Teaching Climate Change in Sandy's Wake
Hurricane Sandy's landfall late last month may have confirmed the wisdom of that observation. There are encouraging signs that the hurricane's ferocity, coming so closely on the heels of other extreme weather, may have silenced climate-change skeptics. Its unique timing—a week before the presidential election—may have had an additional benefit of putting climate change back on the national agenda. But, for how long?
Well before Sandy's destructive arrival on the East Coast, climate change had moved off the national political radar, without the mainstream media appearing to notice. It is not therefore surprising that President Barack Obama's proposed fiscal 2013 budget would cut the Environmental Protection Agency's entire $9.7 million environmental education program, along with more than $25 million in other environmental-training programs.
Teachers are fearful that if they do begin to adopt a more scientific posture, parents will object. A National Science Teachers Association poll in 2011 found 54 percent of teachers had faced climate-change skepticism from parents. Washington Post reporter Brad Plumer wrote in February that "many teachers said they now teach climate change as a he-said, she-said issue." This is a sad comment on a country that aims to be a world leader in science for the 21st century.
Most of today's textbooks carefully ignore the political decisions ahead—decisions which must now be made as a global community. Instead, they adopt many of the cultural assumptions that personal lifestyle decisions such as recycling plastic bottles, planting more trees, and buying hybrid cars will save us. Part of the reason corporate claims to be environmentally responsible are gaining traction is due to the power of far-right groups such as the Heartland Institute, which urges teachers to be skeptical of climate-change science and distributes attractive teaching materials that reinforce skeptics' point of view. Indeed, states such as Louisiana encourage such "supplemental materials" to be used when teaching "controversial topics" such as climate change, which is clumped by some into the same category as evolution.
The adults clearly do not have the answers. The moral as well as scientific issues that spill over can re-energize any civics and social studies lessons as students examine the range of challenges that confront us, from convincing China and India that although we in the West grew our economies using carbon-based fuels, less-developed countries should look to alternative energies to feed and clothe their expanding populations, to how to restrain our nonsustainable consumer-based lifestyle at home and find sustainable ways of living. In short, we need to prepare a new generation of global citizens who will be challenged to reinvent institutional mechanisms to cope with the need to live within—as an article in Nature put it—safe "planetary boundaries."
The National Association of Independent Schools is one organization that has taken up the challenge to encourage our students to think differently about the critical questions they will face: Students in the United States are paired every year with their counterparts in other countries to find local solutions to global problems, including rising poverty. There are many other approaches that teachers can take, including simulations such as the 100 People project and asking students to role-play a number of scenarios related to global warming. UNESCO, or the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization, also has a series of modules on sustainable development that can be integrated across the curriculum.
In 1992, 1,700 senior scientists, including more than half of all Nobel Prize winners in the sciences, issued their "World Scientists' Warning to Humanity," stating: "No more than one or a few decades remain before the chance to avert the threats we now confront will be lost and the prospects for humanity immeasurably diminished."
As yet another hurricane is blamed for billions of dollars' worth of destruction, surely we can no longer afford either lazy attitudes or spineless leadership. As New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo put it after Sandy's devastation: "Climate change is a reality." The question for policymakers and educators is whether we will pay more than just lip service to the idea of climate change or instead focus on the consequences and the choices the next generation faces.