Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Education, Controversy, and Climate Change

In the last couple of months, I have had more interviews and more conversations about Climate Change education than I have had in my entire life. And, this is something because I talk about climate change a lot. From documentary producers to public radio and newspaper reporters, I want people to know that teaching about climate change may come with its own special challenges but the facts are as clear as they are for plate tectonics: the climate is changing and the burning of fossil fuels is causing much of the change.

In March, I met with Claes Andreasson, a reporter for Swedish Public Radio.  From some science education colleagues, he had heard that I had a very negative incident a few years ago and he wanted to learn more.  Climate change science and education are going through a "rough patch". Numerous states have generated and passed legislation about teaching controversial science in public schools.  South Dakota, Louisiana, and Tennessee permit, encourage, and even mandate that science teachers must teach "both sides" of the political story -- in science class. Claes wanted to do a story that highlighted the challenges of teaching a scientific theory that elicits such political fervor - if you can read Swedish, you can read the story at http://sverigesradio.se/sida/artikel.aspx?programid=3345&artikel=5054424 .

I first started teaching about climate change sixteen years ago. I thought it was an important aspect of atmospheric science, it was relevant to students because they might be hearing about it in the news, and it was becoming evident that my students would be living through many of the predicted changes we were being warned about. While the details and the evidence have been refined over time, what I teach is on very solid scientific footing: 
  1. The climate has changed in the past and it will change in the future.
  2. There are many factors that can cause the climate to change and we have known about these for a long time: 
    • carbon dioxide has been recognized as a heat-trapping gas since the 1890s
    • impacts of solar cycles and variations in the Earth's relation to the sun have been known about since the mid-1900s
    • there are "feedbacks" that can amplify and minimize the heating or cooling of the Earth's atmosphere
  3. Since the mid 1800s, we have been changing the composition of the atmosphere:
    • when we burn fossil fuels, old carbon from deep in the Earth's crust is moved into the atmosphere
    • This is a non-trivial change
  4. There are many lines of evidence that indicate that the climate is changing and how the changes are impacting ecosystems and human civilizations.
    • Melting mountain glaciers, permafrost, continental glaciers and retreating sea ice
    • Rising sea-levels
    • Cores of ice and sediment that provide information about past changes and this current episode of change
    • Direct measurement of atmospheric composition and temperatures
    • Changes in ecosystems
    • Major storms and weather events
  5. There are things we can do to mitigate change and impacts.  Beyond that, we will have to adapt the changes.
Please understand, as a trained geologist, I know that the Earth's atmosphere has been richer in carbon dioxide in the past (1385ppm in the Cretaceous compared to 392ppm today) and this meant a much warmer world.  It is not the Earth I am worried about.  Humans were not around back then - there weren't 7 billion human mouths to feed.

If we want to continue to thrive in a world of natural beauty and wonder with a rich variety of species, we need to change how we acquire and use energy. We need to take responsibility for our actions and change how we do somethings so that the world around us doesn't have to change.

Here are some links for you to read-listen-learn more about my work with climate change education: