Effectively engaging with climate skeptics

Jessica Kleiss, Lewis and Clark College
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One of my persistent challenges as a climate scientist involves friendly conversations with my extended (climate skeptic) family over the Thanksgiving table, as I try to inform and guide their perceptions about climate change. I modeled this writing assignment after these family gatherings, to give my students a chance to respond respectfully and completely to a skeptical argument in a safe setting, before entering the Thanksgiving arena!

Used this activity? Share your experiences and modifications



I used this assignment at the END of an undergraduate introductory course in Climate Science for non-majors.

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

I used this assignment as a lab activity. Students had 3 hours, working in pairs, sitting in our campus computer lab to work on this activity. Some pairs of students finished during this time, and some required out-of-lab completion.


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

- consider the details of an argument, and critically consider the validity of each
- 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

I implemented this activity during one of the weekly, 3-hour lab sessions of my Introductory Climate Science course. I first gave the students a personal introduction, indicating that I find that talking with my intelligent, well-informed family members and friends about climate change can be very challenging and stimulating, and get me to really think about the science behind climate change, as well as strategies for successful communication.

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:

Teaching Notes and Tips

Students demonstrated the following general pitfalls:
  • 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
The reflective paragraph at the end is particularly meaningful for me to read.

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.


The assignment includes a bullet list of objectives for this assignment. I created a loose rubric based on these criteria for grading.

References and Resources