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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.

Reader Discussion

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on April 23, 2019 at 09:08:31 am

Impressive. Look to hear calls for revocation of your university prize in 3...2....1....

Against the human "will to believe" science and reason are mostly powerless, at least in the short term. The comparisons to religious fervor are old hat at this point but true just the same.

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QET
on April 23, 2019 at 11:10:43 am

The author should learn the difference between "anthropocentric" and "anthropogenic."

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Image of Charles N. Steele
Charles N. Steele
on April 23, 2019 at 11:26:33 am

A treat. An ecologically conscientious person who knows the difference between "carbon" and pollution.

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rwisrael
on April 23, 2019 at 11:49:13 am

Sadly, there are no calls I'm aware of to teach capitalism in schools.

Environmentalism is the worst kind of religious nonsense in that at least with traditional religions, man is not seen as an evil scourge upon nature. Environmentalism is anti-human, anti-science, and anti-technology.

The author notes the plunge in atmospheric CO2 since the Pleistocene. That's ironic since the Pleistocene is exactly the age the environmentalists would like to take mankind's state of existence back to, given the power and resources to do so...

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OH Anarcho-Capitalist
on April 23, 2019 at 14:02:37 pm

This author thinks he knows the difference—where did I stray?

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Image of Paul Schwennesen
Paul Schwennesen
on April 23, 2019 at 17:04:45 pm

Sure, here's my point. You write "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" and you follow with a discussion of solar activity, volcanism, etc. as causal factors.

IPCC takes an anthropogenic view of climate change; so far as I can tell, IPCC attributes nearly 100% of climate change to greenhouse gasses from human activity. Other causal factors, most notably solar activity, seem to be given short shrift.

IPCC also purports (at least sometimes) to judge climate change from a non-anthropocentric view, that is, from values apart from human values. Hence, for example, the IPCC's endorsement in SR-15 of "Buen Vivir" as a model from which we can all learn (Buen Vivir is a South American philosophy that claims to substitute rights of nature over rights of individuals and thus not anthropocentric).

The subtitle on your piece "It would be more accurate, and helpful to Mother Earth, if we weren’t so anthropocentric in the way we studied and taught the subject" also makes this confusion, and compounds it by imagining a being "Mother Earth" with her own set of values and interests, which can be "helped." "Mother earth," "nature," and "the environment" aren't purposeful beings, and can't have values, or things being "good" or "bad" for them. Titles and subtitles usually come from editors, not authors, so this might not be your error. Regardless, the reification of nature leads to the deification of nature and makes rational discussion of environmental issues difficult.

Thanks for responding.

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Charles N. Steele
on April 23, 2019 at 19:11:54 pm

Thanks for a thoughtful article that makes several good points about the difficult issue of how to teach climate change to schoolchildren. However, some of your arguments are undermined by reliance on dubious sources or selective references. For instance:

“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.” A more complete and somewhat contradictory statement from the EPA can be found at:
https://www.epa.gov/climate-indicators/weather-climate
It is well-documented that there are significant trends in many, if not all, extreme weather measures, despite claims to the contrary on the web. See, for instance,
https://www.metoffice.gov.uk/hadobs/hadex2/Donat_etal2013.pdf

“…California received record snowpack this year, and Colorado’s average snowpack has actually remained relatively steady for generations”. Regardless of year-to-year variations, there is substantial evidence that snowpack in the Western US is on the decline, consistent with other measures of climate change. See, for instance:
http://www.morageology.com/pubs/302.pdf

“…curbside recycling programs actually increase carbon emissions” Your source states that “The bottom line is that recycling can be more or less environmentally friendly than the alternatives. It depends upon the materials being recycled, the location of recycling, or distance from remanufacturing, and who is doing the recycling.” Isn’t this the kind of more nuanced information that you are calling for?

