GLOBAL CLIMATE CHANGE: Fitting the Facts Together & Acting on Them

By Alan Shapiro

 
 
To the Teacher:
 
"The climate is changing due to human activity, and the effects are already being felt around the globe." Evidence for this conclusion is "unequivocal." These were the summary findings of the 2007 report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. For some people these findings remain controversial. But most of the world's scientists, thousands of whom have contributed to IPCC reports, believe the findings are based on compelling evidence gathered over more than 20 years.
 
Some of that evidence and summary conclusions by several scientific organizations are reported in the first student reading below. The second reading reports on the views of climate change deniers and their sources of financial support. The third reading offers a number of ideas for student action on climate change, notably the October 10, 2010, event sponsored by 350.org, Greenpeace and the Rainforest Action Network.
 
For additional student action ideas, see "Green Initiatives to Combat Climate Change" in the high school section of TeachableMoment and "Teaching Social Responsibility," which details an approach for involving students in their community or in a schoolwide educational effort.
 
For an inquiry-oriented approach to the subject, see "Climate Change Controversy & Student Inquiry." For additional climate change information and a report on the most recent international conference, see "Copenhagen Climate Conference: Will we continue to be 'slowly broiling brainless frogs'?" 
 
 

 


Student Reading 1: 

Key facts + key conclusions=0?

"Try to fit these facts together," writes Bill McKibben, author of articles and books on climate change and the founder of 350.org, "a movement to unite the world around solutions to the climate crisis."
 
  • According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the planet has just come through the warmest decade, the warmest 12 months, the warmest six months, and the warmest April, May, and June on record. (www.noaa.gov, 8/13/10)
     
  • A 'staggering' new study from Canadian researchers has shown that warmer seawater has reduced phytoplankton, the base of the marine food chain, by 40% since 1950.
    .
  • Nine nations have so far set their all-time temperature records in 2010, including Russia (111 degrees), Niger (118), Sudan (121), Saudi Arabia and Iraq (126 apiece), and Pakistan, which also set the new all-time Asia record in May:almost 130 degrees. "I can turn my oven to 130 degrees," notes McKibben.
A late-summer addition to McKibben's mid-summer list of climate facts:
 
  • Millions of people in Pakistan are experiencing the catastrophic results of unprecedented monsoon rains and floods that have surged from north to south, covering an immense area, destroying villages, homes, and cropfields, and leaving them destitute.
     
  • Unprecedented summer heat in Russia is responsible for thousands of deaths and massive fires that destroyed 25 percent of the country's wheat crop.
     
  • Record floods and mudslides have ravaged portions of China.
     
  • "Extreme Heat Bleaches Coral, And Scientists See Global Threat" was the headline of a New York Times story about the die-offs of coral reefs and associated fisheries from Thailand to Texas "that feed millions of people." (9/21/10)
 
Bleached and dying coral off the coast of Thailand
Dr. C. Mark Eakin/NOAA
 
Climatologists have said repeatedly that climate change is not necessarily the reason for a particular flood or heat wave. Unprecedented deluges and droughts have occurred before, and climatologists do not jump to conclusions. But this is precisely what Sean Hannity of Fox News and other climate change skeptics did last winter. Commenting on "the most severe winter storm in years," he declared that it "would seem to contradict Al Gore's hysterical global warming theories." (2/8/10)
 
As scientific scholars, climatologists study such matters as heat and rainfall records, temperature, atmospheric composition and dynamics. They know that various factors affect the weather. One record-setting heat wave or unusually cold day does not lead them to predict either global warming or a new ice age. Climatologists collect statistics, note long-term weather changes, see patterns over time, create mathematical models, and draw conclusions that enable them to make reasonably accurate predictions.
 
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has been studying and assessing scientific, technical, and socio-economic information on climate change from thousands of scientists worldwide since 1988. It has long been making such predictions.
 
Not one of the late summer 2010 weather events in Pakistan, Russia, or China surprised scientists working with IPCC. Its 2007 report stated that rains over north Pakistan had been growing heavier for 40 years and predicted greater flooding in south Asia's monsoon region. The IPCC also predicted a doubling of disastrous droughts in Russia. Because rain had increased in northwest China by up to 33% since 1961, it predicted there would be more frequent flooding in this century.
 
