Inserting Climate Change into our Collective Thinking

(Source: SafeKids Worldwide)

Last week’s blog focused on collective crimes, collective blame, and collective wisdom. A timely question relevant to my teaching and to this blog is how we “fertilize” collective wisdom to prevent or mitigate global disasters such as climate change. This issue is directly connected to another topic that I dealt with extensively in a series of blogs called “Educating in the Anthropocene.” The last blog that summarized previous entries on this topic was posted on February 21, 2023. The focus of that blog was on reorganizing the educational programs in universities to expand various forms of interdisciplinary programs.

As we saw in last week’s blog, “fertilizing” global collective wisdom on climate change requires much more than changing the structures of higher education institutions. It requires attempts to educate everybody. For many reasons, including from a personal perspective, April is a good month to think about such issues. I am approaching the end of the semester and am currently in the middle of Spring Break, which means holidays, visitors from around the world, and beautiful cherry blossoms all around. All of this is a great environment to start thinking about the future. This is also the time when I am often invited to give talks focused on climate change to audiences with little technical background on the issue. I find the picture that opens this blog to be the most effective in introducing the topic. In an earlier blog, (April 17, 2018) I described in detail the potential threats of heat exposure to small children or animals in a locked car. On many levels, this situation, in which the child or animal lacks the ability to open doors or windows to equilibrate the inside temperature of the car with that outside can be likened to the global impact of climate change. It also links to the role that our energy use has played in facilitating global heating and its consequences.

If we want to “fertilize” collective reasoning on the topic that will lead to preventive action in the form of mitigation and adaptation, we have to focus on the young, if for no other reason than because they are going to suffer most from the impact—directly and indirectly through their growing families. To impact collective reasoning on such a topic in audiences without some technical prerequisites is not easy but we are now in the process of learning how to do it. This blog will summarize some initial efforts in this direction in various settings.

Higher Ed Institutions:

Here’s one example of using private donations to start enriching academic institutions with relevant facilities:

John Doerr, one of the most successful venture capitalists in the history of Silicon Valley, is giving $1.1 billion to Stanford University to fund a school focused on climate change and sustainability. The gift, which Mr. Doerr is making with his wife Ann, is the largest ever to a university for the establishment of a new school, and is the second largest gift to an academic institution, according to the Chronicle of Higher Education. Only Michael R. Bloomberg’s 2018 donation of $1.8 billion to his alma mater, Johns Hopkins University, ranks higher. The gift establishes the Doerrs as leading funders of climate change research and scholarship, and will place Stanford at the center of public and private efforts to wean the world off fossil fuels. “Climate and sustainability is going to be the new computer science,” Mr. Doerr, who made his estimated $11.3 billion fortune investing in technology companies such as Slack, Google and Amazon, said in an interview. “This is what the young people want to work on with their lives, for all the right reasons.”

Doerr clearly believes that the new Stanford Center on Climate Solutions will prompt something like the intellectual explosion of studying computer science. The difference is that although computer science is involved in almost everything, it serves a similar purpose as a language. Indeed, while in the beginning, there was a balance between software and hardware majors in computer science studies, students’ interest shifted the focus much more on the software part. Areas directly concerned with climate change are now leaning more toward the study of “everything,” meaning they resemble the ancient study of philosophy.

Status in K12 schools:

There are certain barriers to including climate change in school curricula, although they differ by age group. Within middle schools:

Climate change is set to transform where students can live and what jobs they’ll do as adults. And yet, despite being one of the most important issues for young people, it appears only minimally in many state middle school science standards nationwide. Florida does not include the topic and Texas dedicates three bullet points to climate change in its 27 pages of standards. More than 40 states have adopted standards that include just one explicit reference to climate change.

Barriers to inclusion in early grades mostly come down to implementation:

“Nobody really knows yet at what age kids can understand climate change,” said Gary Evans, an environmental and developmental psychologist at Cornell University who is conducting a study of children in kindergarten through third grade to find out what they know about climate change and how it makes them feel. “Anyone who tells you that they know the best way to talk to young kids about climate change is doing so without the guidance of data.”

