Opening a Closing Door with Good Climate Change Education

"The door is closing. I am very worried – if we don't change direction now on how we use energy, we will end up beyond what scientists tell us is the minimum [for safety]. The door will be closed forever."
~ Fatih Birol, chief economist at the International Energy Agency as quoted in The Guardian

If we are to get dodge climate catastrophe, we need to understand it. To understand it, we need good information reaching students in schools, taught by capable and well-informed teachers. All of that requires a supportive environment that confronts reality, uses science and communication effectively, is grounded in responsibility, and keeps what Isaac Asimov called "the armies of the night" out of schooling. That's really hard to do in a democracy and especially hard in a country with extremely powerful religious and corporate factions discrediting science on ideological grounds.

When I walk and bike into the forests near my house each week I see damage linked to climate change. Stands of my favorite trees, the Eastern hemlock are infested with the woolly adelgid, a tiny insect that kills the trees by destroying their nutrient gathering capacity. Steadily, the hemlocks are dying, a tragedy whose proportions you can begin to understand in Charles Little's The Dying of the Trees. The problem started in the south because adelgids were checked by frequent enough or deep enough cold snaps in north Mid-Atlanic and New England states. But winter temperatures have steadily risen with anthropogenic global warming and the adelgid has traveled north to Pennsylvania and New England. This winter is the 11th warmest on average. It's February and it's been in the 40s and 50s often in State College. It's weird. [Picture of my son with hemlocks and rhodedendron in Rothrock State Forest at right.]

Most of us are familiar with the big signs. Melting ice caps, polar bears drowning, "drunken trees" in the northern boreal forests, and the statistical images like the "hockey stick." The increasing frequency of "extreme weather" events like the Moscow heatwave now likely happen more frequently because of anthropogenic (human-caused) climate forcing from burning fossil fuels. There is widespread suspicion that the Texas heatwave and drought last year, the intense monsoons in the Indian subcontinent, floods in Pakistan, and the drought on the Horn of Africa are more intense than they would have been without anthropogenic climate change.

So it's not just happening somewhere else. It's not going to happen later. It is happening now. Author Bill McKibben calls this new world Eaarth because humans have altered it so much.

The quotation I opened with reflects predictions from the International Energy Agency. As The Guardian reported,
The new research adds to that finding, by showing in detail how current choices on building new energy and industrial infrastructure are likely to commit the world to much higher emissions for the next few decades, blowing apart hopes of containing the problem to manageable levels. The IEA's data is regarded as the gold standard in emissions and energy, and is widely regarded as one of the most conservative in outlook – making the warning all the more stark. The central problem is that most industrial infrastructure currently in existence – the fossil-fuelled power stations, the emissions-spewing factories, the inefficient transport and buildings – is already contributing to the high level of emissions, and will do so for decades. Carbon dioxide, once released, stays in the atmosphere and continues to have a warming effect for about a century, and industrial infrastructure is built to have a useful life of several decades.

Yet, despite intensifying warnings from scientists over the past two decades, the new infrastructure even now being built is constructed along the same lines as the old, which means that there is a "lock-in" effect – high-carbon infrastructure built today or in the next five years will contribute as much to the stock of emissions in the atmosphere as previous generations.

The "lock-in" effect is the single most important factor increasing the danger of runaway climate change[.]
And yet there are still politicians in denial. None of the current Republican presidential candidates will touch the reality of climate change. Rick Santorum has said "there's no such thing as global warming" and the science behind it is "junk science" while Newt Gingrich has flip-flopped on the issue (read here). None of them is quite as bad as Senator James Inhofe of Oklahoma who called climate change "the greatest hoax ever." Chris Mooney made the first strong case about this largely Republican phenomenon in his book The Republican War on Science. [Hear a great interview between Mooney and McKibben on climate change and climate denial here.] Some of Oklahoma's state legislature seems to agree.

Just a few days ago, the National Center for Science Education reported Sally Kern had gotten the state's House Common Education Committee to consider an anti-evolution and anti-climate science education bill. Last February the bill went down in a 7-9 vote. Three days ago, Republican representative Gus Blackwell brought the the bill back to the same committee. The bill's language has been changed slightly, now mimicking a similar law in Louisiana pushed through a few years ago with the aid of the conservative Seattle-based Discovery Institute. The bills says,
"the Legislature further finds that the teaching of some scientific concepts including but not limited to premises in the areas of biology, chemistry, meteorology, bioethics and physics can cause controversy, and that some teachers may be unsure of the expectations concerning how they should present information on some subjects such as, but not limited to, biological evolution, the chemical origins of life, global warming, and human cloning."
The House Common Education Committee voted 9-7 to accept it, and assuming nothing holds it up, the full House of Representatives will be voted up or down by March 15, 2012, before proceeding to the state Senate.

Attacks on evolution in American schools, school boards, and legislatures are old. Americans infamously distrust evolution as the explanation for the emergence and diversity of life on earth. In large part, many Americans' ideas about Biblical inerrancy and literal interpretations of the Book of Genesis conflict with evolution. According to the Pew Research Center, an August 2006 survey found "63% of Americans believe that humans and other animals have either always existed in their present form or have evolved over time under the guidance of a supreme being" while "26% say that life evolved solely through processes such as natural selection." A 2005 poll "found that 64% of Americans support teaching creationism alongside evolution in the classroom." That distrust has resulted in famous educational, political, and legal showdowns from the famous Scopes trial, Epperson v. Arkansas, McLean v. Arkansas, the Supreme Court case Edwards v. Aguillard, and the 2005 Pennsylvania case Kitzmiller v. Dover which also featured the Discovery Institute (Sustainability Now co-host Peter Buckland attended Kitzmiller). But climate change is a newer form of denialism and the denialists aren't the same.

This Friday we are going to dive right into this. Mark McCaffrey is the newly hired Programs and Policy Director at the National Center for Science Education (NCSE). McCaffrey has worked on a number of projects for climate literacy and holds an M.A. in Educational Leadership and Policy Studies from University of Northern Colorado. He is charged with helping to develop better "climate change education in formal and informal educational environments, in order for future citizens to be able to make scientifically informed decisions about the consequences of climate change." With the recent attacks in legislatures, the revelation that the Heartland Institute had been preparing anti-climate science curriculum for K-12 schools (pdf) (the leaker of those Heartland documents was Peter Gleick who resigned from NCSE's board), and the recently renewed attacks on Dr. Michael Mann by the Common Sense Movement in the wake of his newly released book The Hockey Stick and the Climate Wars (here and here). Hear a new interview with Michael Mann on his book by Chris Mooney here on this fight.

We will also be joined by Beth Hufnagel, a doctoral student in Penn State's Curriculum and Instruction program focusing on science education. She is currently working as an assistant for a class that teaches climate change and evolution education content and strategies to future elementary school teachers. She worked as an environmental researcher in New Jersey and then as an Environmental Science teacher in Boston for several years before starting her doctoral program in 2010.

What's good climate education? Is science enough? Do children need to learn the ethical lessons? How do we open the door the IEA says is closing?

The show airs at 4 pm EST on Friday on The Lion 90.7 fm. Stream it online and feel free to call in (814) 865-9577 with questions or comments. As always, feel free to leave questions here, at our Facebook page (ask to join), or at our Twitter account.

1 comment:

  1. I'm asking this in response to the seeming widespread opposition to human caused climate change in this forum, and I want to know if there is any correlation between lack of education and the rejection of human caused climate change.

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