Climate Literate Graduates– or Not?

NWF   |   November 1, 2005
A new report, Environmental Literacy in America (2005), written by Kevin Coyle, Vice President of Education for the National Wildlife Federation, concludes that Americans, even college graduates, are widely illiterate about environmental issues, especially more complex topics such as energy and climate. Less than half of the American public, for example, realizes that the cars we drive and the appliance-rich homes in which we live contribute to global climate change through increased carbon emissions or that there are more efficient and affordable alternatives. The report, which is published by the National Environmental Education and Training Foundation (NEETF), is based on more than ten years of NEETF/Roper research and related studies on environmental literacy in the US.

The good news is that Americans with a college degree are significantly more likely to give the correct answer than those with a high school education or less. However, in only one instance did more than 50% of college graduates select the correct answers in assessments of environmental knowledge. For example, only 39% of graduates knew how most of the electricity in the United States is generated (compared with 22% of high school graduates) and only 20% were aware of the primary source of oil in nation’s rivers, lakes and bays (compared with 12% of high school graduates). Moreover, only about 13% of schools of education provide courses on the environment which means that many, if not most, K-12 teachers start their careers with little or no training in environmental education much less in topics related to energy use and protecting the earth’s climate.

In addition to an assessment of literacy trends, the report presents a detailed plan for improving environmental literacy with recommendations on where teachers, schools, school districts, state and federal governments, funding agencies, the media and others can prioritize effort, funding and further research to dramatically improve the kinds of environmental understanding and literacy most likely to lead to more informed and sustainable behaviors. Additional data on trends in higher education literacy can be found in NWF’s State of the Campus Environment: A National Report Card on Environmental Performance and Sustainability in Higher Education (2001).