Tim McDonnell joined Climate Desk after stints at Mother Jones and Sierra magazine. He remains a cheerful guy despite covering climate change all the time. Originally from Tucson, Tim loves tortillas and epic walks.
Kids are a vital part of the climate change conversation; they're the ones, after all, who have to live in the world the rest of us are screwing up. But if they go to a public school, they could be getting a very confusing education on the subject,
On Thursday, researchers published the first peer-reviewed national survey of science teachers on whether and how they teach about climate change, in the journal Science. The survey, which covered a representative sample of 1,500 middle and high school science teachers from all 50 states, found that classrooms often suffer from a problem also common in the media: the false "balance" of giving equal weight to mainstream climate science and climate change denial.
Science teachers, the study found, have a better grasp of the most basic climate science than the general public: 67 percent agreed that "global warming is caused mostly by human activities," compared with about 50 percent of all US adults. And most do include some mention of climate change in their lesson plans: 70 percent of middle school teachers and 87 percent of high school teachers spend at least an hour on global warming each year.
But the quality of those lesson plans is inconsistent. One-third of the teachers said they emphasize that global warming "is likely due to natural causes," and 12 percent specifically downplay the role of human causes. One-third also "report sending explicitly contradictory messages," simultaneously presenting opposing explanations for humans' role in recent temperature increases. The chart below, from the study, shows that while most teachers' lessons align with mainstream climate science, many offer their students conflicting or incorrect messages:
Plutzer et al, Science 2016
Perhaps most distressingly, most teachers are unaware of how many scientists agree that climate change is mostly caused by humans. Only 30 percent of middle school teachers and 45 percent of high school teachers agreed that the consensus was in the range of 81 to 100 percent. (It's about 97 percent.)
"What's surprising is that many teachers personally think humans are the culprit [for climate change], but they are unaware that scientists share their views," said Eric Plutzer, a political scientist at Pennsylvania State University who was the study's lead author.
There are a few possible reasons for this, Plutzer explained. One is that climate science is usually not a part of teacher training curricula at colleges and universities. But teachers are also caught between competing sources of pressure. Because many standardized tests don't feature questions about climate change, there's little incentive to spend time on the subject. And teachers' access to quality materials can be limited: Science advocates in Texas, for example, lost a battle in 2014 to keep climate change denial out of textbooks (although the study didn't find a meaningful difference between liberal- and conservative-majority states). Teachers also bring their own preconceived prejudices that can align with the general political polarization about climate.
"Those teachers who are more on the small government, free markets, less regulation side of the [political] scale were the least likely to be aware of or accept the scientific consensus," Plutzer said. "And they were the most likely to introduce mixed messages."
It's too early to say whether teachers' climate lessons are improving or not; this is the first study of its kind. Minda Berbeco, programs and policy director at the National Center for Science Education and a co-author of the study, said the survey's aim wasn't to single out teachers.
"I think in some ways [the survey] is disappointing," she said. "But this is really a professional development opportunity. It's clear [teachers] aren't getting the access they need. Let's start trying to correct that."
The presidential debates so far have tended more toward theater of the absurd than substantive policy issues, especially on the crowded Republican stage. But whatever you make of the candidates' discussion of other issues, it's clear that climate change has barely surfaced. An analysis by Media Matters of the first eight primary debates found that as of mid-January, a grand total of nine (!) questions about climate had been asked. That's about one-tenth the number of questions posed on "non-substantive" issues, which the group defines as "the political horserace, campaign gaffes, and other topics that are not related to any policy issue":
During last weekend's Republican debate, ABC's moderators didn't ask any questions about global warming. But they still found time to ask the candidates for their Super Bowl predictions. The lack of climate questions has been disappointing for many environmentalists and scientists, who were hoping for a clearer view of how the different candidates would (or wouldn't) confront global warming.
We asked climate scientists and activists (including Mark Ruffalo!) to share their ideas for debate questions.
Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders both accept the mainstream scientific consensus on climate change but have different ideas for dealing with it. Clinton wants to strengthen tax breaks for solar energy, for example, while Sanders has pushed for a tax on carbon emissions. On the Republican side, the conversation has ranged from Ted Cruz and Donald Trump's outright science denial and Jeb Bush's skepticism to Marco Rubio's insistence that there's nothing the government could do about climate change even if it were real.
The moderators need to dig much deeper. The Pentagon has identified climate change as a major national security threat; cities and states are investing in clean energy and protection from extreme weather; and President Barack Obama will soon officially sign the global climate deal reached in Paris.
"It's amazing when you think of the infrastructure and other changes we're gonna see, that people are not asking hard questions about 'what is your plan to address emissions, and prepare for the changes?'" says Vicki Arroyo, executive director of the Georgetown Climate Center.
Still, climate change is complicated! Asking good questions about it can be hard. So to help out the moderators, we asked a bunch of the biggest names in climate science and environmental activism (including Mark Ruffalo and Neil deGrasse Tyson!) to share their ideas for the questions candidates should face. You can read them below. (We've lightly edited some of the questions for length and clarity. We've also added a few links to them, so you can learn more about what they are referring to.) And when you're done, you can let us know in the comments or on Twitter what you'd ask the candidates about climate change.
Bob Inglis, former congressman (R-S.C.), activist, RepublicEn
For the Republicans: Can free enterprise solve climate change? It's a much better question than "Do you believe?" or "Is is a fact?"
Katherine Hayhoe, climate scientist, Texas Tech University
For everyone: DON'T ask "do you BELIEVE in climate change" as if it were some type of religion (and as if their belief affects its reality in any way!) DO ask "what are your solutions given that China is out-competing the US in the new clean energy economy?"
Kevin Trenberth, climate scientist, National Center for Atmospheric Research
For everyone: Even if we make tremendous efforts to stop or slow the rates of climate change, it appears inevitable that we will continue to experience new record-breaking and potentially devastating climate extremes, such as heat waves, wildfires, and heavy rains and snows: How should a "green fund" be set up and managed to help build resiliency and adapt to climate change?
For everyone: Given that gasoline is so inexpensive now, why not implement an immediate gas tax? Or should it be phased in?
For everyone: What is your approach to removing subsidies and incentives for fossil fuels and implementing a carbon tax to change the framework that the private sector operates in?
Michael Mann, climate scientist, Penn State University
For Republicans: Do you accept the scientific consensus that climate change is real, human-caused, and poses a threat to society?
For Republicans: Do you support market-driven approaches to dealing with climate change, similar to the mechanisms that were employed by both the George H.W. Bush and Reagan administrations in combating other global environmental threats such as acid rain and ozone depletion?
Mark Ruffalo, actor and activist
For everyone: With a dozen peer-reviewed studies showing the transition to 100 percent clean, renewable energy (sourced by the wind, water, and sun) is technologically possible, what would you do to help our cities, towns, states, and country make this transition as quickly as possible so every American has access to affordable clean energy over the next 30 years?
For Republicans: Given the estimated cost of global warming worldwide as $17-25 trillion per year by 2050 due to coastal flooding and erosion, water supply loss, agriculture loss, enhanced severe storminess, enhanced human heat stress and heat stroke, enhanced air pollution due to higher temperatures, and enhanced disease, is there a reason you would not try to solve this problem if a low-cost, job-producing solution were available?
Ben Santer, climate scientist, Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory
For Cruz: You've stated that climate scientists are involved in a vast liberal conspiracy to alter world systems of government and control the lives of ordinary Americans. Do you really believe that?
For Cruz: You've argued that satellite estimates of atmospheric temperature show no significant warming over the last 18 years, and that satellites data tells us everything we need to know about the reality and causes of climate change. Did you know that your sources of information—like professor John Christy at the University of Alabama—have a history of making serious scientific errors in constructing satellite temperature estimates?
For Bush: You've claimed that climate scientists are "arrogant" for making statements about the causes of climate change—despite the fact that scientists have been studying human and natural causes of climate change for well over 30 years. Doesn't the real arrogance lie in ignoring the basic science, and ignoring scientific findings (such as those from the US National Academy of Sciences) that human activities are affecting global climate?
