Nova Scotia

How climate change is taught in Canadian high schools — and how it can improve

A new study says there's room for improvement in teaching about climate change at Canadian high schools, particularly about solutions, impact and scientific consensus.

Curricula lack emphasis on impacts, solutions and scientific consensus, study finds

High school students take to the streets of Halifax as part of a climate change protest on March 15, 2019. (Robert Short/CBC)

Most provinces and territories are failing to teach at least some of the basic tenets of climate change, a new study has found.

The study, published in the peer-reviewed scientific journal Plos One last week, found that in some cases, climate change education is not even consistent with scientific understanding.

"[It's] a good start, but [there's] room for improvement," said lead author Seth Wynes, a PhD candidate in the geography department at the University of British Columbia.

Wynes and co-author Kimberly Nicholas of Sweden's Lund University, studied science curricula and textbooks across the country to figure out what was being taught and how.

They analyzed the documents to look for six essential concepts in learning about climate change:

  • The basics of climate.
  • That temperatures are warming.
  • That climate change is mainly caused by humans.
  • That there is overwhelming scientific consensus about it.
  • That climate change is bad.
  • That we can mitigate it.

"We'd recommend that Canadian curriculum documents ought to cover these basic ideas, these core topics that are important for understanding climate change and also for motivating students and taking action," said Wynes, who is also a former high school science teacher.

Seth Wynes is a PhD candidate in the geography department at the University of British Columbia. (Submitted by Seth Wynes)

While all provinces and territories teach students about the basics of climate, including topics like ocean currents and the greenhouse effect, there were many gaps across the country.

The researchers found that Saskatchewan had the most comprehensive coverage, teaching all six basic concepts. Ontario, Newfoundland and Labrador, Quebec and Prince Edward Island taught five of the six, Alberta, Northwest Territories and Nunavut taught four of the six, British Columbia, Manitoba and Yukon taught half, and Nova Scotia and New Brunswick taught only one of the six.

The curricula were particularly weak in teaching students about the strong scientific consensus that humans are causing climate change.

"That's important because if students don't understand these facts, then they are less likely to be motivated to help solve the problem," said Wynes.

Waves and debris cover the roadway near Nova Scotia's Lawrencetown Beach after a storm in January 2018. (Submitted by Allan Zilkowsky)

Manitoba's supplementary materials, for instance, recommend that students read publications produced by Friends of Science — an organization that believes the sun is responsible for climate change and that opposes the understanding of climate change put forth by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, a Nobel Prize-winning UN organization — and tells students "there is significantly polarized debate" on whether humans cause climate change.

However, there is virtually no scientific doubt that climate change is caused by humans, Wynes's study notes. A 2013 study of 11,944 peer-reviewed climate science abstracts found that of the papers that expressed a view on human-caused climate change, 97 per cent supported that view.

Newfoundland and Labrador and Prince Edward Island encourage students to debate what's causing climate change.

Wynes said while encouraging students to be critical, evaluate evidence and draw their own conclusions is important, that's not appropriate for something that has already been settled by scientists.

"We don't ask students to decide whether or not second-hand smoking causes cancer in health class. And in the same way, we would suggest that probably climate change is a subject where we need to be communicating with certainty that it is happening."

During the summer drought of 2015, metro Vancouver reservoir levels dropped to 73 per cent below norms. (CBC)

The study found that some textbooks pointed to "positive" aspects of climate change, such as extended growing seasons and the notion that cruise ships could visit the North "so tourists can follow in the wake of Arctic explorers."

Another area of weakness across most of the country's curricula was in teaching students that climate change can be mitigated through action, the study noted.

Wynes said he'd like to see more jurisdictions teaching students how to take action.

"I think the health metaphor holds up," he said. "If we're talking about healthy eating, we tell students, 'Look, here are some options for healthy eating.' ... We encourage providing that information to students. It makes sense that we would do the same thing for climate change."

Firefighters make their way through a flooded street in May in Sainte-Marthe-sur-le-Lac, a suburb northwest of Montreal. (Ryan Remiorz/The Canadian Press)

Wynes and Nicholas also examined the curricula in relation to political conservatism and greenhouse gas emissions in each province and territory, but they did not find a relationship between them.

However, they suggest there may be a weak correlation between when the curricula were written and how extensively climate change is covered.

Manitoba's climate change curriculum was published in 2001, making it the oldest in Canada, with New Brunswick's 2002 curriculum a close second.

A spokesperson for New Brunswick's Education Department said staff are in the process of updating the science curriculum, but it may take a few years before changes are implemented. In the meantime, staff are developing resources to help teachers integrate climate change into the current curriculum.

Wynes said he wasn't surprised by the age of some of the curricula, because developing and implementing them can take a long time. But he said he's optimistic that climate change education will improve as the issue gains more momentum in the media and politics.

What Nova Scotia education officials are doing

Sue Taylor-Foley, Nova Scotia's executive director of education innovation, program and services, said despite the study's findings about the province, the Education Department has incorporated environmental stewardship, climate science and sustainability into the curriculum since at least 2000, from Primary to Grade 12.

She said the province will be renewing the curriculum for grades 9 to 12 this fall.

Taylor-Foley said she hasn't read the study.