Earth's Warming Climate: Are We Responsible?


Teaching Climate Change: To Debate or Not To Debate?

For many years, the media has presented contemporary climate change as a controversy. A recent study by the Yale/George Mason Climate Change Communication project shows nearly half of all Americans need either “some more” or “a lot more” information before they can form a firm opinion about global warming (Leiserowitz et. al., 2010). In other words, while the scientific community is united in a belief that climate change is occurring as the result of human activity which could be a threat to the quality of life, nearly half of all Americans are not so sure. There are several attributes that contribute to the difficulty in communicating about climate change to the public, which complicate the job of teaching global climate change in the classroom.

  1. Climate change science is complicated and understanding the data interpretations, on which the findings of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) are based, is beyond the technical background of most laypeople and in fact, most scientists in other fields. In fact, there is no single scientist in the world that commands the technical knowledge to fully understand and interpret all the data sources that contribute to our understanding of climate change. Our understanding of the climate system is definitely a scientific community effort.
  2. Creeping, or gradual, climate change, such as that we have been documenting scientifically over the course of the last century, is not easily detected by personal experience, yet because weather is something we observe and evaluate daily, climate change seems for many to be something that can be subject to personal evaluation (APA, 2009). We interface with weather and our local climate on a daily basis with our senses, and we are hardwired to trust our own sensory apparatus over what we hear or learn from others. However, climate change so far has taken place at a rate and scale that has been imperceptible on a day-to-day basis by personal observation in most regions of the world. Scientific documentation of contemporary climate change derives from statistical analysis of long-term data sets that extend beyond the human lifespan. While rapid changes are detectable in some parts of the world, such as in the Arctic, individuals in most parts of the world thus far must rely on external sources rather than personal experiences in acceptance of the threat of climate change to our planet.

These are some of the reasons that the evidence for climate change has met with such resistance in the public. You’ll notice that these reasons are not calling the data into question, but result from:

  • an artifact of people’s hardwired faith and reliance in personal observation;
  • the mismatch of scales at which climate change occurs and the scale at which we sample the environment using our senses; and
  • the complexity of the science that limits most people to evaluate the data effectively.

One instructional approach to tackling this issue is to teach climate change “through the controversy” by having students debate the issue. Some of the scientific arguments posed by climate change skeptics look valid on the surface, but the depth of scientific understanding required to refute some of their arguments is beyond the scope of most students. Therefore debating the issue is not the recommended approach to teaching global climate change.

A more effective classroom strategy is to provide students with data sets such as you have explored in this module. Students use the data sets to identify their own questions and concerns as they examine the data upon which scientists base their understanding of current changes in the climate system. These questions and concerns can then serve as the basis of classroom discussions and further areas of study. Another strategy is to show students data and collected anecdotes of climate change effects that may affect them personally, such as changes in the ecosystems they are familiar with, the increase in storms, infectious diseases, or migrations of animal life that may be found in their local areas.

Pick and choose from the following lesson plans and activities from PBS LearningMedia and think about how you might modify them for your students. Identify a possible strategy you could use to help students understand that while climate change is a serious concern, they are empowered throughout their lives to tackle this problem and develop solutions.

Global Warming?
This lesson plan for grades 3-12 enables students to track their carbon dioxide emissions in a 24-hour period.

Global Climate Change: Understanding the Greenhouse Effect
This lesson plan for grades 6-12 encourages students to consider the human impact on global warming.

Global Climate Change: The Effects of Global Warming
This lesson plan for grades 9-12 helps students examine global warming and reflect on their own contribution to global warming.

Global Climate Change Education for Middle School Online Course

Check out this excerpt from the “Global Climate Change Education for Middle School” online course from PBS TeacherLine, which explores mitigation and adaptation strategies. This course is open for enrollment – read more.

Global Climate Change Modules

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PBS Teacherline

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