"Resolved: Climate change is not a 'crisis'": Using cultural cognition research in high school ecology class
[from Dan Kahan: The following is a guest post on a super important topic: teaching secondary-school students climate science in a polluted science communication environment. In today's society, opposing stances on climate change have taken on the character of badges of membership in, and loyalty to, competing cultural groups. No one should have to choose between knowing what's known to science and being who they are; certainly kids can't be expected to learn effectively when put in that position. But talented, dedicated science educators have faced the challenge of dispelling this conflict and have overcome it in other settings. It won't be easy to do here, but I'm confident they'll succeed--and that all of us will learn something in the process about how to disentangle the toxic knot between cultural identity and positions on climate change. Read this--a report form a reflective and passionate science educator on his encounter with this dilemma--& you'll see why I'm so optimistic!]
By Peter Buckland
What do you do when you get an email from a parent who’s worried your teaching climate alarmism?
In my second year as Director of Sustainability at Kiski, I was tasked with teaching two sections of Ecology. I designed the course to merge ecological concept mastery, major human-environmental issues, a campus arboretum and organic gardens, and opportunities for reflection. Given the world as it is, I had to do a fairly in-depth unit on the science of the climate and climate change.
When I was hired, I told my interviewers that I was likely to encounter some resistance to scientifically-based climate education. The national politics and the personal convictions of a sizable swath of conservative Americans and their vociferousness indicated we’d get a phone call, email, or some grousing. At Kiski, many of my students come from white middle- to upper-class conservative families whose political alliances virtually guarantee they will doubt anthropogenic global warming or outright deny it as liberal garbage. I knew my audience and the potential resistance and I also knew I had administrators and a science department chair who backed me up.
I focused on the scientific consensus and how it has been achieved. We did labs and activities using radiative forcing data from NOAA and historical regional land and ocean temperature maps from the Australian Bureau of Meteorology. They read the most recent IPCC AR 5 “Headline Statement” and other current materials. One section got to Skype with Dr. Michael E. Mann, Director of Penn State’s Earth Systems Science Center and author of The Hockey Stick and the Climate Wars who spoke about current findings in climate science and not much on politics or lawsuits. All in all, the unit was shaping up well.
Then, at the end of the unit, I received an email from a concerned parent. He was concerned that I was being imbalanced in my teaching and courting some kind of climate alarmism. As a geologist, he had done some personal research and discerned that our climate was changing, that there was some anthropogenic forcing, but that climate change was not as bad as some people were making it out to be and that it certainly wasn’t a catastrophe. He offered to come to my class to balance the scales with a presentation of his own.
I admit, I was initially insulted and started a keyboard barrage. Yes! Bludgeon him with scientific data, authoritative scientific organizations, and self-righteous ire. After a few minutes though, I realized my strategy would backfire. My awareness of research about motivated reasoning and identity protection overrode my impulses. The emailing parent seemed in the “Doubtful” or maybe “Dismissive” camp of the Yale Six Americas study. Working from Lewandowsky’s and Cook’s The Debunking Handbook, I knew I should avoid emphasizing falsehoods, prevent an overkill backfire from a barrage of information (so hard), and do what I can to stop a worldview backfire, Dan Kahan’s focus at Cultural Cognition. Caution was in order. This was an opportunity.
When I wrote back I thanked the parent for being interested in his son’s education, his interest in the topic, and then explained my course’s logic. First, I work to represent current science accurately. Second, I am not an arbiter of my students’ values. While I am pretty alarmed about climate change’s scale and pace, it is not my place to indoctrinate my students into a political or emotional faction but to invite them to reflect on the state of the world and their own lives and values (how American of me). Third, and most importantly, I would provide them with the opportunity to develop their own views on the matter by taking positions in a mock UNFCCC deliberation where they could determine their thresholds for risk or whether or not climate change is a catastrophe. I would end up changing that format, though, because I wanted to get around my students’ motivated reasoning and develop their scientific literacy, their moral literacy, and their communication and analytical skills.
I split my classes into small groups and had them take positions on the following proposition: “Climate change is not a crisis.” We followed the format of Intelligence Squared that airs on National Public Radio. I instructed my students’ to incorporate well-grounded scientific information that reflects current understanding and make a clear argument of definition about what does or does not constitute a crisis. I chose this format from among three options for a few strategic reasons. First, the debate was not “Climate change is real: yes or no.” We could not deal in disproven or junk science. Second, by debating the proposition in the negative – “not a crisis” – I avoided an alarmist’s position. Third, equal numbers of students would have to be on one side or the other in groups I created deliberately. This way I could put very concerned or alarmed students for the proposition and dismissive or doubtful students against it, thereby inviting them to reason in ways that could counter their own motivated reasoning. Fourth, at no point did I tell my students to be “objective,” “unbiased,” “rational,” or “open-minded.” While I might like them to do that, entreating them to be so could backfire as research has indicated it does. We like to believe we are open-minded and those people over there are the close-minded unrealistic ones. My set-up could avert some of that problem.
