Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Outing the Reasons for Climate Change Doubt

Each year when I teach my climate change law course, I deal with the issue of how to address student doubts about climate change science.  One part of my solution is to invite a climate change scientist as a guest speaker on the first day of class. I give many thanks to University of California at San Diego’s Scripps Institute of Oceanography scientists David Pierce, Andrew Dickson, and Alexander Gershunov, who have all performed this important service for my class and the legal profession more broadly. 

After doing this for a couple years, I discovered the other part of my solution, and I’d like to share it because I think it works really well.  Before the climate scientist arrives (I teach the class as a 3-hour weekly seminar), I pose a set of questions like the following:  

As reported in the media, recent polls show that only about fifty-seven percent of Americans believe climate change is happening and only about fifty-one percent of Americans worry a great deal or a fair amount about climate change.  Let’s just assume for this discussion that the scientific case for climate change is as strong as the book says it is, and as strong as our speaker later today will tell you it is.  What reasons can you think of that would make Americans -- people like yourself, your friends and your family – not believe that it is happening?  What reasons can you think of that would make Americans not worry much about it? 

And after a lot of good discussion, I may prompt more by asking:

Also, what reasons can you think of that would make the United States government resistant to acknowledging the severity of the problem and addressing it through new national and international law?

With these questions, students articulate many reasons that I think really help them put climate change science into its social, cultural, and (most notably) psychological context.  They look inside themselves, and they find a lot of reasons that make them not want to believe or worry.  For example, if it’s true, then what does it mean for their personal futures?  And, they think, the problem is so big, what can they do about it anyway?  The question about US policy often brings out how our country's responsibility for climate change might undermine our positive national image, our view of the US as a force for good in the world. The students realize that denying climate change science might be an understandable response to the feelings of anxiety, powerlessness, and guilt that acknowledging the reality of climate change can produce.  I think that this discussion opens their minds in a way that makes them more receptive to the scientific talk that follows. 

- Lesley McAllister


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