For Rubio: Your home state of Florida is already being profoundly affected by sea level rise, and will continue to experience significant sea level rise in the 21st century. The best scientific understanding indicates that the warming caused by burning of fossil fuels is contributing significantly to sea level rise. Don't you have a responsibility to the citizens of your home state to treat this problem seriously, and to do everything in your power to understand what the science is telling us?
For Trump:You've tweeted that severe winter weather undercuts the scientific evidence for human-caused global warming. You've [also] tweeted that global warming is part of a Chinese plot to undermine US economic competitiveness. Do you really believe that?
For Carson: You claimed publicly that there's little scientific evidence for human-caused global warming. In response to this claim, [California] Governor Jerry Brown sent you a thumb drive containing the latest report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Did you read that report? If so, have you modified your views on the reality of human-caused climate change?
Michele Betsill, political scientist, Colorado State University
Personally I would stay away from asking about whether they believe in the science or not. Too easy on both sides and allows them to sidestep the harder questions about what to do about it.
For everyone: What is your view of the recent Paris agreement and what role do you think the US should play in the global response to climate change? If they respond that they think it is a bad policy for America/the economy and that they would try to pull the US out, ask how they would justify this position to the rest of the world, especially those countries most vulnerable to the impacts of climate change.
For everyone: Most of America's major cities have accepted that climate change is a legitimate concern and have developed and implemented policies, taking on a leadership role in the absence of action in Washington, DC. How would you explain this and what, if anything, should the federal government do to support these efforts?
Michael Shellenberger, activist, Environmental Progress
For everyone: Climate scientists including James Hansen and a growing number of prominent environmentalists now say we need nuclear energy, not just solar and wind, to deal with global warming. Would you support including nuclear in a federal clean energy standard and otherwise equal the playing field for solar, wind, and nuclear?
Bill McKibben, activist, 350.org
For the Republicans: As early as 2001, George W. Bush said the planet was warming dangerously, "in large part due to human activity," and called on the US to put forth a "100% effort" to reduce greenhouse gases. Given that we've had 14 of the 15 hottest years ever recorded since he said that, why do you remain so dubious about climate science and climate action?
For Clinton: You set up a special program in the State Department to promote fracking around the world. Given what we now know about the effects of methane on climate change—that many scientists think natural gas turns out to be worse than coal—do you stand by those earlier efforts, or do you think the time has come to try and restrict fracking?
For Sanders: You've been outspoken in your opposition to fossil fuels, but how do we dramatically accelerate the spread of renewables in time? What specific changes must be made to the tax code and to the federal research agenda to spur the spread of renewables?
Jason Box, climate scientist, Geological Survey of Denmark and Greenland
For Republicans: [Democrats] are making a lot of the issue of climate change. Yet, many in your party reject the mainstream science that humans are responsible for some four-fifths of the observed climate change. Would you seek to unify the GOP to address climate change in a way that may appeal better to US conservatives than how [Democrats] frame the issue?
Robert Stavins, environmental economist, Harvard University
For Republicans: What's your opinion of the Paris Agreement on climate change? Follow-up: Will you pull the US out of the agreement? Second follow-up: Would you be willing to jeopardize our relationships with China, Europe, and virtually every other country in the world on other matters ranging from trade to security, for the sake of this?
For Democrats: If President Obama's Clean Power Plan is invalidated by the courts, which many neutral observers think it may be, what will you put in its place?
Marc Levy, political scientist, Columbia University
For Republicans: You have all expressed opposition to policies aimed at preventing climate change, and you have also all positioned yourselves as being able to do a better job than the Democrats at protecting US national security. Yet US military and intelligence leaders have said they worry a great deal about climate change as a multiplier that undermines US security, and these alarms have been consistent across Republican and Democratic administrations. How can you say you are serious about national security when you won't even listen when our military says climate change is a major problem?
