NAGT > Publications > In the Trenches > 2018 - Volume 8 > In the Trenches - April 2018 > ONLINE EXTRA: Perspective: A Selection from "The Teacher-Friendly Guide to Climate Change

ONLINE EXTRA: Perspective: A Selection from "The Teacher-Friendly Guide to Climate Change"

DON HAAS (dad55@cornell.edu) is director of teacher programs at the Paleontological Research Institution and Museum of the Earth in Ithaca, New York, and President of NAGT.

This article is adapted from The Teacher-Friendly Guide to Climate Change's Chapter 11: Perspective. A related presentation is here: http://bit.ly/Fire-and-brimstone.

The Teacher-Friendly Guide to Climate Change was written with support from the National Science Foundation (Improved Regional and Decadal Predictions of the Carbon Cycle; NSF 1049033). The book is also part of a series of Teacher-Friendly Guides. It is available free online athttp://teacherfriendlyguide.org/. As the book was about to go to press, the Heartland Institute began sending their book, a piece of propaganda entitled, Why Scientists Disagree About Global Warming, to thousands of teachers around the country. To counter that effort there is a crowdfunding campaign to sendThe Teacher-Friendly Guide to Climate Change to every science teacher in the country. Thus far, enough money has been raised to send the book to 25% of the public high schools in the country. Learn more about the campaign here:http://bitly.com/TeachClimateScience.

1. Apocalyptic Tales of Climate Change

In polarizing issues, apocalyptic rhetoric is often found at both poles of the issue in question. The extremes related to climate change are destruction of the environment and civilization (or even the entire Earth) at one extreme and destruction of the economy, freedom, and the "American way of life" at the other.

We've been telling stories of apocalypse and of lost Edens as long as we've been telling stories.[1] Such tales are engaging, memorable, instructive, and motivating. Environmental educators and advocates have been telling modern versions of these tales for generations for the same reasons that other folks have told them for millennia. From the Book of Genesis to The Lorax, [2] humans are drawn to stories of paradise lost. And they learn from them too.

Rachel Carson's Silent Spring [3] helped to usher in an era of environmental apocalyptic writing and reporting, and those stories were fundamental to cleaning up our environment. About the same time predictions were being made by scientists and reported on by the media—predictions that, metaphorically, looked a lot like biblical visions of fire and brimstone from the Book of Revelation. The villainous actions were readily visible: flammable chemical wastes dumped directly into rivers, and black smoke billowing out of smokestacks, rivers catching fire, and cities being shrouded in smog and smoke. A recent example is the fires around Fort McMurray, Alberta (Canada), where forest fires associated with record heat surrounded the strip-mined landscape containing the Athabasca Tar Sands and its piles of waste sulfur (see Box: Real-life Fire and Brimstone).

Box: Real-life fire and brimstone

Among many stories of environmental degradation going on today, one of the more symbolic of apocalyptic "fire and brimstone" is the stunning late spring 2016 fires around Fort McMurray, Alberta. The site is the largest area for oil ("tar") sands development in the world. To mine the tar sands several hundred square miles of surface boreal bogs are removed for open-pit mining.

Fort McMurray is the town adjacent to the oil sands production facility (and production waste). Producing oil from tar sands is more energy intensive than other forms of oil production. That means it produces more greenhouse gases per barrel of oil than other means. And in an Earth system irony, it may be that the likelihood of drought-induced fires in the Canadian Rockies was increased by climate change associated with carbon emissions—less snowpack than typical and record setting temperatures of about 90 degrees F (32 C), low humidity, and high winds.

Production of oil from oil sands also produces another byproduct in huge quantities—sulfur. The largest pyramids in the world are not in Egypt or made of cut stone. They are near Fort McMurray and made of sulfur from tar sands development. Brimstone is a stone—sulfur—that forms at the brim of a volcano. Though some sulfur is sold for commercial use, in Fort McMurray, it accumulates much faster than it's used.

The two months of Fort McMurray fires was the costliest disaster in Canadian history, and forced the evacuation of 90,000 people, also the largest in Canadian history. The fires were associated with over 2400 burned structures, extensive burned forest, and weeks of halted oil sands production. The fire and brimstone together had the ingredients of a biblical apocalypse.

