Teaching Climate Change – part 2, readings and discussions

To read part 1 of my teaching climate change series, which deals with my overall philosophy and course outline click here. To read part 3, which deals with the online resources I used for the class, click here.

The original climate change class that I taught was during the summer, so it had an odd schedule; Monday to Thursday for a 3-hour block, each day. That was new for me, and I knew that 3 hours of lecture, 4 days in a row, wouldn’t be good for anyone. Part of the class, then, centered on in-class activities, which I’ll describe later. Following the lead of friends who teach in the humanities and the ideas presented in Theissen (2008), I decided than another chunk of time would be devoted to in-class discussions.

There were a lot of reasons to have in-class discussions; they allowed me to bring in outside readings and they gave me a chunk of class that didn’t require a ton of prep on my part, for example. What I found though was that these discussions gave me a great deal of insight into the thought processes, misconceptions, and interests of the students. These discussions were the best tool I’ve ever used for evaluating learning and comprehension. It also allowed me to demonstrate the scientific process. I picked readings with a range of difficulties, usually things written by scientists but for popular magazines, or short review-style articles from Science, Nature, or EOS. I picked articles that I thought were accessible but challenging, and that addressed popular misconceptions, but in a sciencey way. My general procedure was to give them a week to read the articles (1-3 depending on the length), and submit 2-3 short questions, observations, or talking points before the discussion. These questions would form part of their grade for the assignment, and I’d use them to stimulate discussion and to involve students who tended to remain quiet. It would also give me a chance to prepare to address common questions, confusions, and misconceptions.

I’ll say this again, if you want to know what your students get and don’t get, forget exams, have them discuss a topic with you in class. Impossible in large classes, but well worth it.

This list is by no means exhaustive, but I’ve wanted to compile these readings in one place for a long time.

My confidence and desire to teach the class were mostly due to the superb book Merchants of Doubt by Naomi Oreskes. Professor Oreskes is one of Apparent Dip’s favorite academics/public intellectuals, someone with skills and training in both earth science and history who can also write in an insightful, accessible, and not-dumbed-down way. I first learned about her because of her books Plate Tectonics (which she edited and wrote the introduction for), and The Rejection of Continental Drift. Merchants of Doubt is excellent, but can also be excerpted quite easily for readings on climate science, the history of climate change research, and the motivations driving the anti-science crowd. If you are trying to put together a class or a lecture on climate change and don’t know where to start, start here. Also, if you just want a solid introduction to climate change and climate science, also start here. Merchants of Doubt is now available in paperback or on a kindle, so you have no excuse.

I also draw extensively from the IPCC reports. I spend a great deal of time discussing how the IPCC works, and we evaluate how right their predictions have been (spot on and if anything conservative, by the way). I had my class read the summary for policymakers, and pointed them towards all of the more in-depth material. Also, the reports can be downloaded for free. This also highlights how open the science is. The IPCC reports aren’t hidden behind paywalls, and their data and sources are spelled out in detail. I also highlight the public and free nature of some of the data using class exercises, but more on that later.

In addition to these longer sources, I also used the following articles. I intended these to be accessible, but challenging. Something that they could understand but that would also generate questions, and give them a taste for the rigor of climate science. The ones marked with an asterisk (*) are the ones I use in my general geology classes where I don’t have a ton of time.

Alley, R. B. (2003). Abrupt Climate Change. Science, 299(5615), 2005–2010. doi:10.1126/science.1081056 – Many of my students know Richard Alley as an activist, but this paper shows off his scientific chops. It also explores what geologically “rapid” change means on human timescales.

Doniger, D. D., Herzog, A. V., & Lashof, D. A. (2006). An Ambitious, Centrist Approach to Global Warming Legislation. Science, 314(November 2006), 764–765. – I tend to get a lot of political science and economics majors in my classes, and this article helps then realize what an important role they can play in dealing with climate change. There is plenty of science that needs to be done, but there is also plenty of other work to do.

Doran, P., & Kendall Zimmerman, M. (2009). Examining the scientific consensus on climate change. Eos Trans AGU, 90, 22–23. One of two articles I hammer on to highlight that anthropogenic climate change is not a scientifically contentious issue. My hope is that whenever they hear someone bring up uncertainty or debate in the scientific community that their bullshit detector starts to flash.

*Foukal, P., Fröhlich, C., Spruit, H., & Wigley, T. M. L. (2006). Variations in solar luminosity and their effect on the Earth’s climate. Nature, 443(7108), 161–166. doi:10.1038/nature05072 – The title says it all. This is another claim many denialists bring up that has been both addressed and discounted as a primary driving force in human-scale anthropogenic warming. It is amazing how many of them remember “135 times more.”

*Gerlach, T. (2011). Volcanic Versus Anthropogenic Carbon Dioxide. Eos, 92(24), 201–208. – This is always their favorite paper. It is short, to the point, and rather shocking for most of them. It is a perfect gateway for discussing natural sources of CO2, as well as the ease of calculating anthropogenic sources of CO2.

Hoffman, P. F., & Schrag, D. (2000). Snowball Earth. Scientific American, January, 68–75. – In the full climate change class we spend time talking about paleoclimate. Snowball earth is easily their favorite past climate event, and it captures many of their imaginations. It is also a great introduction to climate proxies.

Kintisch, E. (2008). Roads, Ports, Rails Aren’t Ready for Changing Climate, Says Report. Science, 319(March 28), 1744–1745. – I find it important to highlight that climate change isn’t just about saving cute polar bear cubs, but is in fact a serious threat to our society and economy.

*Oreskes, N. (2004). Beyond the ivory tower: the scientific consensus on climate change. Science, 306(5702), 1686. – This is a short and simple display of how enormous the scientific consensus is regarding climate change. Dr. Oreskes updated this study in Merchants of Doubt, but the conclusion didn’t change. Again, this helps calibrate their bullshit detector, and the more Oreskes they read the better, which is a general rule.

Rahmstorf, S., Cazenave, A., Church, J., Hansen, J., Keeling, R., Parker, D., & Somerville, R. (2007). Recent climate observations compared to projections. Science, 316(5825), 709. – I’ll often hear people say the IPCC has been way off on their predictions and I wonder what, exactly, they have been smoking. If you look at early IPCC models it turns out they have been spot on. If anything they’ve been too conservative.

Rogers, D., & Randolph, S. (2000). The global spread of malaria in a future, warmer world. Science, 289(5485), 1763. – Again, a paper that reinforces that climate change isn’t just about penguins and icebergs, but that it will have a real impact on us.

Zachos, J., Pagani, M., Sloan, L., Thomas, E., & Billups, K. (2001). Trends, rhythms, and aberrations in global climate 65 Ma to present. Science, 292(5517), 686. – for the past 6 years, every time I go to a department seminar or other talk I’ve been keeping track of how many times I’ve seen this paper cited. The Zachos Curve is ubiquitous in Cenozoic Climate Science, or at least in the talks that paleoclimatologists give, and I like them to see the source. It also is a little more advanced than the other selections, and give a good sense of the science that goes into these records. The fact that it makes me think of nachos is irrelevant.

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