Why U.S. Science Teachers Struggle to Teach Climate Change

3 minute read

Science teachers in the U.S. often botch lessons on climate change, hampered by conservative values in their community and their own lack of knowledge on the topic, according to new research.

The study, published in the journal Science, looked at the results of a survey of 1,500 public school teachers across the U.S. and found that 70% of middle school science teachers and 87% of high school biology teachers devote some class time to climate change. But the quality of those lessons can vary greatly from teacher to teacher. Nearly a third of U.S. teachers who instruct on climate change say that the phenomenon is likely caused by “natural causes” despite the fact that more than 95% of climate scientists agree that humans have driven global warming.

“Teachers know it’s important to teach climate change,” said study author Eric Plutzer, professor of political science at Pennsylvania State University. “But based on our survey we think there’s a lot of opportunities for them to do a better job.”

Conservative political identity was the strongest indicator that a teacher would suggest that climate change may be rooted in natural rather than human causes, according to the study. And even those who accept the science of climate change may teach about potential natural causes to avoid upsetting conservative members of the communities where they live. The vast majority of conservatives in the U.S. say climate change isn’t happening, according to a report from the Pew Research Center.

“Teachers are in a difficult position,” said Plutzer. “They often have to negotiate between the demands of scientific findings and the opinions and beliefs of students, their parents and other community members.”

A lack formal education on climate change among teachers also contributes to confusion when it comes to teaching. The majority of teachers surveyed for the study never took a class on the topic in college. Furthermore, authors have also lagged in incorporating climate change into textbooks, according to the study.

The findings also suggest that the debate over climate change in the classroom may be similar to the ongoing debate over teaching evolution. That issue has pitted religious conservatives against advocates of science for decades.

“The goal of climate skeptics is very similar to the goals of evolution skeptics,” said Plutzer. “They’re not attempting to prove their point; they’re merely hoping to raise doubt — enough doubt to delay [changes to education] policies.”

More Must-Reads from TIME

Write to Justin Worland at justin.worland@time.com