Unfortunately, since the book was published, there have been many more examples of disasters of biblical proportions. The 2017 hurricane season produced 17 named storms of which 10 became hurricanes including six major hurricanes (Category 3, 4 or 5) – including the first two major hurricanes to hit the continental U.S. in 12 years. Six months after Hurricane Maria struck Puerto Rico, hundreds of thousands are still without power. Late in 2017, California saw a devastating fire season with massive fires burning into December and destroying more than 10,800 structures and killing 46. Like 2017's hurricane season, the 2017 fire season was the most expensive on record.

Al Gore and Bill Nye are examples of many who point out the urgency and apocalyptic outcomes of rapid climate change. While they've both done great work and deepened the understandings of millions of Americans, they've simultaneously unintentionally deepened the convictions of millions who reject the scientific consensus on climate change. The reasons for these mixed outcomes are complex, but at least one may be the apocalyptic storylines associated with their messages. Al Gore is also seen as a political partisan and is instantly polarizing for many, regardless of what he says (what he says is generally well aligned with the consensus of scientists). Bill Nye is increasingly seen in the same light.

2. Use of Language and Perspective in Teaching Climate Change

Research shows that the impact of apocalyptic messages and dire warnings may not lead to the responses we might expect or that the messages are intended to create. Fear, for example, may influence people to stop doing something (stop smoking, for example), but it may be less effective than hoped at persuading people to take action. [4] Consistently bad news over time may lead people to lose hope, which can have the effect of causing people to give up, deciding their actions are likely to be ineffectual. Thus, while not sugar-coating the reality, it's important to celebrate successes where they occur. For example, alternative energy use has been growing exponentially, and the rate of growth of CO2 emissions has been declining, so people should recognize that positive actions are making a difference.

Moreover, while apocalyptic approaches may motivate some to act to reduce global warming's impacts,[5] they may reduce acceptance of global warming in audiences already skeptical.[6] These latter audiences may see doom and gloom scenarios, with associated pictures of smoke stacks and industrial pollution, as propaganda rather than scientific information. Such audiences may respond better to consideration of personally relevant impacts on the economy and local communities, to attention to saving money through conserving energy. These approaches seek common ground and work toward goals at least in part outside a narrative of environmental alarm.

3. Hope and Optimism

At first blush, some of society's previous environmental parables may seem to have been false prophecies in the sense that these tales of apocalypse did not become fully fulfilled. One reason, of course, is that some of these issues were resolved because people did something about them.

As one relatively localized but well publicized example, certain rivers in the US caught fire a number of times in the 19th and 20th centuries, and they don't anymore. The most famous example is Cleveland's Cuyahoga, but it's far from the only example. Generally, the water in US rivers, lakes and streams, and the air we breathe, are much cleaner than was the case a few decades ago. The environment in many heavily industrialized areas is less polluted than it was half a century ago. Littering has declined substantially, and in many areas municipal solid waste disposal rates are substantially down because recycling rates are up.

A global atmospheric example, the most comparable we have to controlling greenhouse gas emissions, is reducing chemicals—especially coolants such as chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs)—that deplete stratospheric ozone.[7] The ozone layer absorbs ultraviolet light and thereby protects tissues of living organisms. In the 1980s it became established that the ozone concentration declined by over half its natural state during summers over Antarctica—this became known as the "ozone hole" (ozone also diminished in the Arctic and in temperate latitudes, but not to the same degree). By the 1980s an international agreement was made to freeze and then phase out CFCs. Once regulations of CFCs were put into place, ozone concentrations began to stabilize, and at the time of this writing, the ozone hole over Antarctica is showing signs of healing. Environmental issues can and do improve.

How did we clean up our act in these cases? In these examples, we responded to the scientific projections that were coming true before our eyes. We created laws and agreements to regulate what we were putting into our waters and into our atmosphere, and we changed cultural norms regarding acceptable ways to treat the environment.

4. Apocalyptic Prophesies Versus Predictions of Climate Change

Are the apocalyptic prophesies of climate change coming true? Yes. In many respects the Earth is changing—in temperature, ice and glacier melt, storm frequency, and many other respects—in ways projected by climate scientists.

