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Climate Conference

As the year ends, our most poignant national sorrow pertains to gun violence in Connecticut, but 2012 also witnessed unrelenting violence from the forces of nature.

A historically mild winter was followed by record heat, drought and wildfires. October brought Superstorm Sandy and record property devastation to the highly populated Northeast.

Such impacts have been predicted for years by an overwhelming majority of credible scientists who point to evidence of man-made climate change, yet global warming remains a topic litigated in an unending political loop.

The far right dominates the world of “climate change denial,” which Wikipedia defines as: “A set of organized attempts to downplay, deny or dismiss the scientific consensus on the extent of global warming, its significance, and its connection to human behavior, especially for commercial or ideological reasons.”

You don’t even need to leave the state to find one of the nation’s leading practitioners. In a PBS “Frontline” program titled “Climate of Doubt” that aired in October, U.S. Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner, R-Menomonee Falls, argued that scientists have failed to convince Congress about global warming.

Which brings me to Casey Meehan, born in Janesville and educated at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. For six years, Meehan taught high school psychology and history in the Janesville and Monona Grove school districts before returning to UW-Madison to pursue a Ph.D. in education.

Meehan has just finished his dissertation on how climate change is taught in Wisconsin schools. You might not be surprised by his conclusion: Unlike most subjects on which there is scientific consensus, with climate change the human role typically is taught as an open question.

Meehan’s initial focus upon returning to school was environmental education, but he says he noticed that not much had been written about the teaching of climate change.

“I started thinking more about how climate change is such an ideologically polarizing topic, and I was just curious about how schools were dealing with that,” he told me in an interview. “How are they teaching this topic that the public thinks a range of things about, but scientists think something very specifically about?”

Meehan did find some teaching material that “conceptualizes global warming very much as scientists do, that global warming is definitely happening, that it’s caused by human activity, that it’s a real problem we’re going to have to address.”

But, he adds: “On the other side there are some curricula that conceptualize global warming in a very different way: Global warming, while it might be happening, is not caused by human activity, and that there’s really no real scientific consensus around this issue at all.”

Meehan says he was interested in exploring how courses in science and social studies differed on the topic. He expected science classes would generally embrace consensus around the science more than social studies.

“I found that’s not necessarily true,” he says. “I found some social studies and some science curricula that treat global warming just as climate science experts would want it to be treated, meaning that it’s a problem that needs to be dealt with and is caused by humans.

“And then there are some social studies and science materials that treat global warming as a much more open question. That was one of the more surprising things I found.”

Another finding, he says, is that the instruction emphasized “mitigation” strategies on global warming, tactics to prevent release of carbon into the air. Less emphasis, he says, is focused on “adaptation” and “geo-engineering” approaches.

An adaptation approach would have students acknowledge that “climate change is happening and we’re not going to stop it.” He adds: “What do we need to do in society to prepare for these imminent changes?”

Some examples of adaptation teaching are evident since Superstorm Sandy, he says, in discussion of higher sea walls and new subway tunnel engineering for New York City.

At the extreme is geo-engineering, he says, which is the notion of climate experiments on a global scale. “These are some of the wacky things that you hear, like we could cover glaciers with essentially like a tinfoil layer to reflect sun and keep them from melting.

“I personally don’t agree with those. It’s sort of the same hubris that got us into this mess, that we can somehow control nature,” he says, adding, “But I still think it’s a good thing to have students thinking about these things” so they learn to reason through policy in a democratic way.

For his dissertation, Meehan analyzed curricula and interviewed social studies and science teachers in Wisconsin about how they teach global warming.

“I think probably the most interesting to me, was that the stance the teacher takes in their classroom doesn’t always match what they personally believe,” Meehan says.

“There are a few teachers I talked to who believe very strongly that global warming is caused by humans, and that it’s a serious problem, and one that needs our attention. However, they taught it as a much more open question to their kids, as far as letting students come away with their own understanding of what’s causing global warming and whether or not it’s a problem,” Meehan adds.

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Why?

“Just from what I learned from these teachers, I have a few ideas. Some of them were concerned basically about challenges from either the administration or parents. One teacher that I spoke with taught the child of a school board member and the school board member confronted the teacher.”

He adds: “This is a science teacher saying that global warming is happening, it’s caused by humans, and the school board member actually stepped in and said, ‘No, you need to teach this as an open question,’ and the teacher begrudgingly complied.”

On the flip side, Meehan says he interviewed teachers who do not believe that climate change is caused by humans, but taught it as an open question so students would decide for themselves.

Some teachers “have very strong beliefs that students need to make up their own mind and so one of their core professional beliefs is that they’ll provide information for students and then let them decide.”

In the last chapter of his dissertation Meehan recommends that standards be set for teaching about climate change.

“Some of the supplemental materials and nearly all social studies and science textbooks portray global warming as something different than what experts in climate science have come to believe is true,” he concludes. “This is unacceptable if we are serious about preparing youth to deal with the challenges they will encounter.”

In a year-end article on the Salon website recounting the litany of severe climate events over the past two years, Michael Mann, a Penn State climate scientist, looked ahead: “What we view today as unprecedented extreme weather will become the new normal … if we proceed with business-as-usual.”

Yet climate change deniers continue to prevail by obfuscating and redirecting facts to indefinitely postpone serious debate.

Cynical, maybe, but it seems to be working.

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Paul Fanlund is editor and publisher of The Capital Times. A longtime Madisonian, he was a State Journal reporter and editor before becoming a vice president of Madison Newspapers. He joined the Cap Times in 2006.