Sidestepping politics to teach climate

I sat down at my desk to read the student evaluations for my undergraduate biology courses. “Please leave politics out of it. Not all Republicans deny science,” one student wrote. “I didn’t pay to take this class to hear him bash Republicans,” wrote another. I had received similar comments in previous years, implying that my lectures about Earth’s climate—and how it’s changing—were unfairly infused with politics. But they still made me think. How can I teach controversial topics such as climate change at a state university in Arkansas, where denial of climate change is rampant, without sounding partisan to some students?

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“To open my students’ minds to the science, I need to find common ground with them.”

I teach climate science in my biology classes because I think it’s important to lay out how the climate is changing before I talk about how those changes may impact plants and animals. Some of my students aren’t science majors, so it may be the only time they hear about climate science in a university lecture.

Recognizing that science doesn’t exist in a vacuum, I also try to make connections between the topics I’m teaching and the wider world. To do that, I set aside a few minutes at the beginning of lectures to talk about science in the news.

Earlier in the semester, I had started off a lecture by discussing a tweet by President Donald Trump. “Brutal and Extended Cold Blast could shatter ALL RECORDS – Whatever happened to Global Warming?” it read. I used it as a teachable moment to explain to the class that a cold spell doesn’t mean global temperatures aren’t trending upward.

Later, I brought up Trump again when he revoked California’s authority to set stricter auto emissions rules. In response, a student raised a common talking point for climate change deniers. “But hasn’t the climate always changed in the past?” he asked, implying that any discussion of auto emissions is moot if this is all part of a natural phenomenon. I answered his question—explaining why scientists are confident that humans have contributed to the recent warming—but I also wondered whether I’d triggered his defensiveness by bringing up politics.

A turning point came the following semester when I received a message from my dean, who regularly reads student evaluations. He had circled a comment from one of my students, writing, “Be careful here.” After thinking it through more carefully, I came to realize that in a polarized political landscape, talking about politicians and the decisions they make is counterproductive. Students may put their guard up, thinking that I’m partisan, and tune me out when I’m lecturing about other things, such as climate modeling. So, I made a conscious decision to change my approach to teaching the subject.

As part of my modified strategy, I joined a local bipartisan group that aims to bring people together by emphasizing the potential consequences, rather than causes, of climate change. The group taught me about tactful, nonconfrontational ways to discuss climate science.

Over the past year, I have experimented with my teaching methods, and I have learned that to open my students’ minds to the science, I need to find common ground with them. Now, when I discuss climate science news, I focus on things that all of us care about and choose examples that illustrate how climate change might affect their lives. For instance, this summer Arkansas and neighboring states were devastated by catastrophic flooding. It was a topic that hit close to home for all of us, and it gave me the chance to tell my students that major floods are now happening more often than they did in the past.

Since I altered my teaching strategy, I’ve noticed a shift in my student evaluations. I still get the occasional comment that I’m a “climate doomsdayer,” but overall the evaluations have been much more positive.

As teachers, we strive to make connections with our students. I’ve learned that delving into the quagmire of politics hinders those connections. But when I instead highlight the ways in which climate change may affect our shared experience on this planet, it’s easier to communicate and connect with all of my students, regardless of their political affiliation.

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