This model has at least two potential flaws. Someone could accuse me of a certain kind of censorship or choice editing. I have to edit my students’ choices in class. All teachers are, to some extent, editors. To master trophic relationships in the soil I would not tell my students that it is okay to entertain the notion that the soil food web is a hoax because the first law of thermodynamics is wrong. Similarly, any responsible understanding of the science of climate change at this point will not entertain hoax arguments.
A second problem may be more insidious. Simply inviting group deliberation could entrench people even further. At Cultural Cognition, Dan Kahan writes, “Far from counteracting this effect, deliberation among diverse groups is likely to accentuate polarization. By revealing the correlation between one or another position and one or another cultural style, public debate intensifies identity-protective pressure on individuals to conform to the views dominant within their group.” Earlier I wrote that I had initially conceived of this project using a mock UNFCCC framework. I decided not to use that format to skirt worldview-threatening messages. As Kahan et al show in some of their research, hierarchical individualists (who map fairly well onto American conservatives) doubt climate change science more if it’s couched in terms of carbon regulations. Because the UNFCCC deliberations focus so heavily on regulation of markets and perceived United Nations’ interference, I tried to dodge that landmine.
How did they debate? They crafted arguments around what constitutes a crisis. One group that agreed with the proposition – climate change is not a crisis – said that on the scale of crises there is only so much room for big crises; global poverty, AIDS, and wars held up that space. Climate change may be a problem but it is so slow that right now it is not urgent. But another group argued it is a crisis because of the enormous costs to disaster-prone areas, the cost to insure them, and the costs to reinsurance. Using MunichRe and SwissRe as sources they made a powerful argument against the proposition. Yet another used techno-optimism a la Ray Kurzweil to predict that solar power will eclipse fossil fuels in the next couple of decades, thereby eliminating the largest emissions sources. But those against the proposition showed that threats to the carbon cycle were so severe already that major disruptions in ecosystem services and extinction were real, present, and harming people. Sadly, one group did not follow directions and used thoroughly debunked and scientifically invalid arguments. A teacher can’t control everything.
The emailing parent’s son was a star too. He was placed on a team that argued that climate change is a crisis and he spoke for the group (each group had a designated speaker). During the question and answer session that followed each teams’ statement, he answered questions clearly and asked his opponents intelligent and pointed questions. At one point, after pointing out the denier groups’ inaccuracies, their leader looked red in the face and asked, Do you think it’s a crisis?
He said something to the effect of, No. But that’s not the point. I’m arguing a position and doing it the best I can. But there are facts and we shouldn’t be afraid of facts. I don’t have to think this is a crisis to believe it’s real.
I felt pretty satisfied as a teacher at that moment. He and his group had formulated a scientifically-informed and sensible argument with which he did not agree. And in so doing, he showed that he could master scientific information he might have rejected were it presented in a way that it would have threatened his and his family’s worldview.
Just last week, he graduated and I had the chance to talk to his dad, the emailing parent. He and his son had talked about the debate. I told him I had created it in part because of his email. And he was pleased with that and the experience it gave his son. He agreed that whatever we might think climate change’s status as crisis or not, that we should all master sound information and concepts and learn to place them into coherent messages. It was, once again, very satisfying to have some evidence that developing the assignment using my understanding of identity protection and motivated reasoning had worked with at least one student.
It seems to me that I might have made some educational errors had I not known and thoughtfully strategized from the cultural cognition and related research. I encourage others to craft similar strategies to develop their students and the public’s/publics’ climate literacy. By attending to who we are, we have better chances at dealing with reality together. With the world’s climate changing as rapidly as it is, we need to use the best strategies we can so that we can be better ecological citizens.
Peter Buckland is completing his two-year term as Director of Sustainability at the Kiski School. He has worked on energy, waste, land, and educational projects ranging from gardens and an arboretum to a comprehensive energy strategy and teacher development. He sees his purpose as making possibilities for all people to become better ecological citizens, people who “recognizes the importance and interconnectivity of all living beings, human and non-human…[who] understands that she or he is responsible to all beings and actively seeks sustainable futures for them” (Kissling and Barton, 2013). He is finishing his doctorate in Educational Theory and Policy at Penn State University.