Climate change — what’s being taught?

I am an ecologist, but before I went back to grad school to become one, I was a curriculum writer for one of the first NSF grants about climate change education (the first Global Lab project, in 1988-9). It’s been a continuous thread throughout my nearly 30 years at TERC, and every year it seems more and more urgent.

For most of that time, it’s been hard going, because Americans have been extraordinarily resistant to any serious response to the crisis.  Indeed, there were many years when I felt myself in private mourning, rarely able to connect with anyone who understood the issue enough to share real concern.  Even now, Americans are more likely than almost any other nationality to be skeptical about climate change, and to feel that new action is either unnecessary or even undesirable, though thankfully this position is now more or less in the minority (see for example this international opinion poll).  For the last few years, according to the Yale Project on Climate Change Communication, the majority of Americans agree that the climate is changing;  a bare majority (52%) agree with the science that human activities are major contributing factors in that change  (see their March 2015 report here).

Given the magnitude of the problem, and the agonizing years of inaction despite the clear need, large-scale action, including governmental action, is now necessary, but there is not yet political will to formulate and take that action, in this country.  Public opinion matters:  Yale researchers found (in another study) that

Senators were more likely to vote “Yea” on the Schatz amendment [acknowledging human-caused climate change]  if they represent states where a majority of constituents think global warming is at least partly caused by human activities. Senators from states where the public was evenly split or slightly more likely to say global warming isn’t happening or naturally caused were more likely to vote “Nay.”

Yet the Yale researchers found that this important issue is not a topic of conversation, nor of media attention:

most Americans are simply not hearing or talking about the issue…. only 40% of the American public says they hear about global warming in the media at least once a month and only 19% hear about it at least once a week. Further, only 16% say that they hear people they know talk about global warming at least once a month, with only 4% reporting they hear other people talking about it at least once a week.

and only 40% hear about it in media as often as once a week.  A community cannot make sense of such an issue without discussing and debating facts and values;  a public (in John Dewey’s sense:  an informed and activated portion of a democracy) cannot be shaped and move its representatives to action lacking such discourse.

So it was great to see that the Next Gen Science Standards take climate change for granted, and incorporated into a few areas (mostly related to earth science), but it was discouraging to see how timid and circumscribed its place in the standards is.  It is rich with possibilities in every subject, and across all disciplines, and the more that local impacts are used, the more likely it is that students (and their families) will see it as a real part of the world they inhabit, affecting things they care about.  Education is slow as a crisis response —  if it is half-hearted and unimaginative, and disconnected from most people’s concerns.  If, on the other hand, it helps make an idea “conventional wisdom,” then people will tend to respond with moral/purposive action (I am reminded of William James’s reflections on the “moral equivalent of war”)

So I recommend for your reflection a recent column by the WashingtonPost writer Catherine Rampell, who writes a very interesting piece on the ways that climate change as as scientific but also a social, personal and moral issue, has become pervasive in German education, to such an extent that it can be incorporated into any subject, as seems possible to the teacher.  The subject has intellectual, social, economic, and emotional dimensions, so any subject domain can profitably engage with it, if it seems like a live issue (a life issue) for the learner.

My work has more and more moved towards just getting the subject discussed, and seeing what happens when it is — the little daily drip-drip-drip of discussion, debate, question-and-answer is the most powerful tool, and the most urgently needed for our response to this challenge to our civilization .  Only when it’s a widely accepted problem, and taken personally, will sufficient numbers of people say, We need to act, delay is not at last acceptable (For a searching discussion from the beginning of the era of “public relations” and mass media. see John Dewey’s The Public and its problems.)

So what’s going on where you are?  How does climate change fit into your science or math classes?  Is it being used as a topic for interdisciplinary education?  The integration of computational thinking, or computer science?  Or in your area, is it one of the Subjects that Must Not Be Named?



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