Know Your Earth

The Necessity of Earth Science Literacy: Two Perspectives

by Fatima Husain & Christopher Monschauer

published December 4, 2016

In the weeks following the election, a few subjects have generated more interest than others, such as a purported Muslim registry or the validity of popular vote results. One subject; however, receives fleeting notice time and time again: the environment.

Anthropogenic climate change is real, and continually rising atmospheric carbon dioxide levels alone demonstrate the lack of serious commitment to ensuring the generations to come have access to healthy natural resources. Of course, it’s disheartening to hear that Myron Ebell, who is known for his public climate change denial efforts, will probably lead the President-Elect’s EPA Transition Team. It’s even more disheartening to know that there are high school science teachers who tell their students that anthropogenic climate change isn’t real.

Of course it’s economically easier to ignore climate change and its consequences—misinformation is prevalent not only in our political sphere but in mass media as well. A high school science teacher who goes through collegiate-level science classes and Praxis exams should not be swayed by such misinformation. There’s a deeper problem, and the solution is not obvious.

Though there will be no doubt intense opposition, pushing a national standard for Earth Science literacy is integral to the fight against infectious misinformation. Luckily, a proposed set of standards already exists—the Next Generation Science Standards, which do not only cover Earth Science. The Next Generation Science Standards promote Earth Science literacy and include a high school standard titled Human Sustainability, which covers human impacts on natural systems.

The standards were developed as part of a multi-state effort, and align closely with the Common Core standards for elementary, middle, and high schools. It’s up to states to decide whether to implement the Next-Gen Science Standards, and as of February 2016, only 16 states will have adopted these standards. Even then, the adoption of the standards does not necessarily mean full implementation, and the Earth and Space Science standards may not be discussed at all in some classrooms. For example, AP Environmental Science covers nearly all of the Earth and Space Science Standards, but it’s offered as an optional class—an option not granted to everyone.

Learning about the Earth we live shouldn’t be controversial or out of reach. Misinformation about anthropogenic climate change has contributed to the rise in scientists’ proposals of wild, potentially dangerous geoengineering solutions.

Without widespread Earth Science literacy, there is no hope for tackling the consequences of our continued existence. It’s not politics. It’s not economics. It’s survival.


Fatima Husain ’17 wants to survive.




“It’s only two degrees” is a sentence that should very well boil the blood of any Earth Scientist. With the bitter cold weather setting in, it is easy enough to understand why a seemingly minor increase in temperature would seem harmless if not desirable. The major concern with our mass injection of carbon into the air is not that somehow Friday January 6, 2017 will now be 37 degrees instead of 35, but rather the rise in sea-level, increase in super storms, and alteration of climatic patterns that will come along with an average global temperature increase of two degrees. The difference between a two degree change in weather and a two degree change in global climate is a nuanced one, but one with profound implications for the planet. To truly understand this, one needs basic Earth Science literacy.

Education has long focused on literacy and numeracy. Being literate does not make you a poet and having numeracy does not make you the next great mathematician. Yet literacy and numeracy do give you basic tools to navigate many practical life situations. Considering scales of time and space, analyzing the interactions within and between systems, and balancing conflicting information are skills that are useful to understanding not only our world but also any scientific or logical argument.

If climate and environmental policy are going to be subject to debate, and I anticipate they will, we need citizens who are capable of listening to and assessing a scientific argument and then vote with their conclusion in mind. The good news is that new science standards, including the Next Generation Science Standards, advocate the teaching of these critical thinking skills. Unfortunately, Earth Science remains a subject that is rarely taught at the secondary level, meaning that these critical thinking skills may never be applied to the study of our planet.

Skeptics of climate science may very well be worried that earth science literacy is just code for global warming indoctrination. While this is not an argument to which I personally subscribe, we must be vigilant not to present all of earth and environmental science as a collection of settled inarguable facts. Indeed, the key importance of this literacy is that is a skill set, not a memorization of evidence. The truly earth science literate individual can assess information that conflicts with previous findings, acknowledge and discuss gaps in the knowledge, and explain, rather than dismiss, common misconceptions—on both sides of the debate. Those who can make a compelling argument either for or against an environmental policy ought to be heard, but if we want the best policy for our planet they need to be heard by informed ears.


Christopher Monschauer ’18 has a complicated relationship with quartz.