Nearly one in three U.S. science teachers teach that global warming is likely due to natural causes and not man-made as believed by most climate scientists, according to a survey co-designed by Wright State researcher Lee Hannah and just published in the prestigious Science magazine.
Hannah and fellow researchers collected data during the 2014-15 academic year from 1,500 public middle school and high school science teachers from all 50 states.
Thirty percent of the teachers emphasized that recent global warming “is likely due to natural causes,” and 12 percent did not emphasize human causes.
Many world leaders believe climate change is one of the most important global issues. The scientific consensus is that Earth’s climate is warming and that it is extremely likely that humans are causing most of it by increasing greenhouse gases through deforestation, burning fossil fuels and other activities.
“One of the most surprising conclusions of the survey was that a lot of teachers didn’t know how strongly the scientific consensus is built around humans’ role in global warming,” said Hannah, assistant professor of political science. “You want science teachers to really be in line with what science researchers are showing, and the training and textbooks are lagging behind.”
Advances in climate science and consolidation of scientific consensus have outpaced textbooks and teachers’ training. Fewer than half of the teachers reported any formal instruction in climate science in college.
Hannah hopes that publicizing the issue will prompt teachers to learn more about the scientific consensus and empower them to change how they teach climate change.
Science is a general science magazine published by the American Association for the Advancement of Science. It is aimed at a technically literate audience who may not work professionally in the sciences.
Stories about the survey were also published widely in the mainstream press, including The New York Times, The Washington Post and NPR’s “All Things Considered.”
“I was excited to see the media attention,” said Hannah. “The great thing is that it will be widely read.”
Hannah grew up in Salem, Virginia. He earned his bachelor’s degree in history and a master’s in education, curriculum and instruction from Virginia Tech. After teaching history in high school for four years, he obtained his master’s and Ph.D. degrees in political science from Penn State University. He joined the faculty at Wright State in August.
Hannah got involved in the climate change project when he was at Penn State. Eric Plutzer, who directs the Penn State Survey Research Center, was approached by the National Center of Science Education, which offered to fund the project.
Hannah, who worked as Plutzer’s research assistant, helped design and develop the survey, analyze the data and write up the results. The project ran from August 2014 to the summer of 2015.
“We didn’t have a national measure of what teachers are doing,” said Hannah. “So in that way I thought it was really important to help paint a national picture.”
Hannah said that if teachers fail to correctly teach climate change, then students don’t realize the magnitude of the problem.
“The goal of this project was not to condemn teachers but to determine how what is happening in the public sphere can trickle down into classrooms,” he said. “We hope that this survey will draw attention from organizations that can equip teachers with effective resources for communicating the current science related to climate change.”