In 2017, the United States endured 15 disasters—two floods, seven severe storms, three tropical cyclones, one widespread drought and numerous wildfires that destroyed more than a million acres of land.  Losses were in the billions and, collectively, 323 lives were lost.

Unprecedented natural disasters struck in 2018, from the deadliest wildfire in California history (Camp Fire) to two of the worst hurricanes ever to hit the East Coast (Michael and Florence). Towns, farms and forests destroyed; hundreds of fatalities; and over $50 billion in losses.

So far in 2019, unprecedented flooding and violent tornadoes have ripped through the Midwest;  enormous wildfires have struck Northern California and Washington State; a blizzard (Winter Storm Wesley) blanketed the Great Plains and the Midwest, in April; and the Arkansas River flooded as record-breaking rainfall destroyed levees and drowned numerous towns and thousands of acres of farmland. Losses, again, are already the billions. 

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All of the above can be linked to weather and climate, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, as climate change plays a major role in causing natural disasters to be more intense, destructive and costly. And, as the oceans warm, it is highly probable that the U.S. is going to see a dramatic increase in these types of occurrences, over the next several years. 

The United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has projected that we have less than 12 years to mitigate the worst effects of global warming.  Even so, science education is not keeping pace with this critical reality. Climate change is not part of the required curricula in most schools and colleges in this country, despite researchers having alerted us to its importance since the early 1980s.

According to the results of a national NPR/Ipsos America poll, 84 percent of parents with school-age children in this country (80 percent of parents, overall) support the teaching of climate change. Over 60 percent of Republicans and 90 percent of Democrats agree that climate change should be taught in school.

Sixty-five percent of all parents polled believe climate change lessons should start as early as primary school and shouldn’t require parental permission.

Only 45 percent of parents, by the way, reported that they had ever discussed climate change with their children.

A poll of teachers found even more support for climate change education. Eighty-six percent agree that climate change should be taught, and 42 percent already address climate change in their classrooms. However, 58 percent do not! 

Why aren’t a significant majority of teachers required to include climate change as part of their curriculum?

The most common reasons offered by teachers for not including climate change in their lessons are: Sixty-five percent said that it’s outside their subject areas. An equal number think parents might complain—the issue is divisive, especially for families of students who are climate-change deniers. 

Seventeen percent of teachers say they don’t have the materials; an equal percentage say they don’t know enough about the subject to teach it.

Note: Only four percent of teachers report that their school does not allow the subject to be taught.

On a more hopeful note, the researchers did report that teachers who believe in climate-change education are finding creative ways to include the subject in their lessons. It is no longer the exclusive domain of science but can now be found in preschool programs and in subjects as diverse as English, math, public speaking, Spanish, statistics, and social studies; even home economics teachers and librarians are finding ways to approach the topic.

Unfortunately, with few exceptions, according to Jennifer Atkinson, a professor of Biometrics at the University of Washington, colleges have not been doing a good job of teaching climate change.  College students, on the whole, are not being adequately prepared “to face real-world problems and emotions related to global warming” and will be ill-equipped to cope with the “anger, grief, and despair that can arise,” opines Atkinson.

“We like to think of academics,” she continues, “especially at the college level, as among the most vocal advocates of climate change. Because you know, FACTS. We’re seeing record-smashing heat; unprecedented storms; and a ‘fire season’ that burns year-round. But while there’s no shortage of scientific evidence supporting global warming being (a) real, (b) caused by humans, and (c) super-duper urgent right now, not all high schools and colleges seem to have gotten the memo, even when it comes to the sciences.”

The National Center for Science Education at Pennsylvania State University conducted a comprehensive survey of secondary public-school science teachers, in 2015, asking them what they know about climate change. Asked, what proportion of climate scientists think that global warming is caused mostly by human activities, only about 40 percent of the responding teachers chose the correct answer: 81 to 100 percent.”  In addition, 60 percent of teachers in the study reported encouraging their students to debate the causes of climate change. This, despite the topic being significantly evidence-based. Disturbing, huh?

A former honor student at Mahopac High School with whom I correspond on occasion, moved to Southern California with his family this past summer. “Out here,” he said, “we learn that the problems are immense and urgent. My brother is in the sixth grade and they talk about climate change in all his subjects, every day. It’s kind of outrageous that climate change wasn’t a bigger part of my education back there. Kids have no idea how serious this issue is.  We’re running out of time and we’ve got to figure things out.”