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Teaching Climate Change After the Paris Talks

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The Paris climate talks came to a close this weekend with a landmark pact being reached among about 200 nations committed to curbing climate change. 

According to the New York Times, "Scientists and leaders said the talks here represented the world's last, best hope of striking a deal that would begin to avert the most devastating effects of a warming planet." A similar convening in Copenhagen six years ago ended in failure.

Public school teachers have historically had to toe the line when discussing global warming in the classroom. Parents in many places, particularly those reliant on coal production, have objected to lessons about the human impact on climate change. And even now, many textbooks being used in classrooms present the human contribution to climate change as only a possibility. 

But Noah Zeichner, a social studies teacher in Seattle, wrote that the Paris summit has caused him to reflect on how he approached climate change in the classroom in 2009, during the Copenhagen talks, and realize he made some mistakes. He did use video clips on rising sea levels and have students calculate their carbon footprints. However, on the Center for Teaching Quality blog, he writes:

I also felt some pressure that year to present the other side. One of my students that semester argued that human activity was not contributing to climate change. I encouraged him to share his views and to bring in evidence to support his arguments. But facilitating a debate about the causes of climate change was probably the wrong move. Diana Hess, in her book Controversy in the Classroom: The Democratic Power of Discussion, writes about how teachers sometimes have to determine whether or not an issue is legitimately controversial. She argues that some issues like capital punishment are open and still up for debate. Other issues like women's suffrage are closed. Closed issues are often still taught, but they are not considered controversial. Some issues are in the process of tipping from open to closed. Current issues in the tip often create the most controversy when they appear in curricula. Hess argues that global warming has already tipped and is now a closed issue. I agree with her (and with 97 percent of the scientific community). Now when I teach about climate change denial, my goal is to help students understand the political polarization of climate change in the United States.   

It's an issue journalists deal with as well—how to accurately depict the public discussion around climate change. Last year, comedian John Oliver hammered on TV reporters for posing climate change as a one-to-one debate—one climate-change doubter vs. one scientist who says humans are irrefutably causing climate change. The only way to show "a statistically representative climate-change debate," he said, would be to have three climate-change doubters on stage battling 97 climate scientists. 

Image: French foreign minister and President of the COP21 Laurent Fabius, center, applauds while United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, left, and French President Francois Hollande celebrate after the final conference of the United Nations conference on climate change, in Le Bourget, north of Paris, on Dec. 12. Nearly 200 nations adopted the first global pact to fight climate change on Saturday, calling on the world to collectively cut and then eliminate greenhouse gas pollution but imposing no sanctions on countries that don't. —Francois Mori/AP

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