Climate Change Education Controversy

A firestorm of controversy has recently erupted online about a reported attempt to develop climate change educational materials for the K-12 classroom which intentionally emphasize uncertainty about whether climate is changing, sowing doubt in order to change the way educators teach about this important topic.  The organization in question has issued a press release stating that some of their internal documents were stolen.  They also suggested that one document attributed to them was fake, and that other documents may have been altered.  Since then, the person making the original post has apologized for a serious lapse in judgment, in that he apparently misrepresented himself to the organization in order to get copies of their internal documents, which the organization provided to him.  Several articles have pointed out the parallel with the experience a few years ago in “Climate-Gate”, in which thousands of scientists’ emails were stolen.  After much examination and many inquiries by numerous scientific bodies, the climate scientists in question were eventually exonerated.

What a mess!

How about we just focus on the science?  We can see in the environment around us the widespread retreat of land glaciers globally.  We can measure the fact that temperatures are rising – and that the 10 warmest years in the modern meteorological record have occurred since 2000.  We can observe the shrinking and thinning of the Arctic Ice Cap.  We can measure the fact that atmospheric CO2 levels have increased by 23% since 1958, from about 318 ppm to 393 ppm today.  We can see that the isotopic signature of atmospheric CO2 is changing gradually toward one reflecting a larger component of a fossil fuel source for carbon.  And finally, we know from simple physics that CO2 is a greenhouse gas, which will have predictable impact on the world around us.

The problem is not the science – the evidence is overwhelming.  The problem is – what do we do about it?  As I mentioned above, regarding Bald Eagles, it is possible for us to come together – understand the science, and agree on scientifically-based policy solutions that take into account economic, societal, and environmental concerns – the three pillars of human well-being.  Getting there will surely be easier if we all remember to treat each other the way we would like to be treated, with civility and respect.

Leave a comment

Bald Eagles

Last weekend, I had a thrill.  I saw a Bald Eagle flying over my neighborhood near Boulder, and then later in the day, I saw a Bald Eagle about 40 miles away, out by the Denver airport.  What a joy to see!  They are such beautiful and striking birds, with their stunning white head and tail.  I’ve always felt happy when I see them – not only because they are our national bird in the United States – but also because it reminds me that when we use science to understand what is happening in our environment, and make wise decisions based on this understanding, good things can happen.

I remember, when I was in my teens, the unanticipated impact of the widespread use of the pesticide DDT on the calcium metabolism of birds resulted in birds unable to lay healthy eggs, or birds going sterile.  Eggs couldn’t hold the weight of a full grown bird, to incubate them.  This, plus widespread habitat loss and hunting resulting in a dramatic drop in the number of Bald Eagles.  From an early 18th century population estimated between 300,000 and 500,000 birds, only about 400 mating pairs remained in the lower 48 states by the 1950s.

In 1962, biologist Rachel Carson documented the impact of DDT and other pesticides, and – among other things – their impact on bird populations.  As a result of research on this issue, and the work of federal science agencies and environmental groups, Bald Eagles were put on the Endangered Species List in the US in 1967, and in 1972 the use of DDT was banned in the US.  With these regulations in place, the population of Bald Eagles rebounded quickly, with an estimated total population of 100,000 birds in 1980.  Bald Eagles were removed from the Endangered Species List in 1995, and were removed from the US List of Endangered and Threatened Wildlife in 2007.  Bald Eagle sitings are now relatively common in the lower 48 states.

To me, this is one of the classic examples of how we can use our scientific knowledge, and our understanding of how the Earth system works, to solve problems in society.  Another example is the observed decline in atmospheric chlorofluorocarbon (CFC) levels (~10% since the peak in 1994), as a result of intense research and scientific consensus on the critical role of these compounds in the formation of the Ozone Hole, leading to international agreement to the Montreal Protocol in 1989.  Unfortunately, due to the long residence time of CFCs in the atmosphere and their strong catalytic action (each chlorine atom from CFCs can lead to the break up of tens of thousands of ozone molecules before it is removed from the atmosphere), it will still be decades before the Ozone Hole in the Antarctic is reduced significantly, and ozone levels recover elsewhere.  But we are clearly on the right track, and we are on this track because we agreed on societal action, through policy, based on scientific research and an understanding of the Earth system.

As we approach Earth Day in April, these and other examples of how we can come together and successfully address problems in our environment based on science may be useful to Earth science educators.

Leave a comment

Confessions of a Geoscientist – Why Focus on Science Education?

These days, I spend just about all my time focused on helping Earth and space science educators, and trying to improve public understanding of Earth and space science.  I didn’t start out this way, though.  The path I’ve taken has changed with time, and perhaps sharing it might be helpful to others asking themselves the same questions I have.

I was lucky to have been raised by two accomplished parents who understood the value of education and hard work – my father was a physicist for the Navy, and my mother a community college professor.  I went to school at a time when the public schools in California were second to none (that is, before the effect of Proposition 13 had its full effect on the state’s educational infrastructure).  College was very affordable, and the education provided by the University of California system was superb.  I received by BS, MS, and PhD in Earth and Space Science from UCLA, and continued on to work at SRI International in Menlo Park as a Research Physicist, and then at the University of Michigan Space Physics Research Laboratory on the research faculty.

