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Engaging in Science-Related Activities Educates the Public About Climate Change

Scientist and Educator Ann Reid Outlines Ways to Teach and Talk About Climate Science

The Climate Challenge as a Test Case – How Well Is Science, Technology and Policy Responding? Panelists
Ann Reid, second right, and panel participants explore how well science, technology and policy respond to public uncertainty about climate change. |

Most people in the United States, middle and high school students included, have already formed “sticky” ideas about climate change, including around 40% of U.S. adults who do not accept the scientific consensus on climate change.

To address misinformation about climate science, Ann Reid, the executive director of the National Center for Science Education, offered an “even stickier” idea: give the public a chance and time to investigate the topic like a scientist. “As all of us know who have ever worked as scientists, your understanding evolves over time,” said Reid during the 44th Annual AAAS Science & Technology Policy Forum presentation on May 3 at AAAS Headquarters in Washington, D.C. “You don’t just get it in one experiment.”

In communities with higher levels of climate skepticism, science teachers are under pressure not to teach the facts about the Earth’s changing climate, said Reid. About half of middle and high school science teachers in the U.S. teach climate change accurately, some 36% teach it as a two-sided issue or avoid tackling the subject altogether and 10% deny that human-caused climate change is real, according to the 2016 NCSE report, “Mixed Messages: How Climate Change is Taught in America’s Public Schools.”

To support teachers, NCSE’s Teacher Ambassador Program offers lesson plans and resources for teaching students about climate change. One approach focuses on five central messages to use to address common misconceptions: the science is settled; modeling is a powerful tool for prediction; recent climate change differs dramatically from past climate change; climate change contributes to extreme weather events in real, but complex ways; and there are many different ways people can take action to solve the problem.

During the panel discussion, Reid said one way for teachers to address doubts about climate change is to allow students to uncover facts that show how recent climate change differs dramatically from past shifts in climate, a message that addresses the belief of some that current warming is just a natural fluctuation.

NCSE’s lesson plan involves sharing an online tool from the King Centre for the Visualization of Science, which allows users to explore 800,000 years of ice core data. Through this, students can see the rate of change, which is key to why current climate change is so unlike earlier climate fluctuations. Reid pointed to an example dating to between 429,000 and 427,000 years ago, when there was a steep increase in carbon dioxide levels. The slope of that increase, or its rate of change, however, was 0.0123ppmv/year, a fraction of the 0.718ppmv/year rate of change over the last 160 years.

Reid also suggested that teachers engage in interactions by asking people about changes in their local community, as a majority of people in the U.S. agree that climate change is impacting their community. She also encouraged building trust over time and focusing on solutions.

NCSE often refers people to Project Drawdown, a website with a comprehensive list of responses to climate change. Reid added that NCSE’s Science Booster Club program, which supports local science teachers in several states, piloted a “no conflict approach” to discussing climate change. Its tenets are to “avoid debate, control emotional tone, utilize an informal and cheerful conversational style, and explicitly describe and utilize elements of scientific argumentation.”

“If you give people a little sense of agency, and a little sense that the things they do can make a difference, they buy into the bigger changes. But it can’t be a drive-by,” Reid said. She advocates for “welcoming people in and asking, ‘What do you care about and what are the options for that?’”

Reid was joined on the panel with Joseph Goffman, executive director of the Environmental & Energy Law Program at Harvard Law School, Suzanne Tegen, assistant director of the Center for the New Energy Economy, and Sharlene Weatherwax, associate director of Science for Biological and Environmental Research in the Department of Energy’s Office of Science.

The “Panel: The Climate Challenge as a Test Case – How Well Is Science, Technology and Policy Responding?” was moderated by Tim Profeta, director of the Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University.

Weatherwax described how she communicated with residents during trips to field sites in Alaska. “It’s one thing to scare people into doing the right thing, sort of like smoking, but it’s another thing to engage them in the actual work,” she said.

“People care about where they live and they don’t necessarily want to buy into a big philosophy or political statement because that’s kind of too much… people want to understand what is happening right around them and what can they do to help their own community.”

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