March 24, 2010

Alan Shapiro offers a process (including two student readings) to help students conduct a rigorous inquiry into the controversy over climate change.

To the Teacher

The publication of hacked e-mails revealing questionable professional behavior and some errors in the work of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change have given climate change critics an opening for a serious attack on that UN panel's "unequivocal" finding: "The climate is changing due to human activity, and the effects are already being felt around the globe."
These developments have been a factor in polls showing that a declining number of Americans believe that climate change is a serious issue.
The climate change controversy is a ripe subject for student inquiry and study. (The term "climate change" is more inclusive than "global warming," which emphasizes solely the heating up of the planet.)
Fifty years ago Marshall McLuhan famously declared, "The medium is the message." McLuhan wrote that in this "electronic age," a "totally new environment has been created...We are entering an age of education that is programmed for discovery rather than instruction."
However, the current emphasis on standardized tests and test prep classes engendered by No Child Left Behind and the egregiously named Race to the Top (which Diane Ravitch terms an "aggressive version" of NCLB,, 3/14/10), seems to belie McLuhan's observation.
Meanwhile, the impact of electronic media has hugely increased since McLuhan. A new study by the Kaiser Family Foundation underlines this impact on 8-18 year olds. Young people, the foundation reported, "devote an average of 7 hours and 38 minutes" to an array of media—TV, iPods, computers and other electronic devices. "And because of media multitasking, the total amount of media content consumed during that period has increased from 8:33 in 2004 to 10:45 today." (The seven and a half hours daily "does not count the hour and a half that youths spend texting, or the half-hour they talk on their cellphones...The heaviest media users were also more likely than the lightest users to report that they were bored or sad...and were not happy at school," reported Tamar Lewin, "If Your Children Are Awake, Then They're Probably Online," New York Times, 1/20/10)
The Kaiser Family Foundation report found that "Most youth say they have no rules about how much time they can spend with TV, video games, or computers...About two-thirds (64%) of young people say the TV is usually on during meals, and just under half (45%) say the TV is left on "most of the time" in their home, even if no one is watching. Seven in ten (71%) have a TV in their bedroom, and half (50%) have a console video game player in their room.
The survey covered more than 2,000 students, grades 3-12, and was conducted from October 2008 to May 2009. (
McLuhan concluded long before the media explosion of our times: "The student can find no possible means of involvement for himself, nor can he discover how the educational scene relates to the 'mythic' world of electronically processed data and experience that he takes for granted." (Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man)
Materials and assumptions
The lesson below is designed to encourage students' exploration of the climate change controversy. Materials for students include a report on the climate change controversy (Student Reading 1) and the IPCC's reaction to it (Student Reading 2). Following them is a suggested approach to education "programmed for discovery rather than instruction" through inquiry and socially responsible citizenship activities. This approach is based on the certain assumptions:
  • Schooling is usually instruction; education is self-development.
  • No one "gets" educated by a school — any school. 
  • Teachers foster an educational process by helping students learn how to think. 
  • Thinking is questioning (see John Dewey).
  • Questioning calls for answering, for inquiry.
  • Inquiry is an active learning process leading to discovery.
  • Active learning processes promote lifelong learning and education.
Ssee earlier materials on climate change in the high school section of TeachableMoment.
Since climate change has become a controversial issue, teachers may find "Teaching on Controversial Issues" useful before beginning work with students.

Student Reading 1: 