“…diesel-powered cars have a smaller carbon footprint than do electric vehicles.” Not so, according to
https://www.transportenvironment.org/sites/te/files/publications/TE%20-%20draft%20report%20v04.pdf

So, despite my agreement with you that teaching climate change requires a careful assessment of the science and other aspects of the problem, I find that your own article does not meet that desired goal of “A clear-eyed, reasoned, non-coercive approach…”

Incidentally, I have taught climate change to middle schoolers and found that they are quite capable of understanding both the basic science and the implications thereof, without me forcing any conclusions, and without reliance on non-authoritative websites.

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Pat Cassen
on April 24, 2019 at 10:28:12 am

Long ago there was substantial evidence that the Sun, stars and planets revolved around Earth. Centuries' worth of data confirmed this. Only a very few planetary motion anomalies could not be satisfactorily explained by the scientific consensus of the time. It turned out that those small anomalies invalidated the consensus theory.

The fact that there is evidence contra the author's evidence not only is unnecessary for him to point out, both because he announces himself in the article as a contrarian and because anyone not living under a rock will already know that there is evidence out there that is contrary to his which they could easily locate if sufficiently interested; but real science does not work by merely opposing one mass of evidence to another and concluding that the greater mass necessarily proves the theory. It is rather the responsibility of the proponents of the AGW thesis to explain how the existence of evidence contrary to their evidence does not invalidate their theory.

This is true even of the most abstract scientific debate that has no implications for anyone's daily life (Popper allowed that for all practical purposes of that time, the refuted Ptolemaic theory still "worked"). For a debate implicating an unimaginably large reordering by coercive government action of the entire way of life for 7 billion people, it is absolutely incumbent on the AGW faithful to conclusively explain each piece of evidence contrary to their faith.

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QET
on April 24, 2019 at 17:26:54 pm

Thank you. It doesn’t appear we have any philosophical differences, and even our semantic differences probably are irrelevant. I purposely chose the word “anthropocentric” to indicate the epistemological position of most of the climate change alarmist camp, including the IPCC. In other words, as you know, they take an anthropocentric view in ascribing climate change causes to anthropogenic emissions.
This is wrong, or at least wildly exaggerated in my opinion .

And I agree with you about the fundamental problem of placing humanity outside of “nature”. Along with the various “pristine myths” we engage in, it indicates the age old anthropocentrism we so easily fall victim to.

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Paul Schwennesen
on April 24, 2019 at 18:19:24 pm
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Paul Schwennesen
on April 24, 2019 at 20:06:11 pm

QET – Thanks for your reply.
You say “…small anomalies invalidated the consensus theory.” Agreed. Substantiated anomalies can lead to revisions or replacement of an “established” theory. But alternatives to AGW as an explanation for the modern warming have been entertained for decades; although they persist on the web, none have survived rigorous scientific scrutiny. In fact, the AGW hypothesis has only been strengthened over time. (Apparently you disagree.)
You say: “…real science does not work by merely opposing one mass of evidence to another and concluding that the greater mass necessarily proves the theory.” Agreed.
You say: “It is rather the responsibility of the proponents of the AGW thesis to explain how the existence of evidence contrary to their evidence does not invalidate their theory.” Agreed. This is exactly what climate scientists are doing, in cases where there appears to be a substantive conflict of evidence.
You say: “… it is absolutely incumbent on the AGW faithful to conclusively explain each piece of evidence contrary to their faith.” Here we disagree. To attempt to explain every evidence, regardless of impact or significance, is neither practical nor necessary. (Discrepancies in Newtonian gravity do not render the calculation of potentially dangerous asteroids trajectories invalid.)
All that being said, the point of my post was that citing spurious, misleading or irrelevant “evidence” is exactly what we don’t want to do when teaching schoolchildren climate change. I don’t see where you have disagreed with the examples I gave.

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Pat Cassen
on April 25, 2019 at 10:14:16 am

Very instructive and helpful, Mr. Schwennesen. This sentence particularly struck, me -- "emotional and layman responses to immediate conditions that lack any sort of long-term perspective." Thanks for the thoughtful piece.