But there are hopeful signs. US carbon emissions have declined; alternative energies, particularly wind energy, are increasing exponentially in the US and globally; and plans for new power plants, building designs, and transportation systems promise greatly improved efficiencies within coming decades. Many towns and cities, colleges and universities, and businesses have set ambitious low to zero carbon emissions goals within the coming decades. And there is such global awareness of climate change as a significant issue, that major treaties have been signed by a substantial fraction of world's nations.

There is also, however, considerable uncertainty.[8] Because of the nature of complex systems, it's challenging to quantify the degree or likelihood to which specific events (heat waves, droughts, floods, wild fires and so on) can be attributed to climate change. And, though climate scientists can project within meaningful confidence intervals what will happen to global atmospheric temperatures, ice melt, and sea level rise given specific inputs (CO2 and CH4 levels, for example), there remain many uncertainties about what will happen to, for example, precipitation at very local scales, and to parts of the system such as individual species. This uncertainty arises both because the climate system is complicated and because we don't know how humans, at a planetary scale, are going to respond environmentally in the next 50 to 100 years.

Part of teaching climate change will be taking into account the strong possibility that the near future will hold some ongoing uncertainties and surprises. This is, after all, part of the nature of complex systems science. Almost certainly different parts of the climate system will change at different rates, either more slowly or more quickly than we expected, and these changes will be geographically varied. If some climate projections are, in the near-term, not as severe or as rapid as what we expected, that could be very good news—but such news might also add to complacency or skepticism even while climate change impacts continue. Apocalyptic projections of climate change are not inevitable, but as new information becomes available we need to be aware that the impacts of climate change are not binary, solved or world-ending: we will need to (and can) mitigate climate change, in many steps, over many years.

Each case that moved from horrible to less horrible involved people taking action to make things better. Ultimately, people made coalitions of institutions and organizations that helped us collectively behave responsibly. That means people assumed responsibility or were held responsible for the problems we faced, and they changed course. History shows that action is required to make things better and that, in numerous instances involving the environment, people have improved the environment through scientific understanding, education, and action. Perhaps the Onceler's repentance in The Lorax says it best: "Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot, nothing's going to get better. It's not."There are horrible things in the world. When the horror becomes clear to enough people, we do something about it to make it less horrible. Let's do that now.


[1] The loss of a past ideal state and the destruction of the current state are different but sometimes related ways of expressing regret or fear of significant negative change. For the sake of readability, these are lumped together in this article as "apocalyptic tales."

[2] The Lorax is a children's book by Dr. Seuss (Theo Geisel) about the destruction of the environment through corporate greed. It was published in 1971 during a rise in public environmental awareness.

[3] Rachel Carson published Silent Spring in 1962, about the effects of the widespread use of insecticides (Houghton Mifflin Company: Boston, MA, 368 pp.). The book had an enormous effect on the growth and awareness of environmental sciences.

[4] Tali Sharot's 2011 book The Optimism Bias: A Tour of the Irrationally Positive Brain explores the influence of positive versus negative emotions in outlook and decision-making. Pantheon Books: NY, 272 pp

[5] Some environmental activism occurs not despite apocalyptic framing but because of it. See Veldman, Robin Globus. "Narrating the Environmental Apocalypse: How Imagining the End Facilitates Moral Reasoning Among Environmental Activists." Ethics & the Environment 17, no. 1 (2012): 1–23.

[6] A proposed explanation for why apocalyptic predictions diminish willingness to act on climate change is that such stories are perceived to be at odds with a world that is "...just, orderly and stable." See Feinberg M, and Willer R. "Apocalypse Soon? Dire Messages Reduce Belief in Global Warming by Contradicting Just-World Beliefs." Psychological Science 22, no. 1 (2011): 34–38.

[7] Tropospheric (ground level) ozone is considered a form of pollution, forming from reactions between certain carbon compounds with nitrogen oxide. It can irritate lungs, especially if there are pre-existing conditions such as asthma.

[8] Read more about uncertainty and motivation in Rutjens, Bastiaan T, Joop van der Pligt, and Frenk van Harreveld. "Regulating Psychological Threat: The Motivational Consequences of Threatening Contexts," 2012, 38–56.

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