How To Talk To Your Students About Climate Change

Michael Wysession
Michael Wysession
21 Nov
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Despite the fact that an overwhelming majority of scientists link climate change to human activity, the causes of global warming remained a contentious topic in the recent election.  Between the scientists who label it as a fact that our choices are leading to devastating results (coastal cities underwater, extinction of animals and plants) and certain politicians who say that humans are not to blame, educators can find themselves in a tough position when having to talk to their students about climate change.

When talking to students, you can avoid entering the political arena of unsubstantiated claims about the environment by sticking to scientific facts which link the trends of human activity and climate change:

  • Globally, the year 2015 shattered 2014’s record as the warmest year in thousands, perhaps millions of years: 1.5 °F warmer than the globally averaged temperature of the 20th century. And 2016 is well on its way to being even warmer. There once was a time when people argued about the reliability of ground weather stations, unbalanced sampling, urban warming effects, etc. No more. The satellites map the whole globe continuously. We know exactly what is happening at all times. Satellites also monitor the melting of ice, which is accelerating globally.  

  • Five years ago Greenland and Antarctica together were melting ice at a rate of 200 billion tonnes per year. That rate is now 350 billion tonnes per year.  
  • Satellites track the rise in sea level as ice melts and the ocean water warms. Not long ago the seas were rising at 2 mm per year. Now it is over 3 mm per year. And that rate of rising continues to increase. A phenomenon called “sunny day flooding” is now occurring up and down the eastern U.S. coast. Without any storms or rains, high tides are now flooding many roads and communities.
  • We understand the physics of the greenhouse effect. The more than 9 billion tonnes of carbon released into the atmosphere each year from the burning of fossils fuels has increased the amount of atmospheric carbon dioxide to more than 400 ppm. This is nearly a 50% increase over pre-industrial levels, and is a direct result of our insatiable energy consumption of 18 trillion joules per second (btw, if humans had to physically generate these 18 trillion watts of power themselves, it would require every man, woman, and child in the world bench-pressing about 570 pounds every second, over and over, 24 hours a day).
Data: National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Some description adapted from the Scripps CO2 Program website, "Keeling Curve Lessons."

Data: National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Some description adapted from the Scripps CO2 Program website, “Keeling Curve Lessons.”

These are facts. As George Carlin used to say, you can’t have opinions about facts. The point of all this is that climate change is not a hoax. Increasing the burning of coal will have significant global impacts.  Just look at the data provided by NASA’s satellites.

So how can you start to talk to your kids about climate change? Start small by making the distinction between facts and opinions.  Then present the facts to them and have them come up with ideas of their own on how to solve the climate change crisis (e.g Carbon tax? Global emissions agreement? Technological change?) If you also want to take the opportunity to bring politics into the discussion, have students look at the entities (individuals and corporations) funding both scientific studies and candidates and politicians.  It’s never been more important to tap into the ideas of students who may soon be the future leaders of our world.


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