Climate Change Discussion – Working with Non-believers

I am very concerned about a small group of AP Environmental Science students (3) who have taken an aggressive stand opposing my teaching of climate change.  I already teach it from the perspective of “here’s the data, figure it out” but they think that I made the data up.  I showed them where it came from (NASA and NOAA) and they think it is a conspiracy by the left wing to infiltrate and brainwash the American public.

Normally, I would let it go but these kids are being disruptive and belligerent to the point that I have had to refer them to the administration. 

I feel like there are two things I need to do here:
1) diffuse the situation so that we can move forward
2) create a packet of peer reviewed literature that is understandable for hs students

Does anyone out there have any suggestions?


Science Teacher

21 thoughts on “Climate Change Discussion – Working with Non-believers

  1. We have a just published Climate Literacy brochure that I can send you which is very authoritative (NOAA and many others have endorsed it). It sounds like a difficult situation and no doubt they are being encouraged by their parents, which adds to the complexity.

    The bottom line: if they are aware of what the peer review in science is, ask them to find peer review publications that support their case. The IPCC has all been based on peer reviewed research, as has the upcoming Climate Change Science Program assessments.

    Also, they may not believe anything from the government, but businesses like Wal-Mart and HSBC are all over the linked topics of climate, energy, sustainability:

    The CEO of Wal-Mart says you may not believe the climate science, but why not save energy/money and move to renewables since sooner or later we run out of fossil fuels.

  2. Interesting situation, I’m sure you’ll see a lot of responses. Here’s my two cents:

    If you look up the IPCC Fourth Assessment Report (FAR) online you’ll find a nice summary on climate change and an author list of scientists from many countries. Hence your vast conspiracy would have to be world-wide and you can ask the rhetorical question “At what point does it stop becoming a conspiracy?” (You can also look into the Oreskes paper on consensus in the literature.)

    Second and more important: Either you can deal with your students directly in dialog or perhaps they are unreachable. If the latter then you can only have the conversation with them “in vacuo” where you write a letter to students and parents or do an interview with the media. But in any event there will be a moment where you have your say in this process and in that moment, were I in your position, I would turn the argument around, roughly:

    Do you want to dispute climate change? Fantastic, I welcome the dialog. What is your evidence? This is, after all, science, which is based on observation.

    (You could also create parallel constructions: Do you want to dispute evolution? Molecular biology? The laws of gravity? Electromagnetism? Fine! Let’s see your evidence. )

    It is perfectly reasonable to question scientific consensus; but the burden is on the questioner (and not, in this case, on you). The rule is simply: All arguments must cite evidence or else you’re just wasting everyone’s time.

  3. Kudos to you for taking the here’s the data approach, and for perservering in what you know is right. We need more teachers like you, and I mean that deeply.

    Here’s what we can do to help:

    Sarah Wise is a visiting fellow in our group who is studying controversy in the classroom. She knows of strategies to help defuse this sort of thing, but it sounds like you are using them. Rob’s input is also along the lines of what helps students accept the scientific view of a topic. It sounds like it’s gone beyond the issue of what is scientific into some other dynamic. I hope very much that your administration is supporting you. I am copying Sarah and will ask her to contact you.

    I would be happy to meet with you to discuss and seek a good strategy and to talk with you regularly as this evolves. Please do call me so we can see if that is helpful.

    Sarah and I have assembled some resources about contrarian arguments and about communicating about climate change which can be found here: If these do not meet your needs, tell us what would be more helpful so we can help find it.

    This is a very important thing you are dealing with here. Please help us know how we can help, and by doing so perhaps we can help others. I very much hope you call me!


    Susan M. Buhr, PhD
    Director, CIRES Education and Outreach group
    University of Colorado, Boulder

  4. “I showed them where it came from (NASA and NOAA) and they think it is a conspiracy by the left wing to infiltrate and brainwash the American public.”

    Perhaps you can address the nature of the global effort to understand climate change. Discuss the structure of the IPCC and how it is really a unique effort in the scientific community to collaborate on a global scale. You can look at data from other countries – we’re not the only ones doing climate research! Has the left wing conspired with the world?

    A couple of other interesting links that came to mind –

    Climate Myths (with links to references):

    FAQ’s from the IPCC (readable by HS students):

    Union of Concerned Scientists – Climate Skeptic organizations (watch for these if asking students to provide data):

    I’m not sure this has a place in your situation since you’re trying to teach the actual science, but I’ve also been pondering the risk assessment argument. Here’s a YouTube video that explores the risk assessment argument.

