Last summer, when Oregon high school teacher Greg Craven wanted to tell young people about the Earth’s warming climate, he went to where many of them live – on the Internet.

It wasn’t long before his Red Bull-fueled burst of creativity, “The Most Terrifying Video You’ll Ever See” became a YouTube hit. More than four million people worldwide have seen the video – an argument for action that breaks down the IPCC’s lengthy analyses into two choices and four possible futures.

“If you think you see the emergency escape hatch when the Titanic’s going down, you’re going to do what you can to help people get to it,” Craven told the Seattle Times in late December.

Craven’s video, basically a graphic representation of the action-as-insurance-policy argument, avoided delving into the science behind climate change. But it was a powerful example of how the Internet can reach the masses. (Also see Forum Book Review.)

The Internet, a gargantuan living library with information that’s accurate, plain wrong, clear and confusing, has become perhaps the primary destination – but not the only one – for young people looking for information about climate change.

What Young People Know … Think

So, what do most young people know about the subject?

They’re long on generalizations and short on the details, studies show.

Most young people, 81 percent, say that based on what they know there is “solid evidence” that average global temperatures have increased in recent decades, according to a 2007 study by the Pew Research Center, completed in conjunction with Judy Woodruff’s Generation Next documentary on PBS.

Meanwhile, more than 40 percent of young people ages 18 to 25 consider global warming a “very serious problem.”

But American high school students are lacking when it comes to what they know about climate change basics, according to a Hamilton College poll in 2007.

The average high school student failed a quiz on the causes and consequences of climate change. More than 80 percent of the 900 students polled, for example, said that scientists believe that radiation from nuclear power plants is boosting global temperatures.

“There’s no difference in what students know about climate change regardless of where they get their information,” said Hamilton College economist Julio Videras, who conducted the study. “[And] schools don’t seem to be teaching many specifics about climate change.”

Nevertheless, numerous groups have turned to the Internet to shape what and how young people learn about climate change.

One of the most extensive sites is Climate Change Education, a Web portal maintained by volunteers with the University of California Berkeley and others from California science museums. The site offers lesson plans and student projects on climate change that cut across disciplines, from earth sciences, biology and chemistry to social studies and mathematics.

There are curriculum links for “Kids,” “K-12 Schools” and the “University Level.” The site pulls no punches when it comes to calling kids to action. It’s peppered with links to information on Earth Day, campaigns to cut carbon dioxide, and other environmental projects.

The Union of Concerned Scientists also has developed curriculum materials covering several regions, including California, the Northwest and the Gulf Coast Region.

Still another education project is Teachable Moment, a project of the Morningside Center for Teaching Social Responsibility in New York City. It offers guidance for teachers in elementary, middle and high school on teaching about climate change and a long list of other issues.

California: Mandate Climate Change Public School Ed?

In California, State Senator Joe Simitian has introduced a bill that would require all public schools in the state to teach students about climate change.

You can’t have a science curriculum that is relevant and current if it doesn’t deal with the science behind climate change,” said Simitian, a Democrat from Palo Alto, in a San Jose Mercury News article in February. “This is a phenomenon of global importance and our kids ought to understand the science behind that phenomenon.”

Simitian’s bill, which won Senate approval January 30 but awaits a vote in the state Assembly, has its opponents.

State Senator Tom McClintock, a Republican from Thousand Oaks, said in the debate, according to the Mercury News: “I find it disturbing that this mandate to teach this theory is not accompanied by a requirement that the discussion be science-based and include a critical analysis of all sides of the subject.”

Corrections to a Textbook?

Other controversies over what public school students are taught about global climate change are brewing elsewhere around the country.

Matthew LaClair, a high school student from Kearny, N.J., made national news in early April when he complained about passages in a textbook used at his school. In short, he argued that the book repeatedly got the science wrong, underplaying and even misrepresenting the scientific consensus about CO2 and its connection with rising temperatures. LaClair enlisted the help of an Amherst, N.Y., organization, the Center for Inquiry.

“American Government: Institutions and Policies,” 10th Edition (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2006), written by James Wilson and John Dilulio, “contains inaccurate and misleading statements, in particular in its analysis of global warming and certain constitutional law issues,” the center wrote in a press statement accompanying a 25-page critique on the textbook.

An April 8 story by the Associated Press reported that James Hansen, the director of NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies and an outspoken scientist who warns of dire consequences from the continued rise in CO2, had come to the boy’s aid.

He sent Houghton Mifflin a letter stating that the book contains “a large number of clearly erroneous statements” that give students “the mistaken impression that the scientific evidence of global warming is doubtful and uncertain,” according to the AP report. Houghton Mifflin has said it will review the book.

An April 10 post on the site features another protest letter to Houghton Mifflin from Michael MacCracken, chief scientist for climate change programs with the Climate Institute in Washington, D.C., and former national assessments director for the U.S. Global Change Research Program.

Controversies over teaching about climate change haven’t all been one-sided. The Heartland Institute, the Chicago-based climate skeptics group, recently criticized a middle school teacher from Wildomar, California for prompting his sixth grade students to send the institute letters urging it to abandon its skepticism of climate change science and redirect its energies toward helping to reduce CO2.

The letters, which the Heartland Institute posted on its website, are filled with oversimplifications and a bit of bravado.

One letter, posted on the website, said: “I do not think that what you are doing is right because you are telling people that global warming is not a crisis. If this is not a crisis, how come floods have occurred in asia, Mexico and India, Plus, how can you explain why the glaciers are melting, they can’t melt themselves, because they are in the coldest region in the world.” (Quotation is verbatim.)

“If you doubt some teachers are trying to brainwash schoolchildren with global warming alarmism, take a look inside the sixth grade classroom of teacher Michael Steria at David A. Brown Middle School in Wildomar, California,” the Heartland Institute website read.

Also among the skeptics is a Maine teenager named Kristen Byrnes, whose website “Ponder the Maunder” – a dip in solar activity in the 1600s has been called the “Maunder minimum” – casts a very skeptical eye on the international consensus on climate science.

Byrnes, who has challenged assertions made by Hansen and former Vice President and Nobel Peace Prize winner Al Gore, was recently profiled by National Public Radio.

Finally, NewsBusters – “exposing and combating liberal media bias” – recently criticized Ad Council public service announcements for the Environmental Defense Fund, saying they distort the dangers of climate change and use children to drive the message home. The EDF features a Web page that discusses the claims made in the ads.

Climate Change Websites for Youth

Beyond the back and forth chatter, there are numerous websites that aim to advance discussions among youth on climate change. Some are designed to help teachers educate young people, while others aim primarily to capture the attention of young people and mobilize them to act to reduce CO2 emissions. Among them:

  • The United Nations is sponsoring a “Youth Climate Change Publication and Video Project.” The project aims to make the U.N.’s annual Human Development Report more accessible to young people, by challenging them to come up with creative ways to discuss climate change.
  • The Pew Center on Global Climate Change has a Web page devoted to educating children about the climate issue.
  • The actor/global warming activist Leonardo DiCaprio also has a Web page devoted to teaching children about climate change.
  • Embedded in is a Web link to a portal for children who want to know more about global climate change.
  • Closer to home, it’s worth checking out community-based education programs for children. One such program is “Cancel-a-Car,” a K-8 education program in Northern California designed to increase awareness about how individual families can reduce carbon emissions. Founded by a retired computer executive in Marin County, the program has reached out to 27 schools and about 12,000 children in the San Francisco Bay area.

“I feel this is such a critical issue, and we don’t have that many years to change our behaviors and engage kids and their parents,” said Carleen Cullen, co-founder and executive director of the nonprofit group Cool the Earth, which runs the Cancel-a-Car program.

“We’re definitely moving as fast as we can.”

Bruce Lieberman

Bruce Lieberman, a long-time journalist, has covered climate change science, policy, and politics for nearly two decades. A newspaper reporter for 20 years, Bruce worked for The San Diego Union-Tribune...