Teaching Climate Change in Schools
Posted on 17 August 2012 by monkeyorchid
Anyone familiar with the anti-science campaign by Creationists in America will recognise the phrase "Teach the Controversy". This represents their attempt to get Creationisms, or its even uglier pseudoscientific spawn Intelligent Design, taught as science in schools, on an equal footing to evolution. Like many damaging ideas, it can sound reasonable if phrased in the right way, e.g. "teach both, and let children decide for themselves which is correct." The reality of course is that one is supported by mountains of hard evidence, and the other by precisely none, and that unless this is made plain in schools then children are being deceived.
Climate change deniers are nothing if not adaptable, and will adopt any tactic that can help their goal of avoiding action on CO2 emissions. Therefore, they too are now adopting the "teach the controversy" approach, although they are careful to avoid that particular phrase. In America, Louisiana and Tenessee have already signed into law a bill that permits pseudoscience on both climate change and the origins of life to be taught alongside real science (see here and here).
The bill does not require the teaching of pseudoscience, but it ties the hands of school administrators, preventing any kind of censure of teachers who might want to tell their class that climate change is caused by the sun, cosmic rays or a lack of pirates. In Australia, senator Cory Bernhardi complains that children are taught only "a single opinion about what is driving climate change", while serial denier Ian Plimer has written a book called "How to Get Expelled from School: A Guide to Climate Change for Pupils, Parents and Punters", and see a ridiculously uncritical review here (shame on you, Geological Society!). In Britain the right-wing media are starting to call for a similar approach, with the Scottish Daily Mail proclaiming that "Leading UK Scientists" (in reality, two jokers from the Scientific Alliance) think that teaching climate science amounts to "brainwashing our children". The actual article is behind a paywall, but the gist can be found here, on an ongoing blog devoted to hiding the truth from children.
As others have pointed out, the classroom is an obvious point of attack from climate deniers, having lost the scientific argument. However, the success of these campaigns derives in part from uncertainty at various levels over how to teach climate change science to children. Should "alternative" theories be avoided entirely, or is it better to run through at least the less ridiculous counter-arguments, and examine for each one why it doesn't hold? Some supporters of the Tenessee bill appear to be worried that staying off the topic of alternative climate theories entirely is counterproductive, and feel that the bill removes this doubt. It seems likely that similar doubts about the best approach are widespread, and worth addressing not only because they can be manipulated by denialists.
How best should teachers tackle climate change "controversy"?
At the simplest level, we could envision five different approaches to tackling climate change science in our schools, as follows:
A. Avoid the topic entirely
B. Teach simply that human carbon emissions are warming the planet, without going into the science.
C. Teach the science underlying man-made climate change, but avoid going into alternative theories
D. Teach the science of climate change, by critically examining the evidence (or lack of it) behind various proposed explanations for rising temperatures and CO2 levels, both those from scientists and those invented by deniers.
E. Teach the science underlying man-made climate change, alongside alternative explanations, with no attempt to critically evaluate them.
Without doubt, deniers like Plimer would happily settle for either A or E, and those pushing the climate teaching bills in America are no doubt aiming for E, while hoping to gather support from those who favour option D. Sensible school curriculums would aim for C or D, but which of these is the better option? Some clarity on the best approach would also make it harder for deniers to force their way into the classroom. The question therefore comes down to this: should we be covering denialist claims in the classroom, and examining them on their merit? I would argue that we should.
Children encountering denial.
Children will encounter climate denial. The phenomenon is so widespread that anyone at all interested in the topic of climate change will inevitably come across denialist claims and arguments; on the web, in the media or from family friends and relatives. Given that even apparently highly educated adults can easily be taken in by denialism, any child who encounters denialist arguments for the first time outside school is likely to develop the idea that there is an establishment view and a subversive, "alternative" view, which could often appeal to teenage minds simply by dressing itself up as anti-establishment. Therefore, option C, while appearing worthy, risks an outcome very similar to option E - leaving the impression that two equally valid viewpoints on the subject exist.
Tackling denial in the classroom.
The ideal situation, therefore, must be option D - to tackle denialist claims in the classroom. While this represents a challenge for teachers, it also provides an opportunity to train children in critical thinking. However much deniers like to claim otherwise, the theory of manmade climate change is far from complex: carbon dioxide is a greenhouse gas, we've pumped colossal amounts of it into the atmosphere, the amount in the atmosphere has steadily increased since we started, and based on that we would expect the earth to be steadily warming up - much as it is. This much is easily covered by any competent science teacher. Much of the perceived complexity of the topic stems from successful denialist tactics - convincing the public that the science is entirely reliant on complex simulations, and diverting attention from the above basics with irrelevancies like the MWP and melting ice caps of Mars. This could leave teachers with the impression that the science of climate change is too complex even for a well-educated non-specialist to understand, leaving them unwilling to go into the topic in detail. Creating this impression among teachers appears to be among the goals of the Heartland Institute. In reality, however, any open-minded person is capable of grasping the key points of climate change science.
Tackling denial in the classroom does not need to be complex. Teachers can deal with counter-arguments one by one, beginning with the simplest and building up. Many of them provide opportunities to train and educate pupils in the process - covering areas like critical thinking, and the difference between science and politics, which is so vital to understanding the topic. Critical thinking is arguably the single most important skill that any child can gain, in a world where information is now easy to obtain, and the challenge is to sort the facts from the fiction. Once children grasp how little substance there is behind climate change denial, they are bound to start asking why people do it. That too, is a question that teachers might attempt to answer, and perhaps is worth returning to in a subsequent post.