Effectively engaging with climate skeptics
Skills and concepts that students must have mastered
- understanding of spatial and temporal inhomogeneity of climate change.
- understanding of difference between weather and climate.
- understanding of natural causes of climate change (sun spots, Milankovitch cycles, tectonic plate motion, etc.)
- solid understanding of climate feedbacks
- some familiarity of nonlinearities of Earth's climate system.
- familiarity with the scientific consensus / process of climate science.
How the activity is situated in the course
Content/concepts goals for this activity
- acquaint students with one prevalent skeptical argument that they may encounter in their social circles. The specific topic will vary according to student choice. (ie. sun spots, Milankovitch cycles, water vapor feedback, uncertainty of climate models, etc.)
Higher order thinking skills goals for this activity
- realize that contrarian arguments are not just blatant lies, but they contain a rich blend of accurate and misleading aspects.
- Differentiate between the accurate and misleading aspects of an argument.
Other skills goals for this activity
- consider the validity of information sources on the internet
- provide a creative writing opportunity.
Description and Teaching Materials
Students are sitting at desktop computers in the computer lab. I have them work in pairs (or alone if they prefer). This makes the assignment more fun, encourages more discussion and debate, and makes the "transcript" writing process a bit more realistic.
I have students write their final products (essays, screen plays, dialogues, whatever they turn out to be) electronically, and submit them to the course web page. No other materials needed!
Include the class handout that I provide the students, describing the assignment. In particular, I direct them to the following websites for information:
- John Cook Skeptical Science (notice: beginner / intermediate / advanced)
- New Scientist: Climate Change: A guide for the perplexed
- RealClimate: Response to common contrarian arguments
- NERC (UK): Climate change debate summary (archived article)
- Brian Angliss: A Thorough Debunking
- Class Handout for Skeptics dialogue writing assignment (Microsoft Word 2007 (.docx) 149kB Jun22 16)
- Sample student work (Acrobat (PDF) 340kB May30 13)
Teaching Notes and Tips
- choosing a topic that is too broad or ill-defined to debate in detail (for example: "natural versus anthropogenic climate change.)
- introducing their own bias, in the form of completely disregarding the contrarian argument, even when the points made are valid and correct.
- choosing an excessively trivial contrarian point, that does not inspire a deep or meaningful discussion.
- getting overly dramatic with the "screenplay" aspect of the assignment, and losing the focus on climate science.
- poor writing quality
Many students asked about specific criteria: how many pages? what line spacing? I would point them to the bullet list of objectives at the end of the assignment, and say that once they met those objectives, they can consider themselves done.