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Addressing climate change risk in the classroom  

Question from our presenter, Ed Mathez: Why (or why not) do you think it is important to address climate change risk in your classes? Do you do so, and if so how?

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It is important because in the Earth Sciences it overlaps with so much of what we teach. Furthermore, students need the context to understand how climate change will impact their science and their lives and how to quantify it so that it is concrete to them. At the introductory level, students need a solid scientific foundation to understand the evidence, predictions and impact of climate change regardless of their major so that they can be informed citizens of society and not solely consumers of information. I am a geostatistician, so I'm excited to learn about some of the tools I can teach my students to think critically about the risks (both personal and societal) of climate change.

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I think it is important to talk about risk, but one has to be very careful with that. Talking about risk can be helpful because it takes an abstract topic like climate change and frames it with concrete effects. I think students (and the population in general) need to be familiar with why climate change matters.

On the other hand, predicting certain death and widespread disaster will turn people off or leave them fearful or hopeless. So the topic of risk needs to be addressed with sensitivity.

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I teach several 100-200 level couses where I introduce the science of climate change. Personally, I think that this is one of the biggest issues facing society today and future generations (our students). If we don't teach students the science of CC along with the risk, we are doing them a disservice. By teaching the science of CC first and then integrating risk (based on the sound science), hopefully establishes with the students the potential for the future (generations). But I agree with the above comments that too heavy an emphasis on risk without a sound fundamental scientific basis to link from, can turn students off... Believe it or not, many of my science colleagues in chemistry and biology don't want to constantly hear the gloom and doom. I loved the "gloom and doom" of hazards and such when I was a student, but many folks today don't want that thrown at them. Also by teaching sound science first, I think we can more effectively counter the "FOX News" syndrome many of our students (and the public) have towards CC...

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I think teaching about the climate change issue is an excellent conduit for teaching the nature of science. Scientific truths are established differently then most of the "truths' people hold. Many people think that truths are immutable and constant. Scientific truths are not like that. They are always subject to challenge, modifications, and clarifications. Science just establishes the range of uncertainty. That is the hardest concept to get across to non-scien thinking people. Just because there may be more then one explanation for a phenomena, does not then mean that all explanations are equally valid, scientifically.

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It would be interesting to bring up the Italian Seismologists' trials for misconduct because they failed to adequately communicate what risk means in earthquake country. That would be a good controversy to debate in a classroom when discussing risk. http://blogs.scientificamerican.com/guest-blog/2011/10/20/italian-seismologists-on-trial-for-failing-to-communicate-well/

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The intertwined concepts of hazard, risk and probability (as applied to many natural forces, not just climate change) are among the most difficult things laypeople need help understanding. There's an expectation that science can provide definite answers: when and where the earthquake will strike, how climate change will affect the water balance and when we'll start to see those changes, etc. Some of these problems relate to geologic time: The historical record arguably misrepresents the late Holocene, let alone longer time periods. One of my course goals in introductory geology courses is to improve students' comfort level with ambiguity and uncertainty. Climate change is a good vehicle, because the (possible) effects (floods, droughts, hurricanes, extreme weather) are felt everywhere, not just in active tectonic areas.

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Katryn suggests a great article (see above) on the topic of risk communication. This could easily be used in a class to get the discussion of risk rolling.... and could be applied to various natural events such as Katrina.

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[quote=Andy Buddington]
I teach several 100-200 level couses where I introduce the science of climate change. Personally, I think that this is one of the biggest issues facing society today and future generations (our students). If we don't teach students the science of CC along with the risk, we are doing them a disservice. By teaching the science of CC first and then integrating risk (based on the sound science), hopefully establishes with the students the potential for the future (generations). But I agree with the above comments that too heavy an emphasis on risk without a sound fundamental scientific basis to link from, can turn students off... Believe it or not, many of my science colleagues in chemistry and biology don't want to constantly hear the gloom and doom. I loved the "gloom and doom" of hazards and such when I was a student, but many folks today don't want that thrown at them. Also by teaching sound science first, I think we can more effectively counter the "FOX News" syndrome many of our students (and the public) have towards CC...
[Bill Bull quote]

Hi Andy:
Humans seem better programmed to react to immediate hazards like a tornado bearing down on them, a flood created by a dam burst, or a fire sweeping through their subdivision. Global climate changes since the start of the industrial revolution have been a gradual hazard that continues to accelerate. This has caused major changes in Earth’s oceans and continental climates that are easy for the news media to dismiss or ignore.

As earth scientists we should alert our students, and the public, to climate-change thresholds (tipping points) that alter how natural systems behave. The news media describes the intense fires sweeping through the American west, but never points out that the behavior of our forests crossed an important threshold ~30 years ago.

New to this format, but will try to attach a 3-page PDF to this discussion that describes this forest-fire threshold.

My email address is bill@activetectonics.com
ClimateThreshold.pdf

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