How the climate controversy began

"The fact is that we can't account for the lack of warming at the moment and it is a travesty that we can't," wrote Dr. Kevin Trenberth, a climatologist at the National Center for Atmospheric Research. It was one of several e-mail exchanges with other scientists who contribute to the work of the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) on gaps in understanding of recent temperature variations.
In another e-mail exchange, a scientist wrote about using a statistical "trick" in a chart showing a recent significant warming trend.
Phil Jones, the director of the Climatic Research Unit (CRU) of the University of East Anglia in eastern England, a major climate research center, is apparently the author of an email to colleagues saying that global warming skeptics "have been after the CRU station data for years. If they ever hear there is a Freedom of Information Act now in the UK, I think I'll delete the file rather than send to anyone." (Quoted in Declan McCullagh, "Congress May Probe Leaked Global Warming E-Mails,", 11/24/09)
In 2007 the IPCC said that it was "very likely" that Himalayan glaciers would disappear by 2035 if current warming trends continued. "But," wrote Elisabeth Rosenthal in the New York Times, "it now appears that the estimate about Himalayan glacial melt was based on a decade-old interview of one climate scientist in a science magazine, The New Scientist, and that hard scientific evidence to support that figure is lacking. ("UN Panel's Glacier Warning Is Criticized as Exaggerated," New York Times,1/18/10)
Climate change skeptics
Sen. James Inhofe, an Oklahoma Republican, has called global warming a "hoax." In an interview posted on his website, Inhofe declared that the leaked IPCC correspondence suggested researchers "cooked the science to make this thing look as if the science was settled, when all the time of course we knew it was not." (11/23/09)
Another climate change skeptic charged that the apparently hacked e-mails "revealed an effort to withhold scientific information. 'This is not a smoking gun; this is a mushroom cloud,' said Patrick J. Michaels, a climatologist who has long faulted evidence pointing to human-driven warming..." (Andrew Revkin, "Hacked E-Mail Is New Fodder for Climate Dispute," New York Times, 11/20/09)
The South Dakota legislature passed by a vote of 37-33 a resolution on March 1, 2010, ordering public schools to "balance" their teaching about the "prejudiced" science of climate change. South Dakota became the fifteenth state to deny any climate threat and to "claim that protecting citizens from hazardous climate pollution would hurt the economy." Missouri, Illinois, Oklahoma, and Alaska lawmakers, for example, have emphasized how"dependent" their states are on the coal and oil industries. (Center for American Progress, "The Progress Report," 3/3/10)
The Utah legislature passed a resolution condemning "a well organized and ongoing effort to manipulate global temperature data in order to produce a global warming outcome."
Record-setting blizzards led the Virginia Republican Party to "put up an advertisement on the web—titled '12 inches of Global Warming.'" The ad mocked two Virginia Democrats who voted for climate change legislation last year, and urged voters to call these lawmakers to ask for help with shoveling. (John Broder, "Climate Fight Is Heating Up In Deep Freeze," New York Times, 2/11/10)
On his Fox News show, Sean Hannity said, "And it's the most severe winter storm in years, which would seem to contradict Al Gore's hysterical global warming theories." (2/8/10) The lead story in the conservative Weekly Standard declared that the "the 'consensus' that human activity is primarily responsible for global warming slowly falls apart under its own weight." (, 3/2/10)
"...if the IPCC had been done by Japanese scientists, there's not enough knives on planet earth for hara-kiri that should have occurred. I mean, these guys have so dishonored themselves, so dishonored scientists," said Fox news host Glenn Beck on his radio show. (2/10/10)
Poll drop in global warming belief
All major polls report that fewer Americans now believe that global warming is occurring or that, if it is, human activity has anything to do with it. A Gallup poll in early March 2010 reported that "48% of Americans now believe that the seriousness of global warming is generally exaggerated, up from 41% in 2009 and 31% in 1997, when Gallup first asked the question." (/, 3/11/10)
According to a CBS News/New York Times poll, 23% of Americans surveyed consider global warming as "not serious or a serious problem but not a high priority (33%), a drop from 2007 when 52% of those surveyed said the issue should be a high priority. (, 12/14/09)
The Pew Research Center for People & the Press found, "Dealing with global warming ranks at the bottom of the public's list of priorities; just 18% consider this a top priority, the lowest measure for any issue tested in the survey." (, 1/25/10)
For discussion
1. What questions do students have about the reading? How might they be answered?
2. Why did a climate change controversy develop and intensify? Specifically, what is there in IPCC scientists' e-mails and the Himalayan glacier inaccuracy that provoked those already skeptical about climate change science?
3. Assume for a moment that you, too, are skeptical that climate change science is accurate. What is your reaction to the South Dakota resolution and why? What, specifically, would you expect to happen in your class if there was "balance" in climate change teaching, as the legislators demanded?
4. Should climate change teaching be affected by dependence on the coal and oil industries? Why or why not? 
5. Why did severe winter storms lead climate change skeptics to mock Al Gore and others of similar views? If you were Al Gore, how would you respond to the mockery?


