Research Summary

Cultural cognition and climate change education in the U.S.: why consensus is not enough

Climate change education could benefit from being more ideologically inclusive

Environmental Education Research

The scientific evidence for climate change is unequivocal, and nearly all climate experts attribute recent climate trends and impacts to human activity. Yet, even with near consensus among experts, anthropogenic (human-caused) climate change has become a contentious and politically divisive issue in the United States. Studies show that some scientific topics—such as climate change, vaccinations, and GMOs—are so politically polarizing that people tend to accept or reject scientific evidence based exclusively on their cultural worldviews. Presenting people with more information about these controversial scientific topics oftentimes has the unintended effect of further entrenching people’s beliefs. This study investigated whether science educators in the United States viewed and understood climate change through their own cultural lenses, and if they did, how their cultural worldviews influenced the ways in which they taught climate change education.

The authors used a cultural cognition approach to investigate how science educators’ worldviews influence their perceptions of and decisions about climate change education (CCE). The cultural cognition approach explores how people’s risk perceptions (in this case, perceptions of risk regarding climate change) are a function of their cultural beliefs. This approach is grounded in the idea that people fall along two cross-cutting worldview spectrums: hierarchical-egalitarian and individualist-communitarian. Within these are four dimensions of cultural values, or worldview camps:
Hierarchical-individualists (HIs) are those who seek to maintain social order, value industry, and are highly competitive.
Egalitarian-communitarians (ECs) are those who believe in social and economic equality, worry that industry poses threats, and value interdependence and solidarity.
Hierarchical-communitarians (HCs) are those who seek to maintain social order, value commerce, and value interdependence and solidarity.
Egalitarian-individualists (EIs) are those who highly competitive but believe in social and economic equality.
Past studies indicate that Americans generally fall into one of two worldview camps: HIs or ECs. HIs tend to dismiss climate risks, while ECs tend to believe in climate risks. These worldview camps are more predictive of how people will perceive climate change than any other demographic factor.

This study took place in the southeastern United States. The authors used evidence from other studies to design a web-based survey that measured: (1) worldview, (2) CCE-related teaching experience, (3) intention to teach CCE, (4) desired CCE curricular content, and (5) risks and opportunities associated with teaching CCE. The survey was divided into sections, each of which contained several scaled questions as well as an open-ended question for any comments and/or explanations. The authors distributed the survey to formal and nonformal science educators via various email listservs. A total of 251 educators from five states (Florida, North Carolina, Virginia, Arkansas, and Pennsylvania) completed the survey. Most survey respondents were biology teachers who taught in public schools. The authors used statistical methods to analyze the results.

Overall, results indicated that egalitarian-communitarian respondents viewed CCE much more favorably than their hierarchical-individualist counterparts. Just over half of respondents (57%) scored as egalitarian-communitarian, while roughly a third (31%) scored as hierarchical-individualist. A small minority of respondents (8%) scored as egalitarian-individualist (EI).

Results showed that most teachers felt it was the professional responsibility of science educators to teach about climate change. However, EC respondents felt this much more strongly than did HI respondents, and HI respondents felt their responsibility extended only to teaching about the natural causes of climate change. In this vein, EC respondents were much more inclined to teach about anthropogenic climate change. Respondents with higher EC scores demonstrated a greater likelihood to support climate change education, whereas those with higher HI values demonstrated a lower likelihood to support it. Additionally, EC respondents, much more than their HI counterparts, felt that CCE offers many learning and skills-building opportunities.

Not surprisingly, both hierarchical-individualist and egalitarian-communitarian respondents were likely to support climate change education curricula that reinforced their respective worldviews, but HIs were more adamant that content aligned with EC values (such as climate change causing sea level rise and increasingly frequent and intense storms) should not be taught. EC and HI respondents indicated that they felt that teaching CCE had the potential to spark conflict, and both groups expressed disdain toward educators who held opposing worldviews. Egalitarian-individualists (EIs) were more similar to ECs than to HIs in terms of their perspectives on CCE. However, EIs did not express the same level of antagonism toward HI and EC worldviews, and they were more accepting of educators with different cultural values.

This study was limited by the fact that the authors did not randomly select participants but, rather, recruited them through listservs with an environmental education focus. Thus, participants were likely educators who already expressed interest in CCE and other environmental education topics. Further, the results were context specific. The same study in a different location with a different group of participants would likely generate different results.

The authors emphasize that developing inclusive CCE resources is an important step in encouraging more science educators to teach about climate change. For instance, activities that focus on market- and/or technology-driven solutions to climate change might appeal to teachers with hierarchical-individualists worldviews. The authors caution, however, that all CCE resources should be scientifically accurate. They suggest that egalitarian-individualists—who tend to be more accepting of alternate worldviews and who hold overlapping values with both egalitarian-communitarians and HIs—might be able to help develop resources that are acceptable to a broader range of worldviews. EIs may also be able to build communication bridges between ECs and HIs. The authors recommend that CCE teacher trainings focus on giving teachers the skills they need to facilitate open dialogue about climate change, help students build critical thinking skills, provide students with opportunities to work with climate data, and help students navigate complex issues. They suggest that trainings also explore ways for teachers to recognize and temper their own cultural biases and effectively navigate conflict with colleagues.

The Bottom Line

This study investigated whether the cultural worldviews of science educators impacted their perceptions of climate change and influenced their intentions to teach about the topic. Results from 251 teacher respondents indicated that those who believed in social/economic equality and valued interdependence were more likely to view climate change education favorably and more inclined to teach about human-caused climate change. Respondents who valued authority and were highly competitive viewed climate change education less favorably and were more likely to teach only the natural causes of climate change. The authors recommend developing resources that are scientifically accurate and ideologically inclusive.