by Edward L. Rubin
[exclusive to The Cli-Fi Report]
NASHVILLE -- The New York Times recently reported the