Climate Science Meets a Stubborn Obstacle: Students

Jun 5, 2017

By Amy Harmon

To Gwen Beatty, a junior at the high school in this proud, struggling, Trump-supporting town, the new science teacher’s lessons on climate change seemed explicitly designed to provoke her.

So she provoked him back.

When the teacher, James Sutter, ascribed the recent warming of the Earth to heat-trapping gases released by burning fossil fuels like the coal her father had once mined, she asserted that it could be a result of other, natural causes.

When he described the flooding, droughts and fierce storms that scientists predict within the century if such carbon emissions are not sharply reduced, she challenged him to prove it. “Scientists are wrong all the time,” she said with a shrug, echoing those celebrating President Trump’s announcement last week that the United States would withdraw from the Paris climate accord.

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2 comments on “Climate Science Meets a Stubborn Obstacle: Students

  • Why is climate change – a complex multidisciplinary scientific subject – considered a tractable enough problem for junior high students to challenge their teachers on?

    Obviously it’s not, but the student and her ilk resist the idea (and run from the arguments) because of a mixture of reasons: it goes against the firm beliefs of their family & peers; it goes against the speeches of their political messiah and saviour; it is against their own short-term economic interests (coal jobs); and it can be interpreted as being an unchristian belief (notwithstanding it can just easily be interpreted as prochristian, as with just about anything else).

    But if a student were to argue that (for example) Alexander the Great didn’t exist, should they be heard out? The evidence for his existence (or for anybody of similar vintage) boils down to dusty old parchments which might be modern forgeries or ancient fictions, and other circumstantial evidence, and is arguably on less certain footing than the case for climate change (ahem, melting icecaps and giant icebergs…) And after all “historians are wrong all the time”.

    It’s one thing to think for yourself and not accept scientific consensus because it’s just “argument from authority”, and quite another to not provide any sound facts or reasoning but just accept argument from other far less qualified authorities i.e. family members and politicians.

    It’s ironic that the student is an “A” grade student, and in the early stages of pursuing some of the very qualifications that she casually dismisses as useless.

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  • MadEnglishman #1
    Jun 10, 2017 at 11:25 pm

    Why is climate change – a complex multidisciplinary scientific subject – considered a tractable enough problem for junior high students to challenge their teachers on?

    I think you already identified some suitable aspects where study of evidence is required – melting ice-caps and implications for geographical studies of irrigated crops dependent on melt-water.

    Students also do practical work with Stevenson Screens, rain-gauges, temperature, hours of sunlight, humidity and pan-evaporation records, plus wind speeds using anemometers. These are the sources of ground-station core data in studying weather and climate.

    There are also various curricular land-use studies – agriculture, forestry changes in climate related pests and diseases, desertification and deforestation in the tropics, drying out of peat-bogs, melting permafrost – increased forest and brush fires etc. : – which are traditionally taught in geography lessons.
    Climate belts, seasonal trade-winds, monsoons, seasonal rains and dry seasons at different latitudes, and the positioning or migration of climate belts, are all integral to these studies.

    If student’s won’t learn the scientific basis of these, or the competent use of measuring devices, then they fail the course! – End of!

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