It’s an unusually warm afternoon in early March—so warm that one could almost mistake it for a summer day. On the sprawling campus of Stony Brook University, my alma mater, students mill about beneath a burning sun. Most are clad in tank tops, shorts, sunglasses and sandals.
And many are talking about the weather—actually, the climate, to be exact.
“Thank you, climate change—I think!” announces one young man clad in a red tank and cargo shorts as he whizzes by on a long board.
“Was it hot this time last year or is climate change actually happening?” a female student in a sundress and flip-flops asks a group of friends as they walk across the crowded academic mall.
While scientists overwhelmingly agree that climate change is occurring (and mostly thanks to human actions) and affecting weather, uncertainty over climate persists. In few places is this confusion more apparent than academic institutions, including Stony Brook University. And this, experts say, is largely the fault of educators who tend to downplay—or downright deny—climate change in their classrooms.
The current state of climate change education in America’s middle and high schools is “thin,” according to Mark McCaffrey, senior fellow at the National Council for Science and the Environment and an author of a recent study that looked at climate change education across secondary schools in all 50 states.
“Climate change is being taught, but often it is skimmed over,” says McCaffrey, “and many students receive a mixed message on whether there is scientific consensus about its causes and severity.”
The result: high school graduates who come into college having at least heard of climate change, but not much about it. On average, McCaffrey and his co-authors found, teachers spend only an hour or two on the topic over the course of an academic year, with many inadequately prepared to teach climate change science correctly.
“New students to our program are rarely well informed about climate change,” says Taylor, sitting at a desk decorated with fossils, rocks, shells and other natural relics. “They may know a bit of cursory news and some doomsday stories, but they rarely know anything about the reality, the causes, and possible ways to lessen carbon dioxide emissions and prepare for warmer climate.”
Stony Brook University’s Sustainability Studies Program is one of many specialized college departments focused on teaching about climate change, among other pressing environmental issues. Other similar programs include Dickinson College’s Center for Sustainability Education and the University of Washington’s Program on Climate Change.
Alexandra Santiago, a Stony Brook University Sustainability Studies Program alum now pursuing her MBA in Sustainability at Bard College, said her department’s professors were successful in conveying the science of climate change. But outside the courses related to her environmental humanities major, Santiago says many of her professors barely touched on the topic.
“I was disappointed at Stony Brook’s lack of integrating climate change into business education,” says Santiago. “Business plays a huge role in climate change and also had the leverage to facilitate quick and expansive change.”
Indeed, climate change touches many aspects of life, from science to business and everything in between. It means more intense weather, less food, species loss and less productive economies. Ensuring students—especially college students—are educated about climate change and the problems it causes may be the best way to a better future, according to Miriam Bertram, manager of the University of Washington Program on Climate Change.
“America’s colleges are also a place to develop interpersonal connections, to inspire in young people the desire and skill to change the political fabric, to facilitate change that could make a difference to the global community 50-100 years from now,” says Bertram.