As I started my career, I followed the standard research path – doing research on the upper atmosphere at high latitudes, traveling to interesting places, and writing proposals for and papers on my research.  Shortly after the birth of my second child, after just having edited my first book, organizing a conference, and publishing five papers in a year, I started to notice inklings of concern that perhaps my work was not going to do enough to make a positive difference for my children and society.

By this time, in the early 1990s, the impact of continuing budget cuts on education was starting to really be felt by students, parents, and faculty.  At the university level, tuition continued to rise as states reduced their support for “public” universities.  Faculty positions became harder to come by, and at times instead of hoping for a raise, faculty members found themselves competing for who would get the smallest salary cut.  At the K-12 level, teachers started getting cut, class sizes grew, supplies became more difficult to come by, and facilities were less well maintained.  These days, a first class university education is out of reach of many young people as a result of relentless cuts in state budgets and rising tuition, and students sometimes find themselves having to stay on an extra year since the school can’t afford to offer classes frequently enough to meet demand.

Before leaving California for Michigan, I had what I realized later was a life-changing experience.  I was visiting with friends in San Diego – the husband was a scientific equipment inventor, and the wife was a high school art teacher.  She was clearly upset, as she was preparing dinner, and explained that two weeks before the school year started, her principal had assigned her to teach high school algebra!  She explained that she was learning the material the night before the students, that she was petrified, and that the students clearly knew that she was uncomfortable with the material. She felt like a fool, but kept trying, because she had a mortgage to pay, and needed to keep her job.

Just imagine what a terrible impact that decision had on so many people – this was not only a horrifying experience for the teacher, but also one that clearly was not made with the best interests of the students in mind.  Students likely formed negative opinions about math, as well as female math teachers, and perhaps felt (particularly if they were girls) that math was not for them – they didn’t want to look like a fool, too!

Whose fault was this?  Why did the principal assign her to teach this class?  It would be easy to blame the principal, but in reality the fault lies in the fact that the school district didn’t have the funds to hire a trained math teacher to teach the course.  And of  course, the reason the school didn’t have the funds was because the social contract to support the education of future generations through the tax base was starting to break down – I’m sure I’ll come back to this in future posts…

Back to Michigan, as I starting thinking about what I was doing after the birth of my first two kids, and thought about my friend in San Diego and what a sorry state our educational system was devolving into – we were creating a cycle of failure for our students and society. I gradually realized that I really wanted to find a way to try to help teachers have the preparation they needed to provide students an excellent science education, and that I wanted to share my love of the Earth and space sciences with the public, students and teachers while doing so.  At this point, the Internet was just starting, and I was lucky enough to get support from NASA to start the Windows to the Universe project in 1995.  One thing led to another, and before I knew it, we were measuring visitors to the website in terms of Michigan Stadium audiences (over 100,000 people) per month.  Today, we have over 100,000 visitors in two days!

I was lucky enough to meet two wonderful Earth science educators in Michigan – David Mastie and Parker Pennington IV, who became partners on this project since its inception.  Through them, and eventually my colleagues at the National Earth Science Teachers Association, I learned more about the struggles K-12 teachers face today – particularly Earth and space science teachers, who for mainly structural reasons find this essential area of science relegated to low value and respect in many school systems across the country.  Despite this, these teachers persevere against odds that many of my scientific colleagues would never think about putting up with.  Whether they are buying supplies for their classrooms from their own pocketbooks or paying their own way to professional development conferences because the school districts can’t afford it (usually sharing rooms and bringing along food to keep the costs down), the commitment of these teachers to improve their knowledge and skills, and to bring the best to their students, is inspiring and humbling.

As I worked with my colleagues, I learned that many Earth science teachers across the country are hungry for professional development, since many had limited exposure to Earth science at the university level.  These teachers – like my friend in San Diego – want to do the best they can for their students, and to do so they need to continually improve their knowledge and skills, so they can bring their enthusiasm and confidence with the material back to their students.  In my view, there is a special role for motivated geoscientists to play here, in collaboration with educators, helping to bring state-of-the-art science and research expertise to the Earth and space science classroom, with the understanding that they, too, have a lot to learn from teachers.


1 Comment

Thoughts on Climate Change Discussion in This American Life: Kid Politics Episode

As my first blog post, I thought I’d share some details of my interview for the Kid Politics Episode of This American Life in January 2011.

Several colleagues of mine have been in touch with me over email recently regarding the rebroadcast of this interview I had with Ira Glass and Erin Gustafson last January, regarding climate change.  I have some thoughts about that interview – the discussion itself, the outcome, and thoughts thereafter that I’d like to share, with the hope that my musing are useful.