For Democrats: You are both in favor of more vigorous policies to prevent climate change, and both are in agreement with the White House characterization of climate as a top priority that requires aggressive action. Economists are in almost complete agreement that the most effective policy measure would be a tax on carbon. Yet ever since George H.W. Bush first considered such a tax, every president has been either afraid to propose it or has failed to achieve it. How willing are you to go the mat to get a serious carbon tax instated, and what would you do differently than your predecessors in order to succeed?
For everyone: In 2014 a bipartisan study of climate change, spearheaded by Tom Steyer, Hank Paulson, and Mike Bloomberg, concluded that climate change threatens to kill large numbers of Americans and imperil America's economy through damage to its food, energy, and water systems. [Do you] accept the proposition that these risks require action; [if so,] what specific measures, if any, do you support?
Jeffrey Sachs, economist, Columbia University
For everyone: Do you support the globally agreed target of keeping warming well below 2 degrees C (3.6 degrees F)? Do you have a long-term vision for how to de-carbonize the energy system? Would you honor the Paris climate agreement (signed also by all other 192 countries in the UN)?
Naomi Oreskes, science historian, Harvard University
For Republicans: How would you deal with members of your own party who are still in denial on this issue?
For everyone: China is moving ahead rapidly in the domain of renewable energy. What steps would you take to ensure that the US maintains technological leadership in this, and other, areas?
Francesco Femia, defense policy expert, Center for Climate & Security
For everyone: The US military and intelligence communities have considered climate change a security threat, or "threat multiplier," for decades, across both Republican and Democratic Administrations. Indeed, the Department of Defense has identified climate change as posing "immediate risks to national security," which suggests that this is not just a long-term problem. Given this assessment by our military and intelligence communities, which is not at all driven by politics, what are YOU prepared to do on climate change that is commensurate to the threat?
Michael Burger, environmental lawyer, Columbia University
For Democrats: There is a gap between the emissions reduction pledge the Obama administration has made as part of the Paris climate agreement and the emissions reductions the US is projected to achieve through existing rules and programs. There is also no easy way for the US to increase its mitigation ambition in the future, as everyone recognizes will be necessary to avoid the worst consequences of climate change. Understanding that congressional action is unlikely, what is your plan for filling the emissions gap, and how would you establish an effective mechanism for further reducing emissions in the future?
For Democrats: The extraction and export of coal, oil, and gas from public lands represents an unfortunate escape hatch for the US, allowing segments of the US economy to continue to profit from fossil fuels even while the US ignores the emissions associated with the eventual, overseas combustion of those fuels. The Obama administration is taking a look at the coal leasing program, which may be a first step in correcting this gross inconsistency in the nation's climate policy. Do you believe the US should refrain from extracting any further fossil fuels from public lands?
For Republicans: Do you still, in the face of the overwhelming scientific consensus and the constant stream of evidence, question whether greenhouse gas emissions from human activities contribute to climate change? Do you also question other basic science—like evolution—or is it really just this?
Finally, a slightly different take from NDT:
Neil deGrasse Tyson, astrophysicist, American Museum of Natural History
I don't yet have questions for the candidates. All my questions are for the electorate. Top of the list: Knowing that innovations in science and technology stoke the engines of the 21st-century economy, how much weight will you give to a candidate's policies on science and technology?
The Supreme Court dealt a blow to President Barack Obama's climate agenda Tuesday evening by putting his flagship greenhouse gas emissions rules on hold. In a 5-4 ruling, the justices granted the stay in response to a lawsuits by coal companies and two dozen coal-reliant states. The plaintiffs have argued that by setting new limits on carbon pollution from power plants, Obama's Environmental Protection Agency is overstepping its authority to control the electricity sector.
The ruling is far from a death knell for the Clean Power Plan, as the policy is known. Rather, it allows power companies and state official to hold off on preparing for the new regulations until the courts decide whether the administration went too far. The cases will most likely end up in front of the Supreme Court sometime next year, so there's still plenty of time before the plan's fate is sealed.
According to Vicki Arroyo, executive director of the Georgetown Climate Center, the Court's track record on EPA regulations is pretty favorable for environmentalists.
"Every regulation from EPA is attacked legally," she said. "There might be delays, but there is almost always a rule that come out the other end."
