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US Educators Face Challenges in Teaching Climate Change

Scientists, business executives and policy makers are talking about climate change a lot these days. But what about the researchers, CEOs and politicians of tomorrow? Today's young people are interested in the issue, but schools face a significant challenge in bringing the latest scientific consensus to the classroom.

At this year's meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the AAAS, prominent climate researchers described some of their latest findings. The meeting came two weeks after the United Nations' Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change concluded that it is "very likely" that most global warming is the result of human activity.

AAAS president John Holdren, himself an environmental scientist, unveiled the group's policy on climate change, saying that responding to the challenge will be harder and more expensive, the longer we wait. He also stressed the importance of education in facing that challenge, as did Susan Solomon, a member of the U.N. climate change panel.

"Yeah, I think it's extremely important to educate young people," Solomon said. "It's also something that they're very interested in because, of course, it's something they can blame their parents for, and it's a fair question then to ask what kind of world they're going to live in and what they're being handed by their parents. So, certainly, education of young people is a high priority in my book."

In some places, it's easy to teach about climate change. In the remote island community of Shishmaref, Alaska, students can see the effects of global warming first-hand.

"My name is Jamie Barr, and I live in Shishmaref. Living in the village, the ice is very important to us for hunting bearded seals and walrus. During the spring breakup, my uncles, brothers and other men travel on the ice, and now the ice is getting thinner, making it difficult for them to hunt. So our subsistence way of life is threatened. This is going to change our way of life that we've been living for over 3,000 years."

But for most kids, climate change is something they read about in textbooks. The trouble is, many schoolbooks don't reflect the latest scientific consensus. Partly that's because the book on a student's desk today may have been written years ago. Also, despite the scientific consensus, climate change remains a controversial topic in some quarters.

The president-elect of the National Science Teachers Association, John Whitsett, says publishers tend to avoid controversy.

"Global warming, the greenhouse effect, global climate change, all of these items are not dealt with to a great extent in most of the mainline textbooks, and it's in part because of the political pressures that have been put on in the past that in some cases don't make them very saleable in some parts of the country," Whitsett told reporters.

As a result, teachers are often on their own. Some have shown Al Gore's Oscar-winning film, An Inconvenient Truth, to their students. Other teachers find material online. In some classrooms, teachers are using an interactive exercise called Stabilization Wedges, developed at Princeton University. The wedges are a visual stand-in for steps we can take to avoid the continued increase in the carbon emissions that contribute to global warming. One wedge might represent more fuel-efficient cars; another might represent nuclear energy. Using wind or solar power might be another choice, and each choice has its tradeoffs. At the AAAS meeting, Roberta Hotinski led some 500 scientists, educators, and others, each with a wireless voting device, through the exercise. In the first round, more than two-thirds agreed on their first choice

"So, increased efficiency, by a lot," Hotinski announced. "Usually it comes up in the games. It's a popular, popular strategy. So now we've got one wedge of increased efficiency. Now that could mean really intense efforts in, say, doubling the fuel efficiency of passenger vehicles or less intense efforts across transport, buildings, and efficiency."

There are really no right or wrong answers about how to reduce carbon emissions. The Stabilization Wedges game is about getting students or grownups to think about the challenge, as this audience member noted in the follow-up question-and-answer session.

"OK, first of all I want to thank you for the game," said a woman in the question-and-answer session that followed the exercise. "I think it really helped me to see what I'm personally willing to give up. And then also how we as a community, what we're willing to do as a community, not just as individuals."

And any and all tools may be needed to meet the challenge of climate change, which AAAS president John Holdren described as "maybe the most difficult problem of any kind" that civilization has ever created.