The report concluded: "The climate is changing due to human activity, and the effects are already being felt around the globe." The evidence of this conclusion, it declared, is "unequivocal." (www.ipcc.ch/)
 
The National Research Council of the U.S. (NRC) reported: "Since the beginning of the industrial revolution, concentrations of greenhouse gases from human activities have risen substantially. Evidence now shows that increases in these years very likely (>90 percent chance) account for most the Earth's warming over the past 50 years." (www.nationalacademies.org, 5/19/10)
 
"The finding that the climate has warmed in recent decades and that human activities are already contributing adversely to global climate change has been endorsed by every national science academy that has issued a statement on climate change, including the science academies of all of the major industrialized countries….No remaining scientific society is known to reject the basic findings of human influence on recent climate change." change. (www.wikipedia.org)
 
But, observed McKibben:
 
"…in late July, the US Senate decided to do exactly nothing about climate change. They didn't do less than they could have — they did nothing, preserving a perfect two-decade bipartisan record of no action. Senate majority leader Harry Reid decided not even to schedule a vote on legislation that would have capped carbon emissions…." ("We're Hot as Hell and We're Not Going to Take It Any More: Three Steps to Establish a Politics of Global Warming," www.tomdispatch.com, 8/4/10)
 
Meanwhile a piece of ice four times the size of Manhattan island (100 square miles) and about half the height of the Empire State Building broke from a Greenland glacier and will likely reach the Atlantic Ocean within the next two years. Its effects are uncertain.
 
The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) released figures in January demonstrating that the decade ending in 2009 was the warmest on record.
 
 
For discussion
 
1. What questions do students have about the reading? How might they be answered?
 
2. Define "scientific evidence." What scientific evidence is there for climate change? What evidence is there that "human activity" is responsible for it? If you need more information, where might you get it?
 
3. Why hasn't the Senate acted on climate change? If you don't know, how might you find out?
 
 

Student Reading 2: 

Oil companies fund climate change deniers

What do Americans think about the scientific findings on climate change? That depends on how you phrase the question.
 
In January 2010, the Pew Research Center reported: "Dealing with global warming ranks at the bottom of the public's list of priorities; just 28% consider this a top priority, the lowest measure for any issue tested in the survey."
 
A Gallup poll in March 2010 asked: "Thinking about what is said in the news, in your view, is the seriousness of global warming generally exaggerated, generally correct or is it generally underestimated?" Gallup reported that 48% of respondents thought that the seriousness of global warming is "generally exaggerated."
 
But as Jon Krosnick, a Stanford University professor of communications, pointed out, "This question asked about respondents' perceptions of the news, not the respondents' perception of warming. A person who believes climate change has been happening might also feel that news media coverage of it has been exaggerated." ("The Climate Majority," New York Times, 6/9/10)
 
Stanford University's Woods Institute for the Environment reported on August 3, 2010, that "large majorities"—about three-quarters—of Florida, Maine, and Massachusetts residents believe that climate change "is mostly or partly due to human activity." These Americans also believe that the US government "should take action to limit the greenhouse gas emissions of businesses…and move to limit emissions right away." The results mirror those found in other states earlier this year. These surveys found that more than half of respondents would support sharp emissions cuts "even if it cost their household $150 a year."
 
But there have also been a growing number of vocal climate change deniers.
 
  • Sen. James Inhofe (R-OK), ranking member of the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works, has called global warming "the greatest hoax ever perpetrated on the American people." Commenting recently on a minority report of his Senate committee, Imhofe said, "it shows that there is no consensus—except that there are significant gaps in what scientists know about the climate system. It's time for the Obama Administration to recognize this. Its endangerment finding for greenhouse gases rests on bad science." (http://inhofe.senate.gov/public/)
     
  • Glenn Beck of Fox News said, "In September of 2007, there was a 25 percent reduction in the usual minimum [Arctic] ice cover….In the two years since, nearly all of the ice has returned." (12/15/09) The Union of Concerned Scientists responded: "In 2007, the National Snow and Ice Data Center reported Arctic sea ice to be 39 percent below the long-term average for September, when the area of ice is lowest each year. In September 2009, the ice was again low—245 percent below the long-term average."
     
