the evidence for either evolution or climate change that merit emphasis in the high school classroom.

What is especially disturbing is that even as these efforts to interfere with the science curriculum have generally been blocked, they have, in a way, still succeeded, because they have singled out these areas of science as somehow different from the rest of science. Even those teachers who just want to teach the science are uneasy: Will there be pushback? Will parents or school board members complain? In too many cases, this uneasiness leads to compromise. We know that some 60 percent of high school public biology teachers somehow hedge, thin down, or avoid teaching evolution altogether. About one-quarter of middle- and high-school science teachers confusingly emphasize both that "many scientists believe that recent increases in temperature are likely due to natural causes" and "scientists agree that recent global warming is primarily being caused by human release of greenhouse gases from fossil fuels." This kind of mixed message not only interferes with teaching climate change and evolution, but risks confusing students about the nature of science itself. Students need to leave school understanding that scientific conclusions are based on evidence, not beliefs.

What do you see as the greatest current threats to the integrity of science education in general, and to climate change education in particular?

We are deeply concerned that the politicization of climate change will continue to have a chilling effect in classrooms, where many teachers may be reluctant simply to teach the science, which is straightforward and unambiguous. Rising levels of carbon dioxide trap heat. Humans are releasing a lot of carbon dioxide. That's the crux of the scientific argument and it's not very complicated! Even though climate change is covered well in the Next Generation Science Standards, and is likely to be included in much greater depth in new editions of textbooks, if teachers are concerned about community disapproval, they may nevertheless avoid teaching the science, or inappropriately present it as debatable.

It is important to recognize that most science teachers have not received any formal instruction in climate change, a topic that crosses disciplinary boundaries and has not traditionally been a required course for aspiring science teachers. In our survey, teachers reported great enthusiasm for professional development on the topic; they need and deserve to get that training, along with advice on how to deal with potential conflict and confusion.

What is the NCSE doing to address these threats?

We have a three-pronged strategy: support teachers directly, get scientists involved in helping teachers cover climate change, and support teachers indirectly by organizing communities to bring fun, accessible, respectful climate change activities to public events and raise funds to support their local science teachers. We call the three programs NCSEteach, Scientist in the Classroom and NCSE Science Booster Clubs. Our goal is to ensure that every single science teacher has the expertise and support they need to teach climate change confidently and accurately.

How, if at all, do you anticipate that a Trump presidency will affect science education or public attitudes towards science?

The good news is that the federal government has little direct control over local science education; standards, curricula and assessment are all determined at the state level or below. For us, the danger is that the utterly baseless arguments that climate change isn't happening, isn't human-caused, or isn't serious, are likely to gain even greater exposure. The more credence is given to the wrong-headed assertions that the science is unsettled (at best) or fraudulent (at worst), the harder it will be for teachers to do the right thing and teach the science straight up. Sadly, it isn't even necessary to present any genuine evidence against the scientific consensus, all the rejecters of the science need to do is cast enough doubt, and education will suffer.

What can parents do who want to support science education at their children's schools?

I'm so glad you asked! We have lots of advice on our website. Briefly, be sure to let your children's teachers know that you support climate change education. Don't assume it's being covered, and covered appropriately. Ask your children what they're learning in class and keep an eye on homework assignments. Offer to help by identifying local resources or accompanying field trips (or just encourage teachers to join NCSEteach). You can also get involved at the level of your school or district by letting science coordinators, principals and school board members know that you support climate change education. Go to school board meetings. Encourage local media to ask school board candidates about their position on climate change education.

Finally, NCSE's Science Booster Club program is now entering an expansion phase, after a successful pilot in and around Iowa City. If you really want to get involved, contact Emily Schoerning at schoerning@ncse.com and learn about starting a science booster club in your community.

Are there other ways that concerned citizens and "citizen scientists" can effectively contribute to the quality of science education in formal or informal settings?

If you're a citizen who loves science, there are so many great, local, science resources: museums, zoos, parks, nature centers, after-school programs and more. Join them! Support them! Bring your children and your neighbors' children to visit them! And, of course, there are wonderful environmental groups to join that raise awareness, organize local activities and lobby for effective policies.

If you're a citizen who wants to do science, there are more and more opportunities to participate in projects by collecting data and pooling your results with lots of other citizens. For example the Zooniverse website lists 45 possible projects you can join, eight of them focused on climate. The Howard Hughes Medical Institute's Gorongoza lesson plan allows students to participate in ongoing ecology research in the Gorongoza National Park in Mozambique. Who doesn't want to help track elephants? Those are just a few options; there are many more available.

Are there any additional thoughts you'd like to share with readers of 13.7?

In my book, science teachers are real heroes. For many, many people, a high school science teacher was the last connection they had to the world of science. A good science teacher can give students the tools they need to be curious, critical and confident evaluators of evidence about all sorts of topics throughout their lives. This ability — to be curious, but also discerning — has never been more important now that we essentially have a universe of information at our fingertips, with the valid and the spurious often difficult to distinguish. Making sure our science teachers have what they need to do a good job is an investment that will pay off for decades.


Tania Lombrozo is a psychology professor at the University of California, Berkeley. She writes about psychology, cognitive science and philosophy, with occasional forays into parenting and veganism. You can keep up with more of what she is thinking on Twitter: @TaniaLombrozo