The trust of other big polluters—China, India, the European Union—could be shaken.
But in the meantime, the ruling could throw a wrench in the delicate diplomacy surrounding the global climate agreement reached in Paris in December. One defining feature of the Paris summit that made it the most successful round of climate talks in two decades was the leadership of Secretary of State John Kerry and other US officials. It was the Clean Power Plan that gave other countries confidence that the US was finally willing to do something about its own massive carbon footprint. In other words, the plan was supposed to be Obama's proof that the US would follow through on its Paris promises. Now, the trust of other big polluters—China, India, the European Union—could be shaken. That could have a chilling effect on climate action around the globe.
"I think the stay raises doubts in other countries' minds," said Jake Schmidt, international program director at the Natural Resources Defense Council. "I'm already getting a lot of questions and confusion [from policy analysts abroad]. There will be a lot of outreach to explain what this really means."
Their concerns may well be justified—even if the Supreme Court ultimately does rule in favor of the administration. That's because, regardless of the case's final outcome, yesterday's stay will make the Clean Power Plan more vulnerable if a Republican wins the presidential election in November. All of the leading GOP candidates have vowed to roll back Obama's climate agenda. (Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton have both promised to carry it forward.)
"Most countries aren't moving forward solely on the basis of what the US is doing."
The problem is the timeline, explained Robert Stavins, director of Harvard's Environmental Economics program. Until yesterday, state regulators and power companies were in the early stages of putting together their plans to comply with the regulation. But with the stay in place, power companies can push off the investments and upgrades required by the plan—switching coal-fired power plants to natural gas, improving efficiency on the electric grid, building more wind and solar energy, etc. That means that by the time the next president takes office, the power companies will have sunk less capital into implementing the plan, and will have less incentive to see it survive than if they had already made those investments, Stavins said. With that potential roadblock out of the way, a Republican president would have an easier time killing the plan.
"That's a subtle chain of causality, but it's the one that—if understood—may reasonably cause concern to other countries regarding the ability of the USA to live up to its [Paris promises]," Stavins said.
Still, at least in the short term, the US doesn't need the Clean Power Plan to follow through on its initial Paris commitments, Schmidt said. The US will be required to submit its first progress report under the agreement in 2020, a couple years before the Clean Power Plan was originally scheduled to take effect. Moreover, he said, even if countries such as China and India are spooked by the Supreme Court's new ruling, they're unlikely to jump ship on their own climate plans.
"When you look at what's happened over the past couple years, it's really hopeful that the US is moving forward," Schmidt said. "But most countries aren't moving forward solely on the basis of what the US is doing."
During Saturday night's Republican primary debate, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie said he would use quarantines to prevent the Zika virus outbreak from spreading in the United States. Froma Washington Post transcript:
MARTHA RADDATZ (ABC MODERATOR): Governor Christie, at the peak of the Ebola outbreak in west Africa, you ordered an American nurse who landed at Newark Airport be detained and quarantined. As fear spreads now of the Zika virus and with the Rio Olympics just months away, is there a scenario where you would quarantine people traveling back from Brazil to prevent the spread in the United States?
CHRISTIE: You bet I would. And the fact is that because I took strong action to make sure that anyone who was showing symptoms—remember what happened with that nurse. She was showing symptoms and coming back from a place that had the Ebola virus active and she had been treating patients. This was not just some—like, we picked up her just for the heck of it, alright?
We did it because she was showing symptoms, and the fact is that's the way we should make these decision. You make these decisions based upon the symptoms, the medicine, and the law. We quarantined her, she turned out to test negative ultimately after 48 hours, and we released her back to the State of Maine.
That position might make for a tough-sounding talking point during a debate. But it's totally pointless as a matter of public health, experts said.
"Zika is rarely, if ever, spread from person to person, so quarantining infected people will do nothing to stem a Zika outbreak," said Laurie Garret, a global health expert at the Council on Foreign Relations.
"Quarantining infected people will do nothing to stem a Zika outbreak."
