Initial Publication Date: September 17, 2019

The Hardest Topic to Teach

Sarah Faulkner, East Granby Middle School

The world is feeling like a very tumultuous and unstable place to today's students. Between political unrest both at home and elsewhere around the world, threats of war, dramatic natural disasters, uncontrolled immigration, and emerging new medical threats, it is no wonder that many despair about the future. And yet the future of our planet lies in their hands. So the burden falls to us, the educators, to help our students understand the problems, envision a sustainable world, and work toward achieving it. We need to bring our passion, our best skills, and our complete commitment to help this next generation save the world.

Teaching students about climate change is the most challenging topic I've ever encountered. I've been teaching secondary science for twenty years, have degrees in ecology and biology, and worked in the land and water conservation field before becoming a teacher. I have been a conservation activist my entire life. I strive to make science compelling and fascinating, and yet I still struggle with this topic. I find that there are three things that make teaching about climate change so challenging: it is a highly complex subject that requires a considerable science background to comprehend; it frequently carries preconceptions and biases that need to be overcome before people can understand the issues and take action; and the extent of the problem can seem insurmountable, leading to despair and inaction.

Unlike many other science topics, climate change requires a fairly sophisticated understanding of multiple, integrated scientific systems. It is impossible to describe it in simple sound bites, and you can't point a finger at a primary problem. Usually carbon dioxide is identified as the culprit, with multiple sources that are heating up our atmosphere. These include power plants, automobiles, wood combustion including forest fires and agricultural clearing, home and business heating systems, and more – a broad mix of fossil and bio fuels. Often citizens are asked to calculate their "carbon footprint" and take action to reduce it. This is all good, but is misleading on a global scale -- even if every single individual dramatically reduced their own carbon footprint, it is not likely to reduce global climate change quickly enough to effect the changes we need. And it's not just carbon dioxide at fault: there is also methane produced by livestock, increased bio-decomposition in warmer waters, and melting permafrost; as well as retention of solar heat on large dark surfaces which include pavement, roofs, agricultural fields, and ever-increasing dark ocean expanses. Plus there are other global warming gases such as nitrous oxide and fluorinated compounds. And simply understanding the impact of retained heat is complex: warming waters, warming oceans, changes in ocean currents, warming atmosphere, and changes in global winds all contribute to create more powerful weather patterns, precipitation changes, and temperature changes. It's not one thing, not one system, not one solution – and so is very hard to summarize and express concisely.

Scientists worldwide are in agreement: climate change is absolutely real, is the result of human activity, and is the number one threat to the health of our planet and our species. While there is disagreement about the rate of climate change and when we might reach a "tipping point" of no return, there is agreement that, unless something is done immediately, we will experience catastrophic and irreversible climate and weather changes. The data is overwhelming and has been clearly reported by many reputable sources worldwide. Such understanding resulted in the 2016 Paris Climate Agreement at which 197 countries agreed on the international urgency of addressing climate change. And yet the United States has a political administration that denies human causation, refuses to take action to combat climate change, and has actually worked in the opposite direction. By politicizing what should not be a political issue, our current government has polarized our citizenry and prevented us from moving forward, nevermind leading corrective action. This political ferment makes educating students and adults very, very difficult: no longer is it possible to look at data, reach conclusions, and take action – now we have to overcome ignorance and denial that is political, not educational. The indelibility of opinion is easier to eradicate in younger students, but is near to impossible to change in some older students.

Lastly, educators must help students move beyond an understandable feeling of helplessness and despair in the face of a seemingly inevitable end to our world. Once they understand the extent of the problem, it is common for students to want to just give up – solutions can seem unachievable. It's such a human reaction to a hard challenge -- students don't want to study and then regret their grades; adults don't want to exercise and then regret health issues. And now, we are choosing lifestyles that we know are killing our planet and yet we refuse to make the changes needed to prevent our own demise. It is essential to convey that it is not too late, that each individual can help make significant changes, and that we must work together to save our planet. Motivating students to be positive and take action is the critical and final task of education.

So how can educators teach climate change that leads to sustainability and action?

1) Make climate change personal and urgent: engage students in understanding the impact on animals, lands, and activities they care about, such as polar bears, beaches, and snow. Convey images of increased mosquitos, loss of shorelines, and whatever can be a personal and beloved connection.
2) Focus on the evidence, de-politicize the topic, and employ inquiry: Allow students to explore the data themselves, one piece of evidence at a time so that they can master the science content and it is not overwhelming. Have them validate it themselves and reach their own conclusions. Use of inquiry will enable students to have open minds and bypass political rhetoric. Clarify that it is not a political topic – it is science, pure and simple. Make sure that they are very clear about the timeframes, and that this will affect them, and soon.
3) Teach about the world and how the US is lagging internationally: help students understand the actions already taken by other countries in the world and how they are making headway – Iceland's geothermal energy, Bermuda's white roofs, Europe's gas mileage standards, Canada's recycling and composting programs. Demonstrate how the U.S. can not only catch up, but become a leader.
4) Develop personal action plans: have students design actionable plans that they and their families can employ that will make a difference, and then help them implement them. Help them see the role of these plans in the larger scope.
5) Participate at a larger level: help students understand that their individual actions alone will not suffice, and that civic engagement is needed.

In summary, climate change is not simple to define, comprehend, nor explain. Breaking it into understandable bites for students, helping them open their minds, and exhorting them to action is a daunting challenge. But it is in the hands of the educators to do this. We have the ability to inform the coming generation and, through them, the larger population. We can help develop a national recognition of climate change as an apolitical crisis and join with the global community to solve it before we reach the tipping point. The world's countries united once before to address the hole in the ozone layer, and we can do it again. Despite the hurdles, I am confident that, through convenings such as this, we can figure out how to use education to save ourselves. Because, truly, we really don't have an alternative.

Downloadable version of this essay

The Hardest Topic to Teach (Microsoft Word 2007 (.docx) 19kB Sep16 19)