School Climate & Safety Opinion

Teaching Climate Change in Sandy’s Wake

By Laurence Peters — November 12, 2012 5 min read

When asked what was the greatest threat a statesman might face, British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan is said to have replied, “Events, dear boy, events.”

Hurricane Sandy’s landfall late last month may have confirmed the wisdom of that observation. There are encouraging signs that the hurricane’s ferocity, coming so closely on the heels of other extreme weather, may have silenced climate-change skeptics. Its unique timing—a week before the presidential election—may have had an additional benefit of putting climate change back on the national agenda. But, for how long?

Well before Sandy’s destructive arrival on the East Coast, climate change had moved off the national political radar, without the mainstream media appearing to notice. It is not therefore surprising that President Barack Obama’s proposed fiscal 2013 budget would cut the Environmental Protection Agency’s entire $9.7 million environmental education program, along with more than $25 million in other environmental-training programs.


With leadership failing at most levels of our government, we are left with a difficult task. Who will tell our children the bad news as they watch another energy-company ad convince them the advertiser is doing well by the environment? As Professor Donald Boesch of the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science put it in an Education Week article earlier this year: “Teachers aren’t comfortable addressing the subject because they don’t understand it at all. ... It is an inherently complicated set of issues that transcend a single field of science.”

Teachers are fearful that if they do begin to adopt a more scientific posture, parents will object. A National Science Teachers Association poll in 2011 found 54 percent of teachers had faced climate-change skepticism from parents. Washington Post reporter Brad Plumer wrote in February that “many teachers said they now teach climate change as a he-said, she-said issue.” This is a sad comment on a country that aims to be a world leader in science for the 21st century.

Most of today’s textbooks carefully ignore the political decisions ahead—decisions which must now be made as a global community. Instead, they adopt many of the cultural assumptions that personal lifestyle decisions such as recycling plastic bottles, planting more trees, and buying hybrid cars will save us. Part of the reason corporate claims to be environmentally responsible are gaining traction is due to the power of far-right groups such as the Heartland Institute, which urges teachers to be skeptical of climate-change science and distributes attractive teaching materials that reinforce skeptics’ point of view. Indeed, states such as Louisiana encourage such “supplemental materials” to be used when teaching “controversial topics” such as climate change, which is clumped by some into the same category as evolution.

The moral as well as scientific issues that spill over can re-energize any civics and social studies lessons as students examine the range of challenges that confront us."

But there are larger questions we must help our children face beyond just becoming more discriminating consumers. The experts are more or less agreed that we are just at the beginning of the dramatic changes we will be experiencing within the next two decades as we add another 2 billion people to the planet. We will need to significantly increase energy consumption to be able to feed and clothe the equivalent of two new Indias and Chinas. For anyone who seriously wants to prepare our students for the changed world they will inherit, a book like J.F. Rischard’s High Noon: 20 Global Problems, 20 Years to Solve Them needs to become mandatory reading. In the book, the author, a former executive at the World Bank, carefully and unemotionally explains the dimensions of the true crisis the world faces. He boldly establishes the need for out-of-the-box thinking if we are to release ourselves from the paralyzing power of existing institutional frameworks. If ever there was a subject that lent itself to student-centered problem-solving using those much-lauded 21st-century skills, surely this is it.

The adults clearly do not have the answers. The moral as well as scientific issues that spill over can re-energize any civics and social studies lessons as students examine the range of challenges that confront us, from convincing China and India that although we in the West grew our economies using carbon-based fuels, less-developed countries should look to alternative energies to feed and clothe their expanding populations, to how to restrain our nonsustainable consumer-based lifestyle at home and find sustainable ways of living. In short, we need to prepare a new generation of global citizens who will be challenged to reinvent institutional mechanisms to cope with the need to live within—as an article in Nature put it—safe “planetary boundaries.”

The National Association of Independent Schools is one organization that has taken up the challenge to encourage our students to think differently about the critical questions they will face: Students in the United States are paired every year with their counterparts in other countries to find local solutions to global problems, including rising poverty. There are many other approaches that teachers can take, including simulations such as the 100 People project and asking students to role-play a number of scenarios related to global warming. UNESCO, or the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization, also has a series of modules on sustainable development that can be integrated across the curriculum.

In 1992, 1,700 senior scientists, including more than half of all Nobel Prize winners in the sciences, issued their “World Scientists’ Warning to Humanity,” stating: “No more than one or a few decades remain before the chance to avert the threats we now confront will be lost and the prospects for humanity immeasurably diminished.”

As yet another hurricane is blamed for billions of dollars’ worth of destruction, surely we can no longer afford either lazy attitudes or spineless leadership. As New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo put it after Sandy’s devastation: “Climate change is a reality.” The question for policymakers and educators is whether we will pay more than just lip service to the idea of climate change or instead focus on the consequences and the choices the next generation faces.

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A version of this article appeared in the November 15, 2012 edition of Education Week as Teaching Climate Change in Sandy’s Wake


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