Spare Me the Details: Strategies for Teaching Climate Change

by Christie Klimas 

So, as a new blogger, I’m thrilled when anyone reads my blog, so you can imagine my excitement when I got an e-mail from my biggest fan. My biggest fan also happens to be my brother, which means that his fan letter came with recommendations for potential future blog posts. As I want to be receptive to all my fans, this blog post addresses this request:

I was watching Up with Chris Hayes the other day, and he was talking about the trade-off between covering a topic in-depth, and making a piece short enough to catch people’s attention and get them to watch/read all the way through. This made me think about the complexities of global climate change that you’ve told me about, i.e., it’s not just global warming but also cooling, etc. Could be an interesting piece…how to communicate about environmental issues is a way that is sophisticated to be accurate, without losing people in the minutia. –Geoff Klimas

I have spent months thinking about how to address this question and I decided that I might best address it with teaching. I will also draw upon some information presented by David Brooks in his book “The Social Animal.” I would like for there to be an active discussion with others contributing to how they would combine depth and breadth in communication of environmental issues (or any complex issue) in the media (or in the classroom).

Climate change is a politically contentious issue, in large part due to the substantial cost associated with changing from a fossil-fuel intensive economy to a new economy based on renewables. So, I think that explaining the scientific fundamentals is crucial. Indeed, when I lecture on climate change, I start by defining weather and asking students whether they would be surprised by a warm day in the winter or a cold day in the summer. Then I define climate and ask students if they would be surprised if their biome were named a desert (or the tundra). Then we discuss the differences between weather and climate and how these two are often incorrectly presented in the media. While I won’t go into the minutiae of my climate change teaching module, I talk about how scientific analysis of tree rings, ice cores, ocean sediments and other techniques have allowed us to view a long (800,000-year) record of atmospheric CO2 concentrations (a good example is from the NOAA site http://www.esrl.noaa.gov/gmd/ccgg/trends/history.html). I use a simulation (recommended by my husband) to talk about greenhouse gases and to show how increasing concentrations of greenhouse gases lead to less escape of solar radiation. To visually show the evidence of climate change, I show the TED video “James Balog: Time-lapse proof of extreme ice loss” 

It’s true that I could go into great depth on any one of the topics I’ve mentioned above (and this is only a part of my climate change module). There’s an impressive scientific literature on reading historical climate records using ice cores. Similarly, looking at deep ocean sediment samples is its own area of research. So, to say that we use these methods to look at what the climate was previously like is different than explaining each in depth (which would probably lose many students in the minutiae). Now, if you’re a graduate student interested in these areas, it’s important to dig further, but if you are a citizen wondering about the strength of the scientific evidence supporting climate change, it may be enough to know the general methods used to determine our historical climate records and what those records show.

So, is providing the fundamentals without the details a good way to present complex issues? Maybe. The initial stage of learning is knowledge acquisition. According to Benjamin Bloom, “this first phase of learning is to get the learner involved, captivated, hooked, and to get the learner to need and want more information and expertise.” While some may argue that an interactive lecture is not the best way to go about this, for students who would not otherwise initiate the knowledge acquisition process about the science underlying climate change, I will argue (at least here in this blog), that it can be effective. This core knowledge is then the foundation for future learning. “Human knowledge is hungry and alive. People with knowledge about a topic become faster and better at acquiring more knowledge and remembering what they learn” (Brooks 2011). I often perceive this when I’m talking about my research or Brazilian culture – things that I’ve been immersed in for more than a decade. If I’m getting confused looks, sometimes I realize that I’ve started in the middle of a thought that’s based on a decade of experience and expecting that others are right there with me. When I realize my error, I try to go back to the beginning (or let’s face it sometimes I can tell the other person is not interested and I switch subjects).

The next step of learning is “taking things that are strange and unnatural, like reading and algebra, and absorbing them so steadily that they become automatic (Brooks 2011).” This is achieved through repetition, as those who effectively study (reviewing topics briefly multiple times) and new exploration.  Start with the core knowledge, and then learn something new. Then integrate the new knowledge into the core. Repeat. “Learning is not entirely linear. There are certain breakthrough moments when you begin to think and see the field differently (Brooks 2011).”

To conclude the section on knowledge acquisition, I’ll finish with an excerpt on expertise. I think that an undergraduate degree is one way of gaining expertise in a degree area (though not the only way). And maybe the media provides an entrance to exploring an area – though I’m not always sure that this is true. If so, perhaps a general article on a complex issue, with links to explore for further information, provide a means of working toward expertise (or understanding). But I welcome comments and insights on this topic. I doubt I am done thinking about this question and I would love new directions in which to send my thoughts.