That said, it’s not all bad: some places are starting to include climate change in curricula:

New Jersey public school students will be the first in the country required to learn about climate change while in the classroom starting this school year. “Climate change is becoming a real reality,” New Jersey first lady Tammy Murphy, who spearheaded the initiative, told “ABC News Live” on Thursday. The new standards were adopted by the state’s board of education in 2020, but because of the pandemic, the roll out was halted, giving educators and districts more time to prepare the lesson plans for all students in grades K-12. “The districts themselves are able to design whatever it is that the way they want to implement and interpret this new education standard,” said Murphy. Lessons will focus on how climate change has accelerated in recent decades and how it’s impacted public health, human society, and contributed to natural disasters.

General communications to audiences with no prerequisites:

There are plenty of examples of anthropogenic (man-made) impacts that are readily available for use in schools—and outside of schools—on many levels:

The U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) water cycle diagram is still used by hundreds of thousands of students in the United States and worldwide. It’s also the basis for many, many spin-off diagrams. Today, the agency released a new diagram for the first time in more than 20 years, this time with humans as showrunners. Although people have long siphoned water from groundwater and diverted rivers into farm fields and industrial plants, the new diagram is the first time humans have been included in what was presented until now as a “natural” cycle. The change reflects the latest 20 years of research uncovering humanity’s central role in the cycle and how to communicate it visually. “We need to change how we think about these things to be able to live and use water sustainably for our future,” said Cee Nell, a data visualization specialist at the USGS VizLab, which designed the diagram. In addition to natural processes like ocean evaporation, precipitation over land, and runoff, the new diagram features grazing, urban runoff, domestic and industrial water use, and other human activities. Each label in the chart comes from data tracking the significant paths and pools of water worldwide.

Surmounting political opposition

Based on my own experiences of teaching the topic at Brooklyn College, we almost always include “denier” perspectives as part of the conversation. This is not just so that we comply with state mandates but also part of good teaching, which involves looking at all angles of an argument:

Ohio college and university instructors could be barred from teaching climate science without also including false or misleading counterpoints under a sprawling higher education bill that received its first hearing Wednesday. Senate Bill 83, or the Higher Education Enhancement Act, seeks to police classroom speech on a wide range of topics, including climate change, abortion, immigration, and diversity, equity and inclusion — all of which would be labeled “controversial.” On these and other subjects, public colleges and universities would need to guarantee that faculty and staff will “encourage and allow students to reach their own conclusions” and “not seek to inculcate any social, political, or religious point of view.” Colleges and universities that receive any state funding would be barred from requiring diversity, equity and inclusion training and have to make a commitment to “intellectual diversity” that includes “divergent and opposing perspectives on an extensive range of public policy issues.” The bill also includes provisions for annual reviews and reports, requirements for “intellectual diversity” in recruiting invited speakers, disciplinary sanctions for interfering with that diversity, a prohibition against faculty strikes, and more.

In many aspects, the slow introduction of complex topics such as climate change into the collective background of the general public, through its inclusion in curriculum, follows (from my own perspective) the slow introduction of the Holocaust into school curricula. As part of the last generation of survivors, I often participate in such efforts and often connect this effort with the probable future impact of climate change. As I mentioned in my earliest blogs (April 2012), this inclusion has been met with mixed reactions.

About climatechangefork

Micha Tomkiewicz, Ph.D., is a professor of physics in the Department of Physics, Brooklyn College, the City University of New York. He is also a professor of physics and chemistry in the School for Graduate Studies of the City University of New York. In addition, he is the founding-director of the Environmental Studies Program at Brooklyn College as well as director of the Electrochemistry Institute at that same institution.
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One Response to Inserting Climate Change into our Collective Thinking

  1. Vanessa Cruz says:

    I find this article to be really interesting. I’m glad that Stanford has received funding to create a school focused on climate change and sustainability. I completely agree that we need to educate our youth. When I was in 5th grade, we read a book about pollution! I do not remember the title, but I remember one fact – there will be more plastic in the ocean than fish by 2050. This is something that has stuck with me from the first time I read it. It completely changed how I live my life. There has always been a fear of climate change in the back of my mind, but getting older, that fear continues to expand because it is all becoming reality. This fact impacted how much fish I enjoy eating, if I can eat it at all, and it also impacted my stress levels about climate change.

    All of this is to say that I do believe we need to incorporate climate change themes into the curriculum and educate the masses. Educate the uneducated, despite opposition! However, for many people, it can bring anxiety like it did for me. Which in some ways, is what we want. We want people to be worried about the climate crisis; but what good is worried without taking any action? Educate people about the issue, how to fix it, but also give them hope. Otherwise, we’ll all be worried and it’ll get lost in all the other issues that seem hopeless, though none of them are (hopeless).

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