Student Reading 2: 

The IPCC and its response

Many climate change skeptics target the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.
The IPCC describes itself as "the leading body for the assessment of climate change, established by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) and the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) to provide the world with a clear scientific view on the current state of climate change and its potential environmental and socio-economic consequences.
"The IPCC is a scientific body. It reviews and assesses the most recent scientific, technical and socioeconomic information produced worldwide relevant to the understanding of climate change...Thousands of scientists from all over the world contribute to the work of the IPCC on a voluntary basis. Review is an essential part of the IPCC process, to ensure an objective and complete assessment of current information. Differing viewpoints existing within the scientific community are reflected in the IPCC reports...
"Because of its scientific and intergovernmental nature, the IPCC embodies a unique opportunity to provide rigorous and balanced scientific information to decision makers. By endorsing the IPCC reports, governments acknowledge the authority of their scientific content. The work of the organization is therefore policy-relevant and yet policy-neutral, never policy-prescriptive."
On January 20, the IPCC apologized for its Himalayan glacier melt prediction by apologizing for its "poorly substantiated estimate...and date for the disappearance of the Himalayan glaciers...The clear and well-established standards of evidence, required by IPCC procedures, were not applied properly."
A study of the IPCC
The IPCC's statement did not halt mounting criticisms based on the contents of the hacked e-mails and other accusations of poor science.
UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon and IPCC Chairman Rajendra Pachauri announced on March 10, 2010 that top scientists from a consortium of the world's leading scientific societies, the InterAcademy Council, will make a thorough study of the IPCC. They will examine IPCC's 3,000-page 2007 study and make recommendations for assuring the accuracy of its next climate assessment in 2014.
Pachauri said that the IPCC had done a "lousy job" of communicating their findings. "We've learned, we've listened and we've decided to do something about it." (John Broder, "Top Scientists to Review Findings of U.N. Climate Change Panel," New York Times, 3/11/10)
But Pachauri himself has been sharply criticized for his connections as an advisor to business and financial companies.
There were also immediate cries of conflict of interest involving the UN-sponsored study of the IPCC. The United Nations is paying for the review study, but Robbert Dijkgraaf, a Dutch mathematical physicist who co-chairs the InterAcademy Council said the study group "will operate completely independently" and pick "outside experts" to conduct the study.
Chris Field, a Stanford University professor who in 2008 took over as head of an IPCC group studying climate impacts, said the InterAcademy faces a challenge picking outside experts for the review since "almost anybody who has been involved in climate science has some connection with the IPCC." (John Heilprin and Seth Borenstein, "World's top scientists to review climate panel," Associated Press, 3/10/10)
Dr. Dijkgraaf also said, ""We enter this process with no preconceived conclusions." (John Broder, "Top Scientists to Review Findings of UN Climate Change Panel," New York Times, 3/11)
IPCC reacts to criticism
The IPCC reaffirmed the overall quality of its 20 years of work by thousands of scientists worldwide and stated that "the conclusions from its 2007 report remain entirely valid":
  • "The climate is changing due to human activity, and the effects are already being felt around the globe."
  • The evidence for this conclusion is "unequivocal."
  • "If anything, more recent data indicate that the IPCC's 2007 assessment underestimated the degree to which human activity is changing the climate."  (
For discussion
1. What questions do students have about the reading? How might they be answered?
2. What is the purpose of the IPCC? How does it attempt to accomplish this purpose? What are the IPCC's chief conclusions to date about climate change? 
3. What is the IPCC doing to respond to criticisms of its behavior and work? How do you assess the quality of this response?


A Student Inquiry

A class inquiry process requires a change in the conventional role of the teacher as instructor and information provider to teacher as guide and coach. It also demands time.
I. Ask: Are growing numbers of Americans right in thinking that:
a. the seriousness of climate change has been exaggerated?
b. climate change is not a high priority problem?
c. if climate change is occurring, human activities have little or nothing to do with it?
II. Begin an inquiry into these issues with a poll, explanations, and questions.
a. Ask for a show of hands to indicate agreement, disagreement, or uncertainty about each item.
b. Ask why students agree, disagree, or are uncertain.
c. Ask students for their questions about the poll findings on the seriousness of climate change, its priority, and any relationship between human activities and climate change.
Note on the chalkboard without comment but for later consideration: the numbers of students who agree, disagree, or are uncertain; key phrases in their explanations; and questions.
Differences of opinion are likely. Explanations may be cogent and clear or muddy or factually inaccurate. Questions will probably range in quality from those that are both clear and answerable to others that are cloudy but may be worth reframing to some that are unanswerable.
The readings and student responses to the readings may convince them that climate change and the future of life on earth is worthy of further inquiry.
III. Discuss the purpose of such an inquiry:
a. significant learning about issues that interest individual students
b. developing students' question-asking and thinking skills 
c. improving students' skills in finding information and examining its worth and reliability
d. developing skills in taking notes, organizing information and one's thoughts, and 
communicating these thoughts logically and effectively to others.
"Significant" learning might be defined as learning through question-asking and problem-solving; finding questions whose answers promote further curiosity and learning—and encouraging students to make inquiry a lifelong pursuit.
See "The Essential Skill of Crap Detecting." 
IV. Develop potential inquiries through question-asking
Begin with a student discussion and analysis of questions on the chalkboard.
Do students need help in learning to ask good questions? A "good" question in the context of this inquiry might be defined as one which, if answered well, would lead to better and fuller understanding of one or more climate change issues. For suggestions on developing question-asking skills, see "Thinking Is Questioning."
In analyzing the questions, consider the following:
a. Is the question clear? If not how might it be clarified?
b. Is the question answerable? Why or why not?
c. Will an answer, or answers, be informative? If so, why? If not, why not?
d. Do any words in the question need defining? Why? How?
e. Does the question contain any assumptions? If so, are they reasonable? If not, how might the question be reworded?
f. What kinds of information are required to answer the question? Facts? Whose? From what 
sources? Does answering the question require a judgment? Whose? If the judgment of an "expert" is needed, what qualifies an individual to be considered an expert? 
g. Does the question lead to other questions? What are they?
h. Which are the best questions? Why?

