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Teaching the Science of Climate Change

I’ve been doing this since I started teaching. A semester of the then new and innovative climate chemistry at the University of Adelaide while studying there was probably the kick off point for me. I do remember doing a poster about reducing energy use or alternative energy sources back in England in a junior science class (something along the lines of using less to give ourselves time to find new sources. Anyway the links for me have always been straight forward. The same energy absorption from stretching and rotating bonds involved in infra-red spectroscopy. The chemistry of combustion. The chemical cycles in nature and the change in energy from short wavelength to longer wavelength when absorbed and re-emitted by matter. Add to that the idea of concentration, solar radiation and convection currents and you have a comprehensive amount of science into which the teaching of natural greenhouse and enhanced greenhouse can fit before you even get into the details of recorded changes etc.

I find it strange to still find resistance to discussing what we’re now calling climate change with a small minority of students. I don’t mean discussing the politics, it’s possibly perfectly reasonable to say human behaviour is changing the climate and consequently the ecology of the Earth but we shouldn’t do anything about it because …. That’s a debate that can take place on the political level. It has nothing to do with the science involved. I find that the students who resist are perfectly happy to accept that we have a natural greenhouse effect that keeps the planet friendly for our type of life, that gases can absorb and re-emit radiation, that the sun’s light hits the ground and comes back as heat (wearing black clothes etc. relates well to this), that combustion produces water and carbon dioxide as chemical products that enter the atmosphere. That all goes fine it is only at the point where the connection is made between increasing concentrations of greenhouse gases and increasing energy trapped in the atmosphere that the shut down occurs. At this point out come anecdotal comments about how cold it was last winter. Statistical data fails to make a dent at this point.

Anecdotal evidence is important in human decision making and is probably the primary go to evidence that mostly occurs. People my age and older (even a lot younger) do have memories of record cold spells to draw on. These happened in the past and we have experienced them in our lives, they made an impression on us and we may wonder why they haven’t happened again. So the anecdotes fall on the side of at least being willing to accept that change is happening. We do quite possibly face an unexpected problem when discussing the concept of climate change with young people and that is that they haven’t really experienced anything different than a warmed climate.

This is the 332nd consecutive month with an above-average temperature. The last below-average month was February 1985.  

There will still be instances of blizzards and cold snaps but overall the world to anyone under thirty will always have been warmer and dryer than the average for the rest of us. So that will be a normal pattern for them. How do you teach that the normal experience is not only how it is supposed to be but also a dangerous situation in which to be?

The normal will be one of record high temperatures but virtually no record lows.

A graphic from the report quoted above

Thanks to Phillip Bump at Grist

On the brighter side there is so much science involved in the creation of energy from other sources that a whole year could be taught as ‘Energy for the Future’ and not run out of material. It would include biology (all that genetic engineering of algae and bacteria to produce fuels (or even made into batteries see Angela Belcher: Using nature to grow batteries at posted April 2011), Geology – geothermal of all types and even how the oil, gas and coal were produced in the first place, plus the sequestration of carbon through geochemical reactions and the role solar energy plays in the rate of this process, Chemistry – lots of electrochemistry (redox) and combustion chemistry but also chemistry of materials and manufacturing processes that consume less energy or allow energy conservation through their properties, Physics – solar, wind, tidal, heat exchange, methods of cooling/heating both passive and active, methods of storing energy and transmitting energy.

I think I just set a challenge for myself (maybe not next year but soon after) I’m pretty sure I can do that through the Aus curriculum          I’m thinking year 10….


November 18, 2012 - Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , , , , ,

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