Extreme Earth: Coming to An Environment Near You

The Earth’s climate has changed rapidly over the past fifty years, but when people talk about climate change, they frame it as a future threat.

David Popeik, in Scientific American guest blog, says that “climate report nails risk communication.”  He suggests that the National Climate Assessment that was released by the White House presented a powerful report that he hopes will play a role in the U.S. acting on climate change.  He writes:

Most climate change communication has framed the issue as a future threat. Future risks don’t worry us as much as threats that are imminent or current. The basic message of the National Climate Assessment, offered repeatedly through the entire report, is that climate change is not something we need to worry about tomorrow. It’s something to worry about now. “Climate change, once considered an issue for a distant future, has moved firmly into the present,” it reads.

In this post, I was to focus on the latest report about climate change, and how the report should be used to have people take seriously climate change.  I am convinced the earth is heating up (see Figure 1).  In one sense, we might say were living in a period of “extreme earth.”  This is not to say that there haven’t been other extreme (hot or cold) periods in the paleoclimate record.  But this extreme earth period was caused by the activities of humans.

Extreme Earth raises questions about the nature of science, especially as it relates to climate change. Global warming has been in the public eye for years now, as scientific panels and independent scientific research studies have suggested that the changes in earth’s weather and climate might, to some degree, be due to human activity, especially fossil fuel extraction and the burning of fuels resulting in a 25 – 30% increase in CO2 in the Earth’s atmosphere. Unfortunately the science of climate change has become politicized , and resulted in the what some say is a “head in the sand” approach to doing something about the changes going on all around us.  (see Hassard, Jack (2012). Extreme Earth: The Importance of the Geosciences in Science Teaching  Kindle Edition.)

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Figure 1. Temperature fluctuations from various sources over the past 1000 years. From Mann, et al 2008

Many of you are familiar with the environmental phrase, Think Globally, Act Locally.  We used it with middle and high school students as an important concept in the Global Thinking Project, which was headquartered at Georgia State University.

But, there is good reason to rephrase this statement, and put it this way: Think Locally, Act Locally.  In the Global Thinking Project, which was a hands-across-the-globe environmental science program, we engaged students in local problems (acid rain, ozone, soil erosion, water quality), but connected them with peers using the GTP telecommunications network and web resources.

The project helped students realize that studying their own environment was as important (maybe even more so), than connecting with problems in other parts of the world.  Don’t get me wrong, one of the attractive features of the GTP was bringing middle and high school students from different parts of the world together to share ideas, and solve problems.

But there is something missing about the issue of tackling the problem of global warming and the induced climate changing of which we are participants.

As Dr. Popeik says, climate change is now and it is affecting each of us at the local level.  If those of us that live in the Atlanta area think about extreme earth events that occurred in the recent past, we can list a few: the flooding of rivers and streams, a drought that cost many people their livelihoods, high temperature periods that were hazardous to many people’s lives, snow events that created chaos in Atlanta, Augusta and other communities, increased number of fire threats across the state, more tornadoes than have been reported in the recent past, and increased concern about hurricanes.

But perhaps one of the most serious problems that we face in the context of climate change, are those few deniers that distort climatology to support their political and economic views.  For example, some researchers have commented that the science of climate change has been distorted, and at the same time science is evoked as a defense. They describe how a handful of scientists obscured the truth, not only about climate change, but issues related to tobacco and to the government’s “star wars” strategic defense system. As they point out, the climate change deniers use the same “play book” that big tobacco firms used to try to convince the public that smoking tobacco was not associated with cancer. (see Oreskes and Conway, 2010).

In the field of science education, professional science teachers have had to deal with a subset of deniers who inhabit or hope to get elected to state legislative houses.  The Next Generation Science Standards, the latest published set of science standards in the U.S. have come under fire for the position and specific content related to climate change and global warming.  There is also the usual protest about teaching evolution, but for this article, we’ll limit it to climate change.

Several states have moved to block the use of the NGSS in their schools.  In Kentucky, a coal-producing state, the legislature blocked the NGSS, but the governor overruled them.  But it is the case in Wyoming where the issue of teaching climate change became a hot political issue.  Apparently some legislators objected to teaching “theories” and not ideas in science that had been proven.  But if we go deeper into the issue, we find that they oppose those theories that don’t fit with their world view.  In this case, supporters of the fossil fuel industry object to teaching any science that might put them in bad light.  In Wyoming, the NGSS was blocked by a footnote added to the state budget that prohibits the spending of any money on the review or revision of student content and performance standards for science.  Even their own!

 

Will data from the National Climate Assessment change people’s views of climate change.  Maybe, maybe not.  But those that oppose climate change science will probably not be swayed by this report.  After all, it is a government report.

But perhaps if people begin to realize that the extreme weather events that have come to them are do to an increasing risk for several weather events by the warming of the earth.  Most climatologists would agree that we can “blame” a single event (such as Hurricane Sandy) on global warming, but how can we not consider the possibility that the extreme weather events that have been documented over the past twenty years might be due to human activity?

Pictures tell a story more powerful than words, in many instances.  Here are few that might bring back events that affected you.

Figure 2. Extreme earth events in the U.S. Source: Melillo, Jerry M., Terese (T.C.) Richmond, and Gary W. Yohe, Eds., 2014: Climate Change Impacts in the United States: The Third National Climate Assessment. U.S. Global Change Research Program, 841 pp. doi:10.7930/J0Z31WJ2.

Figure 2. Extreme earth events in the U.S. Source: Melillo, Jerry M., Terese (T.C.) Richmond, and Gary W. Yohe, Eds., 2014: Climate Change Impacts in the United States:
The Third National Climate Assessment. U.S. Global Change Research Program, 841 pp. doi:10.7930/J0Z31WJ2.

Do you think the events of the past few years will impact people’s views of climate change?

 

About Jack Hassard

Jack Hassard is a writer, a former high school teacher, and Professor Emeritus of Science Education, Georgia State University.

...and I'M STILL FOR HER.

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