Possible subjects for inquiry

  • the suspect IPCC e-mails
  • the IPCC's Himalayan error
  • possible IPCC scientists' efforts to limit inclusion of opposing opinions on climate issues
  • possible manipulation of research findings
  • the scientific work at East Anglia University and its director, Dr. Phil Jones
  • the heavy snowfalls in Virginia and Washington D.C.
  • Senator Imhofe's persistent criticisms of climate change theory
  • climatologist Patrick Michaels' criticisms
  • state resolutions on climate change
  • Al Gore's campaign on behalf of climate change theory
  • poll results on climate change attitudes
  • the nature of the scientific process, which is used by IPCC
  • the work of particular scientists involved in providing evidence for reports
  • IPCC's review process
  • the IPCC's "policy relevant yet policy neutral, yet never policy prescriptive" approach
  • the criticisms of Rajendra Pachauri
  • the qualifications of Robbert Dijkgraff
  • the evidence for and against IPCC's three fundamental conclusions to date
V. Organize the class for inquiry
Emphasize the importance of open-mindedness in any inquiry, the need to energetically collect information and seek out opinions worth considering. In an inquiry, we must be prepared to recognize areas of uncertainty and accept that more questions will arise that need to be considered. We also need to withhold judgment until the inquiry process is completed. When that is will itself be a judgment.
The structure of the inquiry can be decided either by students or by the teacher. Options include:
a. students work independently
b. students choose partners, or form small groups on their own
c. the teacher assigns students to a small groups
Inquiry Assignment A
First, assign students to prepare three carefully worded questions on a climate change issue that will drive their inquiry. One or more may be drawn from previous class discussions.
Then meet with each individual student, pair, or group to analyze questions raised, help in determining a question or questions for inquiry, and consider possible sources of answers.
"Thinking Critically About Internet Sources" might be a useful resource to consider before students begin internet searches. Knowledgeable and heavy media use by teenagers does not mean that they are also accustomed to thinking critically about blogs, YouTube and other videos, TV reports, newspaper and magazine articles and other materials available on the web. (Note: Climate change skeptics' views can be found at Critical views of skeptics can be found at 
Assignments B-G
See "The Plagiarism Perplex."

For reporting and active citizenship

Once students have discussed the readings, completed inquiries, and discussed their findings with classmates, they will have gathered much information about climate change issues and have significant experience with the inquiry process—asking and analyzing questions, making decisions about how to answer them, evaluating information sources, reading and viewing critically, note taking, working with others, sharing, discussing and possibly debating issues.
You might have students report on their work by writing papers and making class presentations. But if any issue is crucial, climate change is. So you might also want to encourage students become active, socially responsible citizens on the issue..
See "Teaching Social Responsibility" for suggestions about organizing a class project and examples of what active citizenship might entail.
Some assessment questions students and the teacher might consider when the project had been completed:
1. What is the most important thing you learned from the inquiry/active citizenship experience?
2. What new ideas, questions, and facts complicated your thinking about climate change?
3. Has your thinking on climate change issues changed? If so how? If not, why not?
4. What was the most significant problem you had to deal with during this project? What did you do about it?
5. What would you want to do differently in another inquiry? Another citizenship project?

This lesson was written for TeachableMoment.Org, a project of Morningside Center for Teaching Social Responsibility. We welcome your comments. Please email them to: