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Rethinking Climate Change Education

Originally appears in the Summer 2010 issue

Last month, NASA issued a report that predicted 2010 would likely end up as the warmest year on record, due to the combination of global warming and El Nino. Because the vast majority of climate scientists agree that the earth’s climate is warming, many organizations and individuals are calling for the implementation of climate change education. Though no one doubts the importance of education in both lessening and adapting to this ostensibly man-made phenomenon, there is no agreement of what climate change education is or should be.

In reviewing climate change curriculums and Internet sites, we notice that much of the early work was done by scientists as well as science and geography teachers (CISHDGC, 2002).  We applaud their efforts. While science and geography are reasonable starting points, we know climate change, like so many other sustainability issues, has social, economic, environmental, and political roots.  As a result, climate change education  should also reflect this complexity.

Through systematic scientific investigation, we have known the causes of most environmental problems for several decades.  Similarly, the effect of increasing levels of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere has been known for years.  However, this science-based knowledge has not brought about policy changes, legislation, or wide-spread behavior changes that are required to adequately address climate change. Solutions to climate change will require engaging the social sciences, in order to develop the societal understandings, cultural keys, and political will that are needed for change to occur.

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Charles Hopkins is a UNESCO Chair on Reorienting Teacher Education to Address Sustainability at York University in Toronto, Canada. Rosalyn McKeown is Secretariat to the UNESCO Chair and the International Network of Teacher Education Institutions.  She is a former classroom teacher and teacher educator, who can be reached at