Polar bears stranded on icebergs at sea, coastal villages subsiding into the waves during violent storms- these scary images are becoming more and more common in the media. Educators who want to teach about climate change must confront a huge dilemma: How do you teach this topic without evoking extreme fear in your students?
Psychologists and educators recommend several strategies that are appropriate for dealing with this problem.
Using the right tone
It goes without saying that, since this is a serious problem that will have an impact on all, it needs to be communicated to all. A calm tone is helpful. Careful choice of impacts to present is helpful; for example, avoiding discussion of scary disasters over which children have no control. Stressing that the problem, though serious, is solveable, reassures children. There are lots of examples of adults working on solving the problem at all levels in business, education, and government. Mention specific initiatives like the increasing practices of retrofitting buildings and building new green ones, the adoption of energy efficient lighting in public places, legislative attempts to control powerplant emissions, and government mandates of new vehicle efficiency standards.
Encourage students to take action
By encouraging students to take action, "You're empowering them," explains Joan Bohmann, director of professional standards and continuing professional development for the National Association of School Psychologists. "You're giving them options and leaving them with a message of hope...” Although there is debate about the extent to which individual actions can mitigate the impacts of climate change, encouragement conveys the message that children are not helpless in the face of this pressing societal problem. It may also be effective to emphasize that they have a voice at home, and can influence their parents’ behavior. Furthermore, research has shown that taking action about climate change actually may provide psychological benefits, including enhanced feelings of self efficacy and satisfaction.
Adopt a local focus
Involving students in education about their local environment gives them a basis for understanding some of the basic impacts of climate change. Older students can then put their local observations in a regional and global context, which better positions them to explore the implications of a changing climate. Understanding local impacts also predisposes learners to develop more pro-environmental attitudes. Education about local mitigation efforts connects learners to the community of adults working to solve the problem, and provides them with opportunities to take action themselves.
A powerful positive example
Older children may be skeptical that little actions can add up, and may need to be persuaded that the problem is solvable. Examples of how global mobilization has solved global problems in the past can be a vital tool in that persuasion. The story of the hole in the ozone layer is a compelling example of how humans managed to mobilize globally to solve a huge environmental threat. Our success on that issue can serve to illustrate that climate change can be addressed too.
So what makes a "good" source? How do we know who to trust? When it comes to reliable sources in science, the "gold standard" is peer review. Any claim made about science should have a citation of some kind, and if the source provided is peer reviewed, then it's likely to be reliable. If not, that should send up a warning flag!
Of course, to be able to accept that, we have to know what "peer reviewed" means.
In a nutshell, when a research paper is written and submitted to a reputable science journal like Nature, the editor sends copies of that paper to several experts in the field relevant to the research. These reviewers read it, find any flaws or weaknesses they can, and write a review, which is sent back to the editor. The reviews are presented to the author, who has the opportunity to answer any questions raised in the reviews. If the author can't answer satisfactorily, the paper is rejected.
If the paper is published, then anybody who reads it also has an opportunity to send a review, rebuttal, or question to the editor of the journal, who will publish it, along with answers by the author, in the next issue. If the questions can't be answered, then that will be stated, and a new avenue of research is opened. If there are sufficient problems, the paper will be retracted. This means that any paper published in and supported by a peer-reviewed journal undergoes several levels of scrutiny before the scientific community accepts it.
If the research is solid, it will be used to guide future research, in which case the paper will be cited or referenced as a source. At this point, the findings will be applied to real-world situations and/or laboratory experiments, and if the original research was flawed, this will generally become apparent, and will be recorded and published. The more a paper is used as a foundation for other research, the more reliable it generally is.
That gives a brief overview of what to look for in a good science journal, but many of us don't get our information from science journals. We get it from any number of sources that do go straight to the journals. The trick, then, is in discerning which among these secondary sources are reliable.
The first thing to keep in mind is that any figure published by an honest scientist will have a margin of error, which consists of the extremes of their data, presented along with the average. The larger the margin of error, the less certain we are of the figure's accuracy. If someone shows you a graph or figure that has zero uncertainty, that's another warning flag. Beyond that, look for citations - anyone making scientific claims should show their sources, and if the sources aren't peer-reviewed, you should be able to follow the chain of citations back to the original research.
It's important to do that, and to check the papers cited, or at least the abstracts, to be sure that the research has been accurately represented, as some authors lie about the results of legitimate research. If you find a source of information that is generally accurate (here are a few I've found), it's usually safe to assume that they will continue to be so, but I still like to check once in a while.
A word on bio-petro-chemicals - I generally view the advancement of plant-based "petrochemicals" as a good thing because they provide a source for a number of chemicals we use in today's society that pulls carbon from the air, rather than the ground. The net impact may be that all that carbon goes back into the air, although that's unlikely, but even if it does, so long as the energy used to synthesize the chemicals in the first place is from a renewable source, the net impact is zero emissions, rather than the emissions of chemicals pulled from the earth. -Abe
For quite some time now, there have been regular news articles about the global decline in biodiversity, and whenever one appears, I go to the comments section to see what the population of The Internet has to say. The most common argument I find myself addressing goes something like this:
"There are so many individuals of so many species on so large a planet - how could anyone POSSIBLY claim to know what's going on with them? Who's in charge of deciding when a species is 'going extinct'?"
These questions are generally rhetorical - the asker doesn't think there's actually an answer out there, they're just making a clever point about the underlying lie of "declining biodiversity." It's something they generally care a lot about, too - once we assume that they're lying about that, and we know that they're trying to get us to change our behavior, then the conclusion is unavoidable - there must be some nefarious purpose behind their lies. This is where communication can help.
I am fortunate enough to be in a position to answer those questions. I have personally participated in population studies of iguanas, turtles, and snakes, and I know people who work on bird counts and frog counts every year. I can tell about the thousands of people across the globe who take notes on the wildlife where they live, and contribute those data to larger pools of information. I can share my own experience of what goes into a long-term study - catching, measuring, weighing, marking, releasing and so on - and exactly how far we're willing to go (reaching down a blind hole after a three-foot lizard with serrated teeth) to make sure our numbers are as complete as possible.
The funny thing is, when I go through all of that in a straightforward, civil manner, the most common response, even from hard-core conspiracy theorists, is some form of "Oh. I didn't know that."
It's not always gracious, and it doesn't always lead to recognition of the problem as real, but the simple fact is that by engaging with someone who has actually spent hours carefully counting animals, they generally begin to realize that maybe - just maybe - the numbers aren't made up. Maybe there really is something going on.
Talking directly with scientists, especially citizen scientists, or even at my 'field technician' level, gives people a window into a process that is, for many, something of a black box. Having those conversations, and educating people, one at a time if necessary, about how science is done, can change how people see the world, and isn't that why we do it in the first place?