  • A number of groups have sent petitions to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) because it found not only that "greenhouse gases contribute to air pollution" but that they also "endanger public health and welfare within the meaning of the Clean Air Act." The petitioners claimed "that recently discovered errors in the most recent climate assessment by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, or IPCC, make the entire document suspect." Although EPA acknowledges the document wasn't perfect, it "confirmed only two [errors] in a 3,000 page report. The first pertains to the rate of Himalayan glacier melt and the second to the percentage of the Netherlands below sea level." Neither of the errors "undermines the basic fact that the climate is changing in ways that threaten our health and welfare," the agency says. (www.sciencenews.org, 7/29/10)
     
  • "Think-tanks take oil money and use it to fund climate deniers," read a headline in the British Independent. "Free-market, anti-climate change think-tanks such as the Atlas Economic Research Foundation in the US and the International Policy Network in the UK have received grants totaling hundreds of thousands of pounds from the multinational energy company ExxonMobil. Both organizations have funded international seminars pulling together climate change deniers from across the globe." (www.independent.co.uk, 2/7/10)
     
  • A number of Republican Senate candidates are climate change deniers. New Mexico's Jon Barela: "I don't mean to be flippant about this, but only God knows where our climate is going." Wisconsin's Ron Johnson: "I absolutely do not believe in the science of man-caused climate change. It's not proven by any stretch of the imagination." Florida's Marco Rubio: "I don't think there's the scientific evidence to justify it." California's Carly Fiorina, who is challenging Democrat Barbara Boxer's Senate seat: "Terrorism kills—and Barbara Boxer's worried about the weather."(www.care2.com)
     
  • George Will quoted Robert Laughlin, the 1998 Nobel Prize winner in Physics, who said that climate change over geologic time "is something the earth has done 'on its own without asking anyone's permission or explaining itself.' People can cause climate change, but major glacial episodes have occurred at regular intervals of 100,000 years, 'always a slow, steady cooling followed by abrupt warming back to conditions similar to today's.' Six million years ago the Mediterranean dried up. Ninety million years ago there were alligators in the Arctic. Three hundred million years ago Northern Europe was a desert and coal formed in Antarctica. 'One thing we know for sure,' Laughlin says about these convulsions, 'is that people weren't involved.'" ("The Earth Doesn't Care," Newsweek, 9/12/10)
 
The environmental organization Greenpeace reports that Koch Industries has made "a small industry of funding research and public relations endeavors aimed at undermining the prevailing scientific view that human-driven greenhouse gas emissions are contributing to a warming planet—as well as financing opposition to the development of clean-energy policy and technologies…."
 
California's Global Warming Solutions Act requires the state's greenhouse gas emissions to be reduced to 1990 levels by 2020. Steadily rising California coastal sea levels are projected to rise nearly five feet by 2100 and threaten to destroy homes and other buildings, roads, and power plants. But Koch Industries, Valero Energy Corporation, Tesoro Corporation and other big oil interests have already spent more than $8 million to postpone putting the California act from going into effect. Almost all the money comes from oil companies, 89% of them from out of state.
 
Koch Industries is also now a partner to Exxon Mobil, the American Petroleum Institute, and other donors that support organizations and front-groups opposing clean energy development and policies to limit climate change. In fact, Koch has reportedly out-spent Exxon Mobil in funding these groups in recent years. From 2005 to 2008, Exxon Mobil spent $8.9 million while Koch Industries-controlled foundations contributed $24.9 million in funding to organizations promoting climate change denial. (www.green.blogs.nytimes.com, 3/30/10)
 
According to the Center for Responsive Politics, a nonpartisan organization that collects information on political spending, Koch Industries' biggest enterprise is petroleum refining and most of its lobbying efforts are related to energy issues. Its political action committees "have donated at least 83% of their cash to Republican candidates and committees." (www.opensecrets.org)
 
On the other side of the divide is the scientific community and environmentalists, including McKibben's 350.org. "350 is the most important number in the world," according to the organization—"it's what scientists say is the safe upper limit for carbon dioxide in the atmosphere." The planet faces "both human and natural disaster if atmospheric concentrations of CO2 remain above 350 parts per million." The number as of 2009, reports 350.org, was 387.35. (See www.350.org/about/science.)
 