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Shane
on April 25, 2019 at 15:29:35 pm

For a debate implicating an unimaginably large reordering by coercive government action of the entire way of life for 7 billion people, it is absolutely incumbent on the AGW faithful to conclusively explain each piece of evidence contrary to their faith.

I think another way of stating this is "if we're going to alter the economic and political conditions of 7 billion people based on a scientific theory, it is important for proponents of that theory to consider that they might be wrong." This seems to be lacking in climate "science," where a great many conclusions are based on claims that are not falsifiable, and on data that are neither conclusive nor especially persuasive. It is entirely predictable that discussion of any particular climate-related issue will devolve into ad hominem attacks, appeal to authority fallacies, moralistic preening and Maoist-like denunciations. This isn't science.

What can be said with some confidence, though of course not absolute certainty, is that there are no climate experts. There are relative experts, that is some that know more than others, but none that are even close to being able to model the climate with anything other than crude approximations. When one delves into the current state of knowledge regarding the climate, he is confronted with Milankovitch cycles, insect respiration, the Medieval Warm period, extinction heights, outgassing, plankton, sunspots, water vapor, feedbacks, forcing, albedos, tree rings, heat islands, etc., etc,... Identical data are interpreted to yield contradictory conclusions; the C12/C13 ratio proves humans are responsible for rises in CO2! No wait, it proves exactly the opposite!...No, no, ocean currents...wait, vegetation decomposition...no, lignite...

Here is where, in my opinion, we should begin teaching students about climate:

1. There is no theory, the consequences of which are so dire and catastrophic that it should not be subject to skeptical challenge. None.

2. Consensus is irrelevant to truth.

3. "Expert" is a relative term. Just because someone knows more than anyone else about a particular topic does not mean they know everything, or that they cannot be catastrophically wrong about what they don't know.

4. The suppression of opposing views is not science. Appeals to authority is not scientific inquiry.

5. There is a plausible mechanism by which concentrations of CO2 can affect the energy balance of the planet. Trying to model climate based on this premise has not been very successful. No one understands all the factors and complex interactions among factors that affect climate. There is a detrimental lack of humility, scientific integrity and honesty regarding this point.

6. If we really thought CO2 was the culprit, to the extent that it justified dramatic policy responses, one has to wonder why those responses do not begin by subsidizing nuclear power plants in countries that are building coal fired plants.

We can teach children about climate change by laying out the points above as opinions, defensible hypotheses, and then analyzing the responses. What are the assumptions made in the counterarguments? Are they reasonable or emotional? Do they affirm the consequent? Are there undistributed middles in the structure of the arguments? Are the responses affected by confirmation bias, or other cognitive factors? In short we can teach children about climate change by teaching them the scientific method, the value of questions, the role of skepticism and the difference between what we know and what we think we know.

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z9z99
on April 29, 2019 at 02:02:57 am

[…] How to Teach Children about Climate Change […]

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Image of Energy & Environmental Newsletter: April 29, 2019 - Master Resource
Energy & Environmental Newsletter: April 29, 2019 - Master Resource
on April 29, 2019 at 12:57:34 pm

Excellent

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Paul Schwennesen
on April 30, 2019 at 00:04:25 am

[…] How to Teach Children about Climate Change […]

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Image of Energy And Environmental Newsletter – April 29th 2019 | PA Pundits - International
Energy And Environmental Newsletter – April 29th 2019 | PA Pundits - International
on May 02, 2019 at 16:19:13 pm

This article lacks the discussion of risk that is essential to understanding the consequences of rapid climate change. Belief is usually stated in absolute terms, when really a denier should say, "I attribute a low personal ex ante probability to damage occurring from climate change," or that climate change exists, and the believer would say something similar, but with a large probability. That of course is the attitude taken in the hard sciences, which is why we can talk about a scientific consensus. Policy can be created to manage risk, but in creating winners and losers policy transforms an objective idea into a political idea.

Teaching uncertainty as a central component of science would mean that, for some students, the opposing viewpoint is already covered.

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xkz

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