Climate Smart & Energy Wise (Part 7)

Denial: a big word loaded with emotion. But, like many things in life, denial is a continuum: from full blown outright dismissal to more subtle avoidance, like looking the other way. 

One reason why there is such a climate of confusion about climate change in the United States is that a small but vocal contingent has cast doubt on the findings of climate scientists, dismissing their research as a hoax. This has caused some well-meaning educators to teach the topic as a controversy with “two sides." In truth, the “scientific debate” over climate change is phony, as an overwhelming majority of scientists accept that climate change is happening.

If climate change isn’t presented in the classroom as fodder for a debate, it often because it isn’t presented in the classroom at all. One fundamental reason for its omission from not only classrooms, but from political and normal everyday discussions as well, is simple: it's a bummer. There's no getting around it. As sociologists have observed for years, never underestimate the power of willful avoidance and motivated ignorance to deny reality through collusion. 

Sociologist Stanley Cohen, who has studied how people turn their eyes and actions away from such horrors as genocide, describes a threefold continuum of denial: literal (it's not happening), interpretive (maybe it's happening but not so bad), and what he calls "implicatory," meaning denying responsibility for the implications of the information.

When it comes to climate change in the United States, a small number of individuals deny it is occurring, a larger number think it is occurring but that it isn't due to human activities but rather natural cycles. But a substantial number of people—arguably the majority—accept that humans are responsible for changing climate but we can't or won't be able to do anything about it.

George Marshall, who has studied climate denial's spectrum for years, has a new book called Don’t Even Think About It: Why Our Brains Are Wired to Ignore Climate Change that digs into the variations on the various themes of dismissing and ignoring climate change, which we will examine in more detail in a future post. But like many who critique the lack of progress or action on climate change, Marshall does not address education. 

Chapter 7 of Climate Smart & Energy Wise attempts to describe the landscape of manufactured doubt and denial fueled by ideological worldviews that affect public perception and understanding of climate change, especially in terms of the education landscape. In this chapter I explore how these factors have contributed to continued confusion inside and beyond classrooms, and how the sense of overwhelming despair that paralyzes us is preventing meaningful dialogue.

For educators, the challenge is multifaceted: the science is complex, interdisciplinary, sometimes technical, and the implications of the science are scary. Some educators deal with the "alarm" of climate change by presenting it as a debate between those who think humans are responsible for (and therefore guilty of) climate change, and those who think that if it is happening (which it might not be), it's not a big deal.

This "both sides" approach may sound appealing as a way to build critical thinking and debating skills—"Let them decide for themselves!"—but it’s not a good way to go. First of all, as I mentioned already, there isn’t really any debate at all among scientists. But beyond that, the debate approach, more often than not, leads to confusion rather than clarity.

Teachers need to be aware of student attitudes and preconceptions about climate and energy. Just as the Six Americas research at Yale and George Mason Universities have parsed out six distinct audiences in the United States—a bell curve running from the alarmed, concerned, and cautious, to the disengaged, doubtful, and dismissive, with a bulge of concerned and cautious—so, too, teachers will likely run into this gamut when confronting climate change in their classrooms. (Though perhaps with a bigger bulge of “disengaged” if their students are typical teenagers.)

Another challenge in teaching about these topics is around access and equity issues around energy, especially fossil fuels. Most of us in the United States have benefitted greatly from "buried solar energy" that has been dug or pumped from the ground. As a result, we need to take on more responsibility for the impacts and solutions. The international and intergenerational implications of climate and energy realities go beyond the normal bounds of a science class and into the area of social studies, civics, philosophy, arts, and humanities.

But perhaps the greatest challenge of teaching climate and energy is that at some point despair, hopelessness, and a tendency to feel overwhelmed will kick in.

In the introduction to the book I quote from Paul Hawken:

When asked if I am pessimistic or optimistic about the future, my answer is always the same: If you look at the science about what is happening on earth and aren’t pessimistic, you don’t understand the data. But if you meet the people who are working to restore this earth and the lives of the poor, and you aren’t optimistic, you haven’t got a pulse.

Education is inherently an optimistic enterprise if ever there was one. It is my contention that teachers--especially those devoted to doing everything they can to preparing young people for the challenges they will face in the future--will bend over backwards and sideways to equip their students with the knowledge, understanding, and skills needed to solve the climate and energy problems of the planet.

And what better place to transform society than in our schools, turning them into true living laboratories to learn the knowledge and skills for the 21st century….the focus of the final chapter of the book.

Short Bio

Mark McCaffrey is a former Programs and Policy Director at NCSE.

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