How to Teach Children about Climate Change

According to a National Public Radio/Ipsos poll, 80 percent of parents wish that teachers “taught climate change” in school. The article announcing this finding goes on to lament that relatively few teachers actually do, in part out of fear of “denier” backlash. Since the issue is taking form as this generation’s version of the Scopes Trial, let’s take a moment to assess what “teaching climate change” means, and what it should mean.

In theory, teaching climate change would entail a sober, fact-based, perspective-heavy dissemination of competing scientific viewpoints. In practice, what advocates mean by “teaching climate change” is to teach climate catastrophism—that anthropogenic emissions of carbon dioxide present a clear and present threat to life on Earth as we know it. The inevitable corollary is that massive, usually coercive, political measures must be taken to exact a steep economic and lifestyle sacrifice from individuals (usually poor people) to atone for the sins of a wayward, capitalism-blinded humanity.

This version of “teaching climate change” needs review. Let me start, since we live in an era in which you are either a believer or a skeptic, by presenting my bona-fides as a decent, earth-loving human with an actual soul.

First, our family has for decades been actively managing 10,000 acres in Arizona for biodiversity, water conservation, and carbon sequestration. The ranch headquarters runs on solar panels and has been “off-grid” for at least 30 years. I like wildlife. Also grass-fed beef. I believe in composting. The ranch just won a sustainability prize from a prestigious university. In short, my perspective isn’t that of an oil executive antichrist.

Second, some of the broadest elements of current climate science make sense to me. I accept that atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide have risen from under 300 parts per million to over 400 parts per million in the last decades, most probably as a result of human behaviors. It’s true that global temperatures have risen since the end of the Pleistocene Epoch, and there is indeed some kind of acceleration that might be due in part to human behaviors.

Where I begin to go off the standard United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change script is in taking a larger and less anthropocentric view of the subject. History gives us many an example of mankind’s propensity to overemphasize himself and his centrality to his constructed universe. This should be avoided.

For instance, in the grand scheme of factors influencing global temperature regimes, some of the most significant forcing mechanisms are utterly out of our control. Sun-spot activity, tectonic volcanism, and orbital “wobble” are just a few of the salient elements that factor into climate conditions. Water vapor is significantly more instrumental than CO2 as a greenhouse gas (albeit in a complex feedback function). Mount Pinatubo reduced global temperature by .5 degrees Celsius in a little over 30 days.  The earth has experienced atmospheric carbon concentrations well over 2500 parts per million—the 400 parts per million of today is not “unprecedented.”

Moreover the much-vaunted “superstorm” narrative is a sensationalized fiction. The Environmental Protection Agency’s own data show that many types of destructive weather events have either remained steady, or have actually decreased in frequency and severity. (Increases in property damage are largely attributable to increases in population and wealth in vulnerable areas.)

One could go on, but you get the gist. Climate change, and humanity’s role in it, is a vastly complicated, often counterintuitive field. This is one of the primary arguments in favor of teaching it. Complexity requires systematic, careful pedagogy. If that were the impulse behind “teaching climate science” to young schoolchildren, this “skeptic” would be more on board.

Instead, what is really going on is a social frenzy masquerading as “settled science.” And we have seen this movie before. The current climate-change fetish is reminiscent of the millenarian fevers of the last 2,000 years, the dire Malthusian scenarios of the 1800s, and the “Population Bomb” frights of the 1970s. Today’s hand-wringing is really no different; in every instance of societal panic, it is “the children” who “must be taught” about the impending catastrophe.

The above-mentioned NPR article comes with an illustration that’s revealing. It shows a female teacher calmly gesturing to an orange, hot-looking globe with a hurricane menacing its way over jumbled continents. A wide-eyed, gape-mouthed child grips the table in an apparent combination of agitation and revelation.

NPR goes on to document why parents are so supportive of “teaching climate change.” Laine Fabijanic, a mother of three in Colorado, is “feeling the effects of climate change, from an unusually snowless winter last year to scary fires.”  Though she lives a virtuous life of recycling and “eating organic,” Laine (and her children) could probably stand to have some honest education on the topic of the environment. For instance, it might be useful for them to know that California received record snowpack this year, and Colorado’s average snowpack has actually remained relatively steady for generations. Regarding fires, data from the National Interagency Fire Center indicate that since the turn of the century, the number and extent of fires are actually down.

Laine’s “feeling the effects of climate change” as “unusual” and “scary” are emotional and layman responses to immediate conditions that lack any sort of long-term perspective. Maybe, if they were educated, Laine’s children could help her feel less afraid.

In addition, “teaching climate change” ought to include a deep dive into some of the more counterintuitive of humanity’s customs and practices. For instance, it would no doubt surprise many to be shown that curbside recycling programs actually increase carbon emissions. It would likewise be surprising, but true, to point out that despite pulling out of the Paris Climate Accord, the United States is one of the only developed nations to meet carbon reductions goals, mostly because of fracking and the conversion of powerplants to natural gas.

It also flies in the face of the standard understanding to realize that diesel-powered cars have a smaller carbon footprint than do electric vehicles. If global temperatures indeed prove to be a significant and detrimental phenomenon, it is simple (theoretically) to induce managed global cooling with a small, controlled injection of Sulphur dioxide at the poles.  

One suspects, though, that such facts are not what “believers” have in mind when it comes to teaching climate change. It’s not actually about the temperature, it’s about the control—the ever-so-delicious shared frisson of seeking to avert Armageddon. A clear-eyed, reasoned, non-coercive approach to helping us live in harmony with our planet isn’t on the syllabus.

But it should be. Climate science education would indeed be a fine idea—it’s just not likely to happen.