Saturday, January 14, 2012

Teaching About Climate Change, Part 1: Framing the Discussion

Every year, I teach a geoscience course on natural resources & the environment.  It is a general education course that any student can take so long as they've already taken a college science course.  Students come in from a wide variety of backgrounds & interests.  I've had students who are majoring in elementary education, engineering, business, math, geology, chemistry, geography, sociology, exercise science, and many others.  I love teaching this course.

One of the biggest challenges, however, is teaching the subject of climate change.  This subject is so big, broad, integrated, and so complex that it is probably the most difficult subject to teach in the geosciences in my opinion.  Further, the subject isn't just about science, because the issue has become such a hot topic in our society.  Another challenge here in my case is that I'm not a climate scientist in terms of area of specialization.  As a geochemist I can easily relate to a lot of the chemical data in climate science, but my expertise lies in other fields.  These challenges mean that a careful, thoughtful approach to teaching the subject is all the more necessary.

So I'd like to talk about how I teach this subject in the hopes of hearing from others who also teach it.  I plan to share a couple of posts on the topic.  In this first one, I'd like to talk about how I frame the discussion.  I think there is nothing more important than this when teaching a controversial subject.  I pose this in my course as "Asking the right questions about climate change", with four questions:
1) Is the Earth's mean annual surface temperature rising?
2) If so, what is the cause?
3) If so, what effects will it have?
4) What should be done about it?
The first three questions are science questions; they can be answered by data.  The first three questions also gradually increase in uncertainty.  The first question brings with it the least amount of uncertainty because it is the least complex.  It simply involves measuring the same thing, over and over again, in different ways and over long periods of time, and then seeing what the trends are in the data.  The answer to the first question is obviously "yes", since the rest would be moot otherwise.  The second question brings more uncertainty, since it is looking for a cause.  Causation is, as any scientist knows, often difficult to prove.  Often we look for correlations that have strong theoretical reasons to indicate causation, but there is always uncertainty in this.  The third question brings even more uncertainty, because it brings an added dimension of prediction of the future.  Creating models that will correctly predict the future is hard work!  Especially in this field, where the models have so many variables and feedback loops.  But there is good, rational uncertainty, and then there are the smear campaigns that attempt to insert uncertainty into places where it really doesn't exist.

The fourth question is not a question that can be answered by science alone.  Science can and should inform decisions here, and it does so by clearly answering the first three questions.  But this last question is broader than the natural sciences.  That tricky word "should" in question four brings the trouble.  How we answer this last question depends also on perspectives from economics, cost/benefit analysis, morals/values, public policy, political theory, social science, behavioral science, and other fields.  The question cannot be answered by natural science alone, and I think it intellectually prudent to be upfront about this.

I think this framework allows students to begin to separate the science from the politics in their minds, and they need to do that in order to understand the issues.  In our culture, complex issues often get boiled down to bite-sized bumper sticker position statements, and people are generally divided into two general camps - the pros and the cons.  That is, the science and the politics get conflated, and before students can begin to think clearly about the issue and come to an informed opinion, the science and politics need to be distinguished as separate entities in our minds.  I think the absolute wrong question is "are you for or against global warming?"  That's just too vague & too convoluted to be useful in education.

So that's how I approach it.  How do others who teach this subject frame it?

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