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How Should Climate Change be Taught?

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The external release of documents relating to the activities of the Heartland Institute has raised many questions, but an important issue that is now in the open again relates to the teaching of climate change in schools. How should this be handled and what should be taught? Is there justification in arguing that "both sides" of the issue should be covered? Are there "two sides" to this issue? If so, what exactly are the "two sides", particularly in the context of a high school education?

My own experience with this issue is through the education of my son (now in his second last year of school in the UK). Climate change has seeped into a very wide variety of his subjects over the years, including chemistry, biology, geography and now economics. The message has been pretty consistent over time, i.e. "we are changing the composition of the atmosphere, that will have implications for future generations and here are some of the things that we might have to deal with." This has resulted in a person with a pretty balanced view of the issue and some good insight into the economic thinking that supports carbon pricing within an economy. He is far from a climate zealot (not at all in fact) and is prepared to question the material he is presented with - which in turn leads to some interesting discussions between us.

But I remain unconvinced that the basic science has been taught with rigor, at least to the extent that there is a reasonable understanding of the atmospheric physics / chemistry at work. More focus on this aspect of the subject could do much to settle the issue of "both sides". At least at this level there simply aren't two sides. We know the earth behaves as a black body, we know that Plancks law applies to black bodies and even in high school it is possible to demonstrate that this doesn't give us a correct answer for the calculation of the surface temperature of the planet (and I remember doing Planks Law in final year school physics myself). This then leads to an understanding that other processes are in play (trace gases in the atmosphere) and that we are now influencing those processes.

One of the difficulties with this subject is that it starts from a very small fact base of core physical principles and grows almost exponentially in both complexity and uncertainty. We then end up making very uncertain connections at the top, which not surprisingly raises the ire of some people. For example, there is plenty of imagery that links driving cars, flying in an aeroplane or even turning on a light with the threat of survival of polar bears (just to pick an example).

Then there is the link through many layers of climate science;

  • The release of CO2 into the atmosphere from the fossil fuel used to produce electricity (but not in France or Iceland of course);
  • The source of the fossil fuel and the CO2 released in its production and transport;
  • The wattage of the light bulb used and the time it is left on;
  • The change in radiative forcing as a result of additional CO2 in the atmosphere;
  • The sensitivity of the climate system to the additional forcing;
  • The impact that particulates released from the power station might have in changing the global radiative forcing;
  • The net temperature rise of the planet;
  • The impact the temperature rise has on Arctic ice in areas where the polar bear is most threatened;
  • The impact any ice reduction has on the longevity and reproduction cycle of polar bears in a particular area;
. . . . and so on.

Physics and chemistry today have delivered a high level of certainty regarding the behaviour of CO2 molecules in the atmosphere. But the fate of the polar bear is highly uncertain as are the precise causes of all the changes in its habitat. Yet, at least for younger students we tend to start with material that has high imbedded uncertainty and teach it as if it is fact, which of course it isn't. This then leads to the call from some members of the community to present "both sides" of the issue, when in fact there aren't any sides at all. The "both sides" call is then also interpreted by others as evidence that there is interpretation and uncertainty at the core of the issue, i.e. with the physics that underpins it, when in fact there is very little uncertainty. In a posting in July last year I recalled the speech given by Nobel Prize winning atmospheric chemist Mario Moilina (who unraveled the chemistry of CFCs and ozone) at an MIT event, where he started by saying "Since when was the Stefan Boltzman constant in dispute?" In fact it isn't in dispute at all and we know with great precision how our planet radiates in the infra-red.

This issue isn't just about school education, but also pertains to the education of the general public when it comes to establishing climate policy. It's the same problem that occurs when a particular weather event is linked to CO2 emissions.

I am not a professional educator, but this line of reasoning seems to point to the need for the teaching of climate change issues at a much later point in the school curriculum and focusing more on the underlying science earlier on. We don't teach maths by starting with chaos theory, calculus and complex numbers, rather we start with basic numerical techniques, then algebra, trigonometry and so on. This should perhaps also be true for climate change. The well understood processes that underpin the issue should be taught as a lead-in to the much broader discussion. Then at least the students can think about and debate the "two sides" for themselves.