    Good Luck,

  5. This sounds like the perfect opportunity to teach what I call the “real” scientific method. What is often taught as the “scientific method” (what I was taught, anyway), isn’t very close to the reality of how I and my colleagues actually did science. The salient point here that I’d make to the students is

    – science is “made” by publications in peer-reviewed journals
    – this is so because the standard for getting and keeping a job at a university or federal lab is number and quality of publications
    – reputations are made on the quality of scientific output (i.e. publications) over a career
    – pubs in the highest ranked journals (Nature/Science) mean the most
    – it is easiest to get published if you are making a controversial and rock-solid case in tearing down an established orthodoxy
    – in the case of climate change, many careers will be made if people can publish rock-solid papers refuting major points on climate change
    – the fact that nobody has done so isn’t evidence of suppression, since doing so would launch a career. It’s evidence that the evidence refuting climate change isn’t there
    – peer review is currently the gold standard in science. It’s not perfect, but it creates an incentive structure to weed out bad science. It does this via embarrassment mostly; when occasional bad science is published and discovered, the journal and editors (and by extension the peer reviewers even though they are anonymous) are all left with eggy faces. Nobody has an incentive to publish science that will later be shown bogus.

    At the end of this, you might ask the doubting students to produce 5 recent peer-reviewed articles in reputable journals that refute the major tenets of climate change “orthodoxy”


  6. My couple of cents worth would be to throw it back into their lap as was mentioned by someone. Unfortunately no matter what publications or data you find or present will convince some people. And the more you press the issue the stiffer their backs become to anything you say or do. It does sound like some other dynamic is involved and their folks will continually fuel their fire. I always say it’s OK to agree to disagree but you have to have proof/evidence, something way more than just a feeling or opinion. I use a PBL approach to climate change by letting the kids decide what “side” to take as long as they back it up. You could design a rubrics to make sure they meet “your” requirements. I always have a question/answer period at the end of each presentation giving the students in the audience a chance to challenge what they have heard, or me a chance to see if they really know what they are talking about. The presentations are always recorded so I can use them for various purposes, especially to show mom/dad and the administrators if there are some concerns. I have used this approach for several years and found this was an easy way to get in my two cents worth about climate change.


  7. Let me share a few comments too.

    For one thing, here is another good “FAQ” page about climate change, this one from NOAA (don’t think it’s one that anyone has cited already),

    My suggestion is to be careful in what one teaches and presents–it’s going to take some careful thought about the best way to say this–to make sure that anything one presents as “fact” or as “clearly demonstrated” or as “the clear consensus of the scientific community”, does indeed not go beyond what is positively documented by a good chain of logic. Whenever there are points, or steps in the chain of logical connections, that are somewhat in doubt or unresolved, be willing to admit that and don’t gloss over them, because to do so will give “opponents” opportunities to point out these flaws, and perhaps thereby cast doubt on the whole argument.

    For example, the present increase in atmospheric CO2 is documented and unimpeachable, and can be fairly clearly linked to anthropogenic CO2 generation. The present increase in global temperatures, on the other hand, is a much smaller effect, much more difficult to measure, has a much larger “signal to noise ratio”, and is susceptible to many other possible interpretations and possible causes, all of which must be carefully considered and investigated before they can be discarded. Likewise, the projected global temperature increase in the coming decades or century(s), while clearly expected as a consequence of the CO2 increase, depends on complex computer models which have many uncertainties as far as calculation of the exact magnitude of the increase. The FAQ site I refer to above says,

    Global surface temperatures have increased about 0.6°C (plus or minus 0.2°C) since the late-19th century, and about 0.4°F (0.2 to 0.3°C) over the past 25 years (the period with the most credible data).


    the IPCC projects a global temperature increase of anywhere from 1.4 – 5.8°C from 1990-2100

    One should be careful to acknowledge, and not ignore or minimize, the +/- attached to these figures, which are considerable, and of course not to just emphasize the high end of the projected figures.

    People are exposed to some very eloquently expressed criticisms and alternate explanations to the “consensus” ideas about global climate change and global warming, such as the “Global Warming Swindle” video and this (below) “Convenient Lie” website,

    and these counter-arguments give every appearance of citing what sound, at least on the surface, like good scientific documentation for the “other” explanations, and quote what sound like reputable climate scientists in their counter-arguments. It just means we all have to be extra careful about making sure that what we present pays attention to all the questions and uncertainties–and of course, from doing that, there is a great deal to be learned.

    I don’t know if this helps in any particular way or not, but I wanted to take a shot at it!