In one exercise, a series of highly skilled chess grandmasters and a series of nonplayers were shown a series of chessboards for about five to ten seconds each. On each board, twenty-five pieces were arrayed, as if in an actual game. The participants were later asked to remember the positions on the board. The grandmasters could remember every piece on every board. The average players could remember about four or five pieces per board. It is not that the grandmasters were simply a lot smarter than the others. IQ is surprisingly, not a great predictor of performance in chess. Nor is it true that the grandmasters possess incredible memories. When the same exercise was repeated, but the pieces were arrayed randomly, in a way that did not relate to any game situation, the grandmasters had no better recall than anyone else. No, the reason the grandmasters could remember the game boards so well is that after so many years of study, they saw the boards in a different way. When average players saw the boards, they saw a group of individual pieces. When the masters saw the boards, they saw formations. Instead of seeing a bunch of letters on a page, they saw words, paragraphs, and stories. A story is easier to remember than a bunch of individual letters. Expertise is about forming internal connections so that little pieces of information turn into bigger networked chunks of information. Learning is not merely about accumulating facts. It is internalizing the relationships between pieces of information. – Brooks 2011

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11 Comments

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11 responses to “Spare Me the Details: Strategies for Teaching Climate Change

  1. cskolnik

    Hi Christie,
    . . . such an important issue. Any idea how to handle the plethora of public misinformation (i.e. the rhetoric of, “climate scientists aren’t certain . . . they’re just using models . . . it used to be way hotter” . . . blah, blah, blegh)?

  2. In Aristotle’s ethics he starts by assuming that people are somewhat ethical to begin with in order to cultivate a better ethical attitude. The same may be true of environmental sensibility – you may need to be somewhat sympathetic to begin with. What role do we have at this more fundamental level…i.e. before we have even started the climate change basics?

  3. Christie Klimas

    I have been thinking about the fact that if you followed links to “further your education” about climate change, it is likely that you would be directed to “popular” sites where scientific information was scarce. It seems like some sort of ranking (based on scientific merit could be used to address this, but I’m not sure. I do talk about those issues in class and the TED video is very useful for showing visible evidence of climate change, but I think misinformation is a tough problem, especially in this age of easy access to any information (valid or not).

  4. Christie Klimas

    That’s an excellent question Liam. And then there’s the question of should we use people’s self-interest to promote good behavior or should we focus on building ethical citizens sympathetic/empathetic to the environment before we talk about the fundamentals of climate change. And then there’s the question of whether we should address this from a human standpoint – the poorest humans will be most negatively impacted by climate change or if we should talk about the loss of biological diversity. People tend to respond to charismatic megafauna, but not microarthropods (for example). And what is a “better” ethical attitude? You may be more qualified to answer the last question that I am.

    Is ethical education enough? How do we promote environmental ethics and then how do we see if people act in accordance with their ethics?

    • Christie…I am always interested in the process by which most children and converted from being natural historians at age 3 to pragmatists at age 16 and then we hope to reconvert them to being good environmental citizens as adults. Seems like this is not

      • …likely to succeed. You’re ancillary questions in the response are worth exploring,

      • Christie Klimas

        I agree. And I don’t think it’s just a conversion to pragmatists. I think that the culture (more now than perhaps ever) separates us from nature. We are converted to consumers (in my opinion) and instead of having a cup of tea outside to unwind, we go shopping. And I think that a myriad of problems come with this new mindset. It requires a disconnect from nature (and the cost of our purchases). How would you suggest that we maintain the natural historians? There are outside schools where kids never go inside, but these are only for younger ages. Do you know of any successful experiments in this?

  5. cskolnik

    I think the “old” air and water quality issues could be compelling again, especially as they have immediate, negative, measurable impacts on the disadvantaged. They can work as a Trojan horse in which to sneak climate change, though possibly not as effective (if that approach elides the big picture). However, and I say this to my students (re. engagement), various approaches are probably best (as opposed to epistemological/activist monoculture, so to speak).

  6. Christie Klimas

    I agree about various approaches being best. There’s been success with framing the issue as one of reducing costs (to increase interest in switching light bulbs and weatherizing houses). I think focusing on increasing global competitiveness might be another successful way to frame the issue by talking about China’s competitive edge in green technologies (which will be the future whether we act quickly or act when fossil fuels become more scarce). How would you frame the air and water questions so that it would result in decreasing carbon emissions?

  7. cskolnik

    Good question. There are, I guess, unobvious systemic relationships between CO2 emissions and both air and water quality, though private transportation is an obvious one. Stormwater management is a less obvious one . . . so vegetation that reduces stormwater runoff and water pollution also moderates the heat-island and reduces carbon.

  8. Christie Klimas

    Yes, I guess I was wondering how to turn this into a strong argument that would convince the public that it was important enough to act. I guess I’m wondering if stormwater management will inspire people to act in a way that increasing atmospheric carbon won’t. It might. People think sewage is disgusting, and if you can connect it to something strongly displeasing and tangible, then it might work.

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