387.35 has no interest in the opinions of human beings. 
 
 
For discussion
 
1. What questions do students have about the reading? How might they be answered?
 
2. What problem with polling the public on climate change does Jon Kronick identify? What examples could you create that might test his findings?
 
3. How would you respond to Senator Imhofe's statements about climate change? To Glenn Beck's? To Ron Johnson's? To Carly Fiorina's? To Robert Laughlin's?
What questions might you ask each? What answers do you think they would have?
 
4. What are some major sources of funding for climate change deniers? How would you explain such funding?
 
5. Why do Bill McKibben and members of his organization regard 350 as "the most important number in the world"? Why? Do you? Why or why not?
 
 

Student Reading 3: 

Acting on climate change facts

 
In "We're Hot as Hell and We're Not Going to Take It Any More," McKibben concluded:
 
"We're not going to get the Senate to act next week, or maybe even next year. It took a decade after the Montgomery bus boycott to get the Voting Rights Act. But if there hadn't been a movement, then the Voting Rights Act would have passed in… never. We may need to get arrested. We definitely need art, and music, and disciplined, nonviolent, but very real anger.
 
"Mostly, we need to tell the truth, resolutely and constantly. Fossil fuel is wrecking the one earth we've got. It's not going to go away because we ask politely. If we want a world that works, we're going to have to raise our voices."
 
Below are some opportunities for raising voices and acting to address global climate change.
 
1. Global Work Party on Oct. 10, 2010
 
350.org and two other environmental groups, Greenpeace and the Rainforest Action Network, are organizing a global day of action on climate change on Sunday, October 10, 2010: "In Auckland, New Zealand, they're having a giant bike fix-up day, to get every bicycle in the city back on the road. In the Maldives, they're putting up solar panels on the President's office. In Kampala, Uganda, they're going to plant thousands of trees, and in Bolivia they're installing solar stoves for a massive carbon neutral picnic."
 
Ban Ki Moon, Secretary General of the United Nations, has endorsed the 10/10/10 Global Work Party: "It's time for us to roll up our sleeves and get to work on building the clean energy future that will generate economic opportunity and provide a better, safer, healthier world for our children. On October 10, I encourage everyone to do his / her part to be part of the solution to the climate challenge."
 
The Global Work Party can take place wherever participants live. The goal is "to help deal with global warming in your city or community" and to help build the nonviolent mass movement McKibben and others regard as essential for serious government action on climate change.
 
You can sign up to host a local event at www.350.org/oct10.
 
For a listing of ideas, see www.350.org/workparty-ideas. 350.org has also set up a special email for sharing ideas: climate.ideas@gmail.com.
 
2. Actions during the UN Climate Talks, Nov. 29-Dec. 10, 2010
 
Demonstrations are being planned to coincide with the annual United Nations Climate Talks, which will take place this year in Cancun, Mexico, from November 29 to December 10, 2010. See:
 
3. Individual Actions
 
For taking climate change personally and suggestions for individual action see:
 
4. Be an Active Citizen
 
Call your member of Congress, urging him or her to pass strong climate and energy legislation this year. (Visit http://www.congress.org/congressorg/directory/congdir.tt for contact info.) Call 1-866-220-0044 and ask to speak to your senators for the same purpose.
 
Inform yourself. Be able to explain clearly, concisely, and accurately why you are raising your voice and why you have chosen to act. For an illustrated guide to the latest climate science, see www.climateprogress.org.
 
 
For discussion
 
1. What questions do students have about options for raising voices and acting? How might they be answered?
 
2. What do students propose to do? Develop a project for all classmates who want to work together? Develop small group or individual projects? 
 
3. In what ways might such projects be developed, acted on, their results reported to the class?
 
 
 
 
 
This lesson was written for TeachableMoment.Org, a project of Morningside Center for Teaching Social Responsibility. We welcome your comments. Please email them to: lmcclure@morningsidecenter.org