Teaching Climate Change

The best way to teach someone about science is by encouraging them to doubt it…

They may have been right that locating the Current Affairs offices in New Orleans was an act of madness. On Saturday, after staying late at my desk on the weekend out of a sense of selfless obligation to the magazine’s readership, I went out through the front door to discover that our corporate headquarters had become desirable waterfront property. (Because we rent, this was not good news.)

When I went into the office, this was a sidewalk. Several hours later, it was a bayou. An unusually generous midsummer rainstorm had deposited eight inches of rain in a three-hour period, more than the city’s pumping system could handle. The streets had instantly become rivers. And given what a few hours of summer rain could apparently do, people quickly began worriedly speculating on what might happen in a days-long hurricane.

I did not instantly think “climate change” when I saw the water. Instead, my first thought was “Oh, balls,” as I realized that I would either have to get very wet (by walking through it) or very hungry (by huddling in the office through dinnertime and surviving on peanuts from my desk-drawer). But the director of the New Orleans Sewerage and Water Board quickly gave a troubling statement claiming that debilitating flash floods in the city may be the “new norm” of the climate change era, and confirming that the city’s budget had no room for upgrades to the pumps. Sure enough, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration reported last year that climate change was drastically increasing the chances of record August rainfall levels in Louisiana, raising the average total inches in heavy rain events and reducing the average number of years between such events.

It is impossible, of course, to know that this particular flash flood would not have occurred if it were not for climate change. And the city government was instantly criticized for blaming climate change instead of acknowledging a possible role for its own incompetence. But it’s true that rainfall from thunderstorms “has been increasing astonishingly fast” according to a recent study in Science Advances, increasing by 71% in the last half-century. It is, in fact, one of “the basic predictions of climate science” that increases in global temperature are going to lead to increases in rainfall.

Climate change can very easily slip into the background, but there’s no better way to be reminded of it than by discovering that you have to swim home from your office. It encourages one to reflect upon the issue.

One of the most important questions about climate change right now is: how do you actually persuade people to be concerned about it? And that question is immediately followed by a second: can you make someone concerned enough to act before the water starts lapping against their office door? But just the question of changing people’s beliefs is hard enough. It’s a strategic challenge for science education: how can knowledge be made to spread, how can the public be convinced to trust science? And so far, there’s both good news and bad news on this front. More people than ever now worry about climate change. Gallup found that nearly half “worry a great deal” about it. The bad news, though, is that public opinion is still out of step with the scientific consensus. Only 27% of the public believes that almost all climate scientists have concluded that human activity is mostly responsible for climate change. Depending on which polls you consult, you can paint an optimistic or pessimistic view of public opinion on the issue. Over ⅔ of people believe climate scientists should play a major role in policymaking, but less than ⅓ believe these scientists know what they’re doing.

Either way, increasing public understanding of climate change is a serious and important project. People who don’t believe in climate change have an outsized role in policymaking, and it’s somewhat troubling that Republicans both (1) don’t trust academia and (2) control the majority of government power at both the state and federal level. In fact, public trust in institutions generally is very low, meaning that people don’t necessarily believe that just because “scientists” or “the media” (or even “their church”) believe something, that thing is necessarily true.

In many ways, that’s healthy, because it represents a skepticism of authority. But when it comes to something like climate change, where you necessarily have to get people to trust authority, it creates a problem. One paradoxical aspect of climate education is that you’re trying to get people to be less skeptical of received wisdom, even though being skeptical of received wisdom is a good thing. It’s important to recognize that when we ask someone to believe in the reality of climate change, we are generally not making appeals to facts, but appeals to authority: the authority of the scientific community, who are the only ones in a position to fully understand the facts. (I’ve written about this more here.)

But I worry about an approach to teaching the public about science that relies on saying: “You should believe this because 99% of scientists believe it.” That strikes me as encouraging people not to think for themselves. And it’s only going to be effective if people trust intellectuals to begin with. If they don’t, which the American right largely don’t, then the argument has little persuasive force. A better approach, to me, seems to be dealing with skepticism head-on: instead of casting opponents as Deniers with insufficient respect for the wisdom of scientists, encourage people to be skeptical, and to do their own investigation of the facts.

Questions about how to deal with skepticism and denial have apparently been a matter of serious debate among science teachers. In June, The New York Times ran an article about teachers who were running into stubborn student opposition when they tried to teach about climate change. One story from an Ohio classroom was particularly instructive:

When the teacher, James Sutter, ascribed the recent warming of the Earth to heat-trapping gases released by burning fossil fuels like the coal her father had once mined, [the student] asserted that it could be a result of other, natural causes. When he described the flooding, droughts and fierce storms that scientists predict within the century if such carbon emissions are not sharply reduced, she challenged him to prove it. “Scientists are wrong all the time,” she said with a shrug. […] For his part, Mr. Sutter occasionally fell short of his goal of providing Gwen — the most vocal of a raft of student climate skeptics — with calm, evidence-based responses. “Why would I lie to you?” he demanded one morning. “It’s not like I’m making a lot of money here.” […] When she insisted that teachers “are supposed to be open to opinions,” however, Mr. Sutter held his ground.

“It’s not about opinions,” he told her. “It’s about the evidence.”

“It’s like you can’t disagree with a scientist or you’re ‘denying science,”’ she sniffed to her friends.

Gwen, 17, could not put her finger on why she found Mr. Sutter, whose biology class she had enjoyed, suddenly so insufferable. Mr. Sutter, sensing that his facts and figures were not helping, was at a loss.

It’s worth going over this passage a few times, because there’s a lot to take from it. One thing that strikes me is that I am actually a lot more sympathetic to the student than to the teacher. Note what has happened here: the teacher presents a series of scientific facts. The student asks why she should believe those facts. The teacher replies that she should believe them because they are facts. The student says that this would seem to imply that disagreeing with a scientist about the facts is automatically denying science. The teacher says he has no motive to lie, because he doesn’t make much money.

