Students’ understanding of the causes and consequences of climate change

By Heather King - June 2013


Punter, P., Ochando-Pardo, M. & Garcia, J. (2011) Spanish secondary school students’ notions on the causes and consequences of climate change. International Journal of Science Education, 33(3), 447–464.

This study presents a disappointing account of Spanish secondary school students’ knowledge and understanding of the causes and consequences of climate change. Many of the key factors responsible for climate change are not recognized, whilst significant socioeconomic consequences of climate change, for example, increasing migration and food shortages, are rarely acknowledged.

The data for this study came from a questionnaire administered to 379 students aged between 12 and 16 from both rural and urban districts in southern Spain. The questionnaire comprised both closed, or guided, and open questions and sought to understand students’ definitions of climate change, their knowledge of greenhouse gases, their understanding of the role played by everyday activities, and their perceptions on the future consequences of climate change. The analysis of the responses to the questionnaire indicated that students found it very difficult to offer a definition of climate change, or identify its causal factors. Indeed, 13% of respondents did not offer an answer to the question regarding the causes of climate change. Most (60%) blamed transport or air pollution (51%). In contrast to previous research in this domain, few students [erroneously] cited CFCs as a cause for climate change, although answers to other questions revealed that many still conflate the hole in the ozone layer with a cause or consequence of climate change.

Students’ knowledge of greenhouse gases was limited, with most citing CO2, but with less than half citing CH4 (the second most important greenhouse gas of human origin). A limited understanding of the roles played by human activities – such as using household appliances – was also evident in the responses to the questionnaire.

With regard to the consequences of climate change, most students cited the physical impacts such as the melting of poles, natural disasters, drought, and rising sea levels. Very few respondents cited impacts of food shortages or increase in migration (less than 2% and 1%, respectively). In short, the socio-economic impacts of climate change did not appear to have been recognized by students.

From their analyses, the researchers identified a number of areas that require more emphasis in the curriculum, including:

• The socioeconomic impacts of climate change (migration, the spread of disease)
• The impact of deforestation and intensive farming as a result of climate change
• The relationship between any use of electricity (e.g., household appliances) and its impact on climate.

While these deficiencies in the curriculum have particular relevance to educators working in Spain, they also clearly highlight the areas of concern for educators across the world seeking to equip young learners with an understanding of both the causes and consequences of climate change.