Some background – Ira met Erin at a Glenn Beck rally in the fall of 2010 in DC.  She seemed like a lovely young lady (14 at the time), well-spoken, and intelligent, and in the course of their conversation, it became apparent that Erin thought that global warming was a hoax, and the scientists involved in promoting that view were all on the make.  Some time later, Ira and his staff came up the the idea for a show to look at the question of asking young people to make adult decisions, and they thought climate change might be an example of that.

The hour-long show includes two other parts.  For my part of the interview, I was located in Boulder, Colorado, Ira was in New York, and Erin was in a studio in rural Virginia.  We spoke together for 1.5 hrs total, and only something like 10 minutes of that was spliced together, with narration to put together a story.  Although I must say I didn’t really realize what I was getting into when I blithely said “yes”, when asked if I would be willing to talk with a 14-yr old climate skeptic (not realizing it was for radio ), I am very happy that I did the interview.  It was a very good experience, I think I learned a lot from it, and has led to interesting post-interview contacts, discussions, and extended thinking about it on my part.  I will share some of those thoughts with you, below.

Before I do, though, I want to comment on one perspective, that seems to be driven by the way the interview was presented in the 10 min segment.  It appears, in the shortened version broadcast, that Erin did not change her mind as a result of the conversation.  That is not actually what happened.  When we started the interview, Erin stated that she did not believe that the climate was changing, and that furthermore she felt that the scientists promoting that view were making it up, and after research money – ie, they weren’t credible.  1.5 hrs later, her position had changed to “well, maybe climate is changing, but I’m not sure why”, and “I want to learn about both sides”.  From my perspective, that felt like a significant achievement – and maybe all that could be expected from a 1.5 hr long conversation.

Also, Ira started off the interview with the statement “Dr. Johnson, this is your chance to try to convince Erin that climate change is real.”  My response to both was something like – “Hold on, let me be clear, it is not the responsibility of a science teacher to “convince” a student of anything – their job is to prepare students with an understanding of science concepts and process skills, so that they can use these to analyze observations and make science-based conclusions using this tool set”.  Throughout the interview, I repeatedly mentioned that this is not about belief, but about observations and science, and I was happy that I think one of those statements made it into the broadcast.

Now, to some post-interview thoughts I’ve had, which I hope might be useful.  I really enjoyed talking with Erin – she seemed like a lovely person – and she must be brave, to take on such a project.  She is clearly a good student, too, and has a loving family.  Several of the points she made in the interview showed that she is has some misunderstandings about climate change, how climate change works, and probably aspects of Earth science in general – but she has done independent research, which is laudable.  A key problem is that she puts her trust in different authorities.  At one point in the interview, she said she wanted to see data from “both sides”.  I replied that there is an enormous amount of data that I’d be happy to point her to (which I did) online, and that she could look at the data herself – that the data were from authoritative web sites from places like NOAA, NASA, and NSF, and others (and of course I mentioned and Windows to the Universe).  I also replied that there really isn’t anything like a comparable amount of data on the “other” side, but that there are a lot of other websites, which are more focused on opinions, that include those views but that these were not comparable.  From her comments, it appears that for her, NOAA, NASA, and NSF are not authoritative, and their results are somewhat suspect – I expect she would put more trust in the views expressed on skeptical websites.

This experience brought into clear focus the importance of “frames”, and also really got me thinking about trust.  As a scientist myself, and living in a world of scientists, I know that the lion’s share of those working in this area are very good, honorable, honest, and hardworking people – looking for what the scientific evidence is telling them, and not slanting that to try to get research funding.  I think we all know that the large majority of these folks would never think of making stuff up, not only because it is clearly wrong to do so, but that they would get caught through review, and their careers would be ruined.  I know this – but it occurred to me, after speaking to Erin – that perhaps she doesn’t (although I did mention it to Erin).  I don’t know, but it may well be that, living in the rural parts of Virginia, she may not know any scientists – in fact, there may not even be any of them in her community.  Or maybe there are, but perhaps they do not share much about their work in their community.

That then led to thoughts about the importance of scientists being engaged in their communities.  We all know about how scientists are being encouraged to be involved with education and outreach, and there has been a similar focus about getting scientists prepared to talk with the media, and to public groups.  My point is a little different.  My sense is that, perhaps out of frustration or understandable exhaustion, many scientists have tired from sharing what they do with their neighbors and in their social groups.  Perhaps they think that people won’t understand, or that they won’t be interested.  But if we don’t share what we do, in a way that is understandable and interesting, how will our neighbors, friends, and communities learn about our science from people they trust? I fear that, by being reticent to share our science, we may have inadvertently set ourselves up to be easily classed as “the other” – someone that exists outside of the frame of “regular people” – someone too easy to not trust.

This post is getting too long, so I’ll stop now, but briefly mention the importance of thinking carefully about and building on common values when you are reaching out with this content to different groups.  Also, the value of having a trusted third party in the conversation (Ira Glass in this case), and the value of patience and respect in our discourse.  In fact, that’s probably what made this interview so enjoyable.

Finally, you might be interested in a blog that erupted shortly after the interview – – the discussion there (which I weighed in on a couple of times) is pretty interesting, and sometimes scary.