Teaching Climate Change – part 1

I have a long list of topics I’d like to turn into posts, some better formed than others. Near the top of that list is to write about my experience teaching climate change, both as a standalone course and as a unit in a broader introductory geology class. As I started writing though I realized that the post was quickly getting out of hand. I am therefore breaking it into a few different essays, hoping to keep them a tad bit less rambling. Part 2, which deals with the in class readings I used, can be read here. Part 3, which deals with the online resources I used, can be read here.

My background and training are in the solid earth sciences, things like tectonics, geochronology, structural geology, etc. When I was searching for jobs, those were the keywords I looked for, they included courses I could teach, and the NSF deadlines I already knew by heart. Like most scientists I have some scattered experience with other fields, some biology, less math than I’d like, a pinch of physics, and whatever paleoclimatology I’d picked up from department seminars, but never enough to pretend I could teach at a post-high school level. But a few summers ago I was broke and unemployed, and that changes things. I had entered the world of adjuncting, where you volunteer your skills and time so a deanlet can put  a down payment on another summer home. You make about minimum wage, sometimes less, but you do it because you think it helps you stay in the game. Anyways, that is for another post. Suffice it to say, my standards were low, and I’ve have pretended to be able to teach damn near anything for a paycheck. That was how I ended up teaching an entire class on climate change, a topic that is earth-sciencey enough that friends outside of the science assume I know what I’m talking about, but far enough away from my training that I knew I’d need help.

Fortunately for me, teaching is perhaps the only part of academia where plagiarism is not only tolerated, but often encouraged. Dozens of people post their teaching materials on-line, either on their own site, on an organized site like SERC, or in the Journal of Geoscience Education. I started with the Journal of Geoscience Education, and in particular, this paper:

Theissen, K. M. (2008). The Earth’s Record of Climate: A Focused-topic Introductory Course. Journal of Geoscience Education, 56(4), 342–353.

This paper describes a course developed at the University of St. Thomas (by an actual paleoclimatologist) aimed at introductory level students with no background, my target group. The paper describes an excellent course, complete with learning assessments, activities, and external readings. As an adjunct, class preparation time was non-existent, and I had no access to the resources I’d need for any significant projects. But the paper did give me ideas, and that combined with a series of emails back and forth with colleagues better versed in climate science, I ended up designing a class. I think it went well, of course there are always things you want to change, but in general I was pleased. Even though I doubt I’ll ever be asked to teach this again, the experience forced me to delve much deeper into climate science than I previously had, and I feel that the units on climate and climate change that I now teach in introductory geology courses are much better because of it. What I thought I’d do in these posts is share some of the ideas and resources that I think have worked well, both for the focused climate change class, and for units and exercises about climate change in more general earth science settings.

There isn’t any other topic that I cover in my standard introductory syllabus where students arrive with more misinformation. Perhaps evolution, but that isn’t always part of physical geology. This doesn’t mean that they are blank slates, more that they are slates covered with illogical and incorrect soundbites, anecdotes, and one-liners. The flavor of those preconceptions is largely governed by their political leaning with accuracy left largely to chance. I therefore focus on developing a data and observation based argument, making sure to address common misconceptions as often as possible.

Students, friends, relatives, and random dudes on the airplane will often ask whether or not I believe in climate change. I like to start with this question, something many of them have thought and some have asked, and make it clear that what I believe should be entirely irrelevant. The only thing that the students should care about is what I (or any instructor) can demonstrate with evidence, observation, and logic. This is the first misconception I address, that somehow the scientific position on climate change (or evolution or whatever) is a belief. I won’t pretend that science is purely objective, that is absurd, but the goal is to make decisions based on the weight of evidence. Big ideas, scientific theories and the like, must be supported but the overwhelming burden of evidence. So, do I believe something? Who gives a shit? If the evidence doesn’t support it then I shouldn’t be teaching it in a science class. Many students, whether they end up agreeing with the science or not, inherit their position on climate change from their political leanings; if you lean right, you are skeptical, if you lean left, you more accepting. Both can be ignorant of the facts, but they associate their position with politics.  I’ll often introduce this as the “Al Gore test.” If Al Gore is brought up in a climate change discussion, you are most likely no longer discussing science, but instead arguing politics. This is dumb, of course, but prevalent. It is really a modified version of Godwin’s Law, all internet discussions of climate change will eventually lead to someone slamming Al Gore, at which point the conversation has waded far from the shores of reason and is now neck deep in the sea of speculation.

So I structure the discussion to both start at zero, and to try to address common misconceptions directly. I’ve decided to organize the lesson or class around 4 basic questions that we will answer together with science:

  1. What is climate? This includes a definition but more importantly a discussion of the major controls on climate and the timescales of those controls. Common misconceptions include the confusion of weather and climate, how averages work, and the problem of anecdotal evidence (or a refusal to think about the globe, instead of just their town, state, or even country).
  2. Is climate changing at a “faster-than-normal” rate? This includes a discussion of paleoclimate, rates of climate change in the geologic record, and the modern record of climate change. Misconceptions in this topic relate to the mountain of all molehills climategate, and misunderstandings of proxy records.
  3. If it is changing at a faster-than-normal rate, what factors could be responsible? In this section we explore all of the things that change climate, and investigate how they have been changing over the last few thousand years. The misconceptions I address here really focus on the misguided belief that climate change is either random, or that all climate change must be due to the same things. Climate can and has changed for a variety of reasons, but which of those could account for recent observations?
  4. Will climate change be good, bad, or neutral for humans? The misconceptions here are obvious, and were recently summed up wonderfully by the always-ignorant Newt Gingrich, a man who calls himself an amateur paleontologist in the same way that I’m an amateur gymnast because I did a keg stand in college.

I like to pose the topics as questions because that is what science does, it answers [some] questions. I try as hard as possible to remove any hint of dogma or political talking points.

I also like to stress the following: the work of modern climate scientists is difficult and complicated. They train for years and are always pushing the edges of their field, trying to develop a more nuanced, precise, and accurate view of the world. That being said, the basics of climate science are simple. Seriously simple. Simple enough that first year students with little science background can follow the arguments. This is true of many disciplines, the overall picture isn’t too difficult to grasp, but the details get complicated.

Fundamentally, climate is the balance between the energy the earth gets, and how much it keeps. That is an oversimplification, but to a first order it works, and students seem to understand that. Climate is a function of the energy in minus the energy out. This allows us to focus on those two inputs. Energy in is mostly solar radiation and earth’s orbital parameters. Energy out covers mainly albedo and the greenhouse effect. Not precise, but reasonably accurate, and most importantly, tractable.

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