Friday, August 07, 2009

Teaching Climate Change

I don't think my university (recently ranked 596 out of 600 colleges by Forbes, but not for this reason) offers a course that explains climate change and its social consequences.

There are a lot of barriers to offering such a course. Would it be a science course? In which scientific discipline? Just understanding the physical causes of climate change requires knowing more than just a little something about physics, chemistry, and earth science. So what department would own it? (We don't have an earth science or geography department.) Understanding the effects of climate change broadens the scope even further, to include (all) the life sciences, but especially ecology and the medical sciences. And also social science. Understanding the social causes and implications would require a yet broader course: communication, political science, economics, public policy, history, philosophy. At least those, and probably more.

Can such a course be taught only at the senior level, since it requires so much knowledge? If so, would there be any students who could fit it in their schedules among their other advanced courses? Or could it be a way to teach basic concepts from many disciplines in a way that provides the sort of meaningful context that gives sense to difficult ideas?

Even if such a course would have a market among lower-level students, how could they get credit for the course (except as an elective), given that my university is set up on a disciplinary model? And how could a team of teachers from different colleges (e.g. science and the humanities) get credit for teaching it?

Then again, how can we afford not to be teaching such courses? How can we afford not to make it possible for every student who wants to take such a course to have the opportunity?

It's so common, so easy to say that Americans don't have the education it takes to understand the urgency of climate change. But are we in higher education doing what we can? Are we providing an education that helps graduates understand pressing problems?

Here is one course, available as a podcast, which has a multidisciplinary approach to climate change.

And here's an interesting blog I just happened across which examines the psychology of climate change denial.


Special K said...

Myself when young did eagerly frequent
Doctor and saint, and heard great argument,
About it and about, but evermore
Came out by the same door wherein I went...
Omar Khayyam

So it is with climate change ideology,
Embodying some principles of science and climatology,
But the science is political
(and largely non-analytical)
And the climatology smacks a bit of numerology.

Attracting adherents
who take the view
That "we" (humanoids)
are the agents of climate change,
I.e., that climate is ours to control,
A concept that to non-adherents seems strange, hubristic and presumptuous,
By and large, overall, on the whole.

But it seems likely that,
young and old,
We'll hear unending
and futile argument,
About climate change,
its causes and sequelae,
And like Omar,
come out by the same door
wherein we went.

Evelyn Brister said...

While Special K's comment doesn't add much to my point, I do appreciate the rhyme of ideology with climatology. Put that creativity to work.

An update is that I've pursued the teaching climate science idea, and many think a course would be a good idea-especially if I were to take the lead.

Is this calling my bluff? I'm working on social epistemology, feminist epistemology, pragmatism, biodiversity, ecological restoration, and presettlement vegetation. Oh, and it's been years since I taught modern, and I'd really like to scrub off the rust on that part of my brain.

Any professional advice from tenured readers?

But a real issue is that while it would not be impossible to assemble a course on the social implications of climate change, I haven't found anyone on my campus who teaches climate science. None of this: mechanisms of global warming, mechanisms of ocean acidification, comparisons to past climate shifts, evaluating the changes in ice coverage. We're well covered on how to engineer alternative energy or to recycle packaging or to use satellites to image physical changes. But not one specialist (that I know of) who teaches the basics.