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date: 24 May 2017

Addressing Climate Change through Education

This is an advance summary of a forthcoming article in the Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Environmental Science. Please check back later for the full article.

The Earth’s climate is changing at an unprecedented rate, resulting in major societal challenges for current and future generations. Today’s teachers, however, are not equipped to help their students prepare for these challenges because they have little content knowledge in the earth sciences and a limited ability to help their students develop systems thinking skills. A major shift is needed, from the disciplinary nature of science education, past interdisciplinary science, to transdisciplinary climate change education that embraces a systems thinking approach.

Scientific research and science education have, historically, had a very entrenched disciplinary character. Until recently, this has served science and society well as it allowed scientists to focus their efforts narrowly enough to develop deep understandings in specific areas. However, as the implications of ever-increasing greenhouse gases in the atmosphere began to emerge, with the development of the earliest atmospheric climate models in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s, it became clear that an interdisciplinary earth systems science approach was needed. No longer could the atmosphere be studied in isolation from the hydrosphere, biosphere, cryosphere, and geosphere. Other aspects of the system had to be considered as they had tremendous implications for climate and thus for society.

Earth system science emerged as a research discipline through the 1980s and 1990s. However, science education continued in a disciplinary framework, with biology, chemistry, and physics being the core science laboratory courses in high school, with earth science offered as a lower level course without a laboratory component. Students coming out of high school did not see earth science as important, and college offerings reinforced this view. The National Science Education Standards, introduced in 1996, elevated earth science to equal footing with biology, chemistry, and physics, but did not provide guidance on how to integrate that content into the curriculum, and, importantly, the standards were not adopted by the states.

The Intergovernmental Panel for Climate Change released its first reports on the scientific and impact assessments of climate change in 1990; however, either the warnings were not believed or the impacts were considered too far off into the future to be of much concern. It was not until the Fourth Assessment Report, in 2007, when the level of certainty in the research results increased to the point that most scientists agreed that human activity was affecting the climate, and society was beginning to experience some of the effects, that citizens, professionals, and policy makers began to accept that they had to consider the implications of climate change decisions they had made for themselves, in their professions and for their communities. However, the integration of climate science into effective decision making requires education, not only in the content area of earth and climate science, but also in systems thinking, which reflects the transdisciplinary nature of the societal problems resulting from climate change.

Earth and climate science have evolved from their beginnings in disciplinary science, to the interdisciplinary approaches of earth system science, and now to the current need to become trans-disciplinary, as governments, businesses, and citizens must make community decisions requiring a systems approach that integrates the sciences, social sciences, arts, and beyond. Climate education is beginning to evolve in the same way, but the challenge of providing the needed educational resources, tools, and professional development to K through 12 teachers is large, with implications for higher education, the workplace, and society.