The reason I’m with the student is because her questions, for the most part, are perfectly reasonable. The teacher thinks she’s just being obstinate, and gives her a circular justification. (Why should we believe those things scientists declare to be facts? Because the scientists have declared them to be facts.) He even resorts to outright fallacious reasoning. (If someone has no economic motive to lie, what they say must be true.) The reason this straight-A student found her teacher “suddenly insufferable” is obvious: he was becoming exasperated with her and treating her as naïve even as he failed to give satisfactory answers to her questions. He certainly didn’t sound like much of a scientist. Scientists are excited by skepticism, because skepticism is the very foundation of all scientific progress.

This is a strange aspect of the way students are often taught science. Science is a process by which we figure out the facts, yet students are often simply taught accumulated lists of facts. Teachers focus on the question of “What do we know?” rather than the question “How do we know?” But teaching people the methods of science is far more important that teaching them a particular set of facts.

The Ohio teacher missed an important opportunity in his tussle with Gwen. Instead of going back to his temperature charts and throwing up his hands when she wouldn’t believe them, he could have sided with her. He could have said:

“You’re right, Gwen. You shouldn’t believe something just because your science teacher tells you it’s true. After all, that assumes that science teachers are infallible. And, as you say, there are plenty of examples from history where scientists were flat wrong, and they stayed wrong for a long time. Aristotle’s theory of physics lasted nearly 2,000 years before people figured out it was wrong. So let’s assume a position of doubt. Let’s say we don’t know whether climate change is happening or not, and we don’t know whether it’s caused by humans. We think it could be, but we aren’t certain. We know it’s an important question, though, because if the climate scientists are right, the Earth is in serious trouble. So let me start by asking you, Gwen, what should we do first in trying to ascertain the truth?”

The unit on climate change, instead of a presentation of the consensus, therefore becomes an opportunity to help students figure out what to believe, when two sides are telling them two different things. We go through and we determine what the arguments and evidence on each side are, and we evaluate them together. Then, we can decide for ourselves what we believe.

I think this way of teaching climate change, encouraging students to doubt the consensus, would actually be far more effective. I know that seems strange. After all, it seems to “legitimize” the “denial” of climate science. But I’m not suggesting that students should be told to make up their own truths or believe anything. I am suggesting that they should be asked to put aside their preconceived notions and use the scientific method to discover the truth.

You might be dubious about this. You might think it would encourage yet more skepticism, or that students wouldn’t be up to the task of evaluating the evidence. But some replies to the Times story from teachers suggest that this kind of approach has proven the most effective:

“I never lecture on climate change or ocean acidification, but rather we do experiments that show how CO2 reacts with water. The class is structured so that they confront their own ideas with data (either from their own experiments/research or from their peers). This is more powerful at changing ideas rather than me telling them climate change is real.”


“We begin our climate change unit having an open conversation about common questions from those who deny climate change. Then we look at how climates change over time by analyzing ice core data from paleoclimatologists.”

Another, from NPR:

“‘Where are you getting this from?’ Clifton routinely asks his students. ‘If you’re hearing this from your mother’s second cousin twice removed, that’s not a credible resource.’ Before their debate, many of Clifton’s students weren’t sure about humans’ role in global warming. After reading the research and listening to the arguments, each student had to vote for a winner. And Clifton says every one of them came down firmly on the side of science.

I am reminded of the issue of whether biology teachers should “teach the controversy” about evolution. It’s always been my position that they should, and that critically reading books like Jerry Coyne’s Why Evolution Is True next to “intelligent design” defenses will ultimately produce a far more rationally-grounded and thoughtful understanding of why scientists believe what they believe. If the counterarguments have been addressed rather than simply swept away (however flimsy they may be), you will ultimately have an even deeper conviction that the things you believe to be true are actually true.

Recently, a conservative think tank called the Heartland Institute sent an elaborate booklet called “Why Scientists Disagree About Global Warming” to schoolteachers all over the country. Some have worried that, since it is a piece of “unscientific propaganda” containing false claims about climate science, it will “mislead tens of thousands of students.” But the scientists at Climate Feedback, a nonpartisan institution that evaluates claims about climate science in the media, had a different perspective. While giving the Heartland Institute’s report an “F” for accuracy, and thoroughly debunking its various claims, they didn’t simply tell teachers to throw the document away and forget it showed up. Instead, they said, “this book provides an opportunity for science teachers to teach their students about fallacious reasoning, as well as common misconceptions about climate science and the deceptive talking points that today floods their social media feeds.”

The best way to teach someone something is, generally speaking, not to hector them into believing it because somebody else believes it, however well-credentialed that person is. Instead, to the extent possible, you should guide them through the process of figuring it out for themselves. That’s especially true in science education, where developing critical reasoning skills is crucial to understanding how the scientific method works.

Though I am obviously worried whenever I look out my door and find myself adrift in an unexpected lake, I am actually fairly confident that the public understanding of climate change is proceeding in the correct direction. The thing that worries me is that the people who don’t understand it are the ones with all the political power. It’s therefore still a crucial task to figure out how to persuade skeptics. And, whether in high school or in the press, the best way to deal with skepticism is usually to embrace it, to encourage doubt and then respond. It’s no longer any good saying that engaging with those who dispute the consensus is “legitimizing” them; they are already legitimized, because they control important political institutions. The best way to persuade people on climate change is to encourage a debate about the facts, because it’s on the facts that we win. It’s more important than ever to mobilize political will for tackling the problem, which means it’s more important than ever to enter dialogue with doubters. Otherwise, we may find ourselves commuting by gondola with ever-increasing frequency.

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