Science education must reflect reality: We only have 12 years to stop climate change

A number of states had education bonds on Tuesday’s election ballots. Voters approved bonds to increase funding for education in New Jersey, New Mexico and Rhode Island, while similar bonds or referendums were defeated in Arizona and Colorado. Now legislators need to direct the new funding, as well as existing education funding, where we most desperately need it: science education.  

Ironically, states across the country have recently considered cutting or diminishing climate change, evolution or other key science units from K-12 curriculums.  For instance, just last month, the Arizona State Board of Education reviewed a proposal that would remove references to climate change and evolution from state science standards. While the board ultimately made the right choice and rejected the proposal, its very existence is alarming. Moreover, the Trump administration has proposed education budgets that slash funding for science.   

These measures are paradoxical and dangerous at a time when we need more science education, not less. Earlier this month, the UN released a report warning that we have as few as 12 years to reverse global warming trends to avert a global climate catastrophe. Yet, only 19 states have adopted a uniform science curriculum linking climate change and human activity.

How can we prepare children for their future if we deny them the knowledge they need to tackle their greatest challenge?  Eliminating key elements like climate science or evolution would undermine an entire generation’s ability to solve the most pressing problems of our time.  

It’s not just polar bears and coral reefs that are at immediate risk:  So are we. And our children need understand the causes and risks of global warming, from an early age, through exposure to a wide range of scientific subfields — including climate change and evolution — to innovate solutions.

Here’s why.  As scientists, we know that evolution interlinks every organism on the planet. Combined with climate change, this reality set us up for a high stakes game of dominos. Global warming will dramatically alter migration and breeding patterns of animals and the evolution of all species — animals, plants, insects and microorganism — and the dominos begin to fall.

There will be winners and losers. Large mammals, like humans, are likely to be losers.  We adapt slowly because our genomes are highly complex and we have fewer offspring and long generations.  

But microorganisms, like the viruses I study, are set up to be winners.  They mutate and evolve more quickly than we do. Rapid mutation rates allow viruses and bacteria to gain access to new hosts and resistance to available vaccines, antivirals and antibiotics. As the dominos fall, new pathogens will emerge and old pathogens will increase the territory over which they impact humans.

One example that can be seen in real time is the increased spread of mosquito-borne viruses that infect humans, including Dengue Fever, West Nile, Zika, and Chikungunya viruses, into North America. The emergence and spread of human pathogens and increased resistance to drugs propelled by climate change pose an enormous risk and challenge for the next generation.

I don’t mean to be alarmist.  Only about 50 percent of American believe in and are concerned about global warming. Only 64 percent believe it is caused by human activity and a whopping 55 percent do not believe it will pose a serious threat in their lifetimes according to a 2017 Gallup poll.  Our children must be better educated than we are on the importance of climate change and evolution, if we expect them to stop the dominos from falling.

Skeptics of climate change argue the warming of Earth is part of a normal fluctuation in temperature or that it is not due to human activity. Lobbyists for fossil fuel companies continue to attempt to cast doubt on the science behind climate change and impede efforts towards cleaner energy alternatives.  

Yet, there is no scientifically-based, convincing alternative explanation for the sharp increase in global temperatures that began in the 1950s. More than 36 scientific studies carried out by independent scientists across the globe over the past two decades stand to validate the findings of the original 1998 study revealing the 1950s spike in global temperatures. This spike exceeds anything that could be explained by normal fluctuations.

We have 12 years to stop the falling dominos. Our education standards and curriculums must shape a future generation ready to address the growing needs of Earth. We need to do more, not less, to educate our children in all areas of science from climate science and evolution to biology and medicine to physics and engineering.

It is our responsibility to arm, not deprive, our children with the scientific evidence that exists and empower them to evaluate and understand it so they can set their priorities to address the single greatest challenge of their lifetime. Climate change requires immediate investment in science and technology aimed at creating cleaner energies going forward and remedies to mitigate the damage already done.

A handful of scientists cannot do this alone; it will require the sustained commitment of every citizen of planet Earth-in our homes and communities, in the classroom, in our governance, and at the ballot box. If climate change and evolution are minimized or removed from K-12 scientific curriculums, we will be left with a generation of scientists, lawmakers, and citizens who are ill-prepared to address this challenge.  

Felicia Goodrum Sterling is a professor and scientist at the University of Arizona and a Public Voices fellow. She is received the 2010 Presidential Early Career Award in Science and Engineering.

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