  8. Wow, you could take out the word “climate change” and insert the word “evolution” in these emails and you are right where we biology teachers have been for a long time. My experience with these types of issues is that *some* people will never change their minds because their minds have been closed for too long. However, it is worth the effort to present the data and reteach the scientific method model. I am a product of a home that doesn’t “believe” in evolution OR climate change. I argued with my high school biology teacher about evolution because there was no way my family (or church) would lie to me, right?

    It was not until I was in college and separated from my family that I felt comfortable in the role of independent thinker. I sought out answers for myself, I spoke with professors one on one, I read lots of books (my mother cried one time when I came home from college and she found Origin of Species in my bookbag). I had to find my own answers on my own terms, and had to find teachers/professors who would answer my questions in a non-threatening, non-condescending way (my high school teacher made fun of me when I questioned evolution–not a fun experience!)

    So keep that in mind–it may seem like a losing battle, but there are ways to make impressions on close-minded students, and you may never see the results firsthand!

  9. you are so correct, lisa!!! i had the same experience in my 7th grade gifted science class last year. Several of them questioned every source i had and made everything political and stamped al gore’s name on all of it being his propaganda.

    i do agree that it can take years for ideas to sink in and for some to open their minds but the efforts are worth it.

    hang in there!!

  10. Hi All,
    I just finished Parent-Teacher Conferences — one of the most intense in my 13 years of teaching. All of the parents showed up and I asked an administrator to sit in to keep things sane. Here is what I learned:

    Peer-reviewed science is not only scorned by this group but is vilified as the “kool-aid” that the “liberal left-wing conspiracy” is serving up to the public. (I am exhausted at this point but will continue to press on.) Just to make clear of what I am doing with this group: students are participating in the Climate Change PBL module published by ESSEA. I set up the groups to insure diversity in ideas, abilities, and levels of motivation. Because I didn’t let this group of kids work together, the kids and parents are very upset, saying that I am “diluting” their voices. Oh well…

    The greatest part of all of this: not one of these students have ever received anything more than a C in a science class and now all of them have grades of B+ or better. Sometimes that fire we are all trying to light can be a bit too hot.

    Please keep the ideas coming. I am compiling all of them. I have decided that AP Environmental Science students need some quintessential peer-reviewed papers to read over the summer. Now I just have to figure out what those might be!

  11. With regard to the left wing conspiracy theory, I suspect that part
    of the problem is the identification of Al Gore with global warming.
    Obviously he has popularized the issue but it may be helpful to remind students that concerns over global warming did not start with the rise of the Clinton presidency. Scientific research into global warming (here, I mean quantitative understanding of increasing C02 on global temperature) goes back at least to the early 1960s (work by Manabe and Strickler in 1964 showing sensitivity of temperature to
    increasing C02). The IPCC was formed in the late 1980s ((1988?).
    The US did sign the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change in 1992 but the ground work for this was established during the Reagan-Bush administrations.

    I would also offer a caveat to Cathi’s message stating that we should present both sides. Yes, it’s important for kids (and parents) to understand that not every scientist is in perfect agreement about global warming (scientists are not in perfect agreement about any theory). However, I would be careful not to spend a disproportional amount of time talking about counter arguments that are not backed up by data. Your class provides an excellent opportunity for kids to separate belief from the balance of evidence.


  12. Pingback: » Classroom Climate Disruption. Literally. Bud the Teacher

  13. This strikes me as a perfect time to bring in technology. Perhaps you could have them contact some real scientist and ask for their opinions online. Or perhaps you could do it, since they sound like they might be inappropriate. Online is a great way to reach real scientist working in the field.

    Maybe it’s time for a mini-course on rhetoric versus science. I wonder if there are any university scientists in your area who could come in and discuss this with the class.

  14. Wow, talk about a teachable moment! As a former science teacher, I feel your pain. The few times I had to teach biology, evolution was always the “interesting” part of the year. Several others have chimed in about this, but perhaps it’s a chance to have those students really engage in science – they are, after all, AP students. Have them find data and research that supports their argument. You might want to point them to databases of information – especially international ones, given their take on the “American” brainwashing going on – or suggest how they might go about collecting their research, and then have them present it to the class for review.

    Heck, expand it further and create a “Climate Change Symposium” at your school – any students can choose which side they want to stand on, collect their evidence and arguments, and present it. Invite other teachers and students to review everyone’s findings.

    It’s an interesting opportunity to show students that real-world science is not “follow-the-recipe-and-get-the-right-answer” as they might perceive from classroom labs.

    But like March 13th, 2008 at 11:46 am says, it might be enough for you to plant the seed of doubt – or give them the tools with which to sow it – for your point to be made.

    Good luck to you!

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