Zika, a mosquito-borne virus, has spread to more than 1 million people throughout Latin America. The symptoms of the virus itself are usually mild or nonexistent. But it could be dangerous for pregnant women: Zika has been tentatively linked to a spike in cases of microcephaly, a birth defect in which infants are born with small heads and can have incomplete brain development.
Dean Blumberg, chief of pediatric infectious diseases at the University of California-Davis Children's Hospital, agreed that a quarantine wouldn't be much help in controlling an outbreak. "The vast majority of transmissions are from mosquito bites, and most of the country doesn't have the [Zika-carrying Aedes aegypti] mosquito in high concentrations," he said. "So I don't think [a quarantine] is necessary or would be beneficial in any way."
Ben Carson, a retired neurosurgeon, gave a somewhat more measured response when asked a similar question about Zika during Saturday's debate:
CARSON: Do we quarantine people? If we have evidence that they are infected, and that there is evidence that that infection can spread by something that they're doing, yes. But, just willy-nilly going out and quarantining a bunch of people because they've been to Brazil, I don't believe that that's going to work. What we really need to be thinking about is how do we get this disease under control?
Christie received substantial criticism for his response to 2014's Ebola outbreak. He ordered the quarantine of a nurse, Kaci Hickox, after she returned from fighting Ebola in Sierra Leone. Last October, Hickox filed a lawsuit against Christie for false imprisonment and other claims, arguing that she had not, in fact, exhibited any symptoms indicative of Ebola when she landed at New Jersey's Newark airport. Ultimately, she did not end up having the virus. That legal case is ongoing.
"The merits of Christie's actions in the Hickox case will no doubt be decided in court, probably long after he has withdrawn from the presidential race," Garret said. "But his Zika comments can be addressed immediately."
Elizabeth Talbot, an epidemiologist at Dartmouth College's School of Medicine, said a more effective solution is to focus on controlling and eradicating the mosquitoes that can carry Zika.
"Our public health energies are best invested in providing education about preventing bites and prioritizing the protection of pregnant women by advising them to postpone travel to affected regions whenever possible," she said in an email. "The CDC is also recommending that meticulous attention be given to protect persons from mosquito bites if they are identified with Zika in the US following travel. This is so that our Aedes aegypti mosquitoes in the southernmost US do not become infected with Zika and transmit Zika disease in the US. Preventing mosquito bites for ill patients is not the same thing as quarantine, which can be an inflammatory or even scary word."
In his final State of the Union address last month, President Barack Obama promised to "change the way we manage our oil and coal resources, so that they better reflect the costs they impose on taxpayers and our planet." A few days later, he followed through on the coal aspect of that pledge, with a plan to overhaul how coal mining leases are awarded on federal land. Now, he seems ready to roll out his plan for oil.
The president's budget proposal for his last year in office, set to be released next week, will contain a provision to place a new tax on oil, White House aides told reporters. According to Politico:
The president will propose more than $300 billion worth of investments over the next decade in mass transit, high-speed rail, self-driving cars, and other transportation approaches designed to reduce carbon emissions and congestion. To pay for it all, Obama will call for a $10 "fee" on every barrel of oil, a surcharge that would be paid by oil companies but would presumably be passed along to consumers…The fee could add as much as 25 cents a gallon to the cost of gasoline.
The proposal stands virtually no chance of being adopted by Congress. Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.), the renowned climate change denier who also chairs the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, said in a statement, "I'm unsure why the president bothers to continue to send a budget to Congress. His proposals are not serious, and this is another one which is dead on arrival."
Still, the idea may be helped a little by the sustained drop in oil prices, driven by a glut of supply from the Middle East and record production in the United States. Gas is already selling for less than $2 per gallon in all but 11 states, the lowest price point since 2009. Raising that cost would also be a boon for electric vehicle sales, which have stagnated because of low gas prices as sales of gas guzzlers have climbed.
Obama's prospective Democratic successors, Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton, haven't weighed in on this proposal yet, although they have both been broadly supportive of his climate change agenda. But the proposal could prove to be awkward for Clinton, who has promised not to raise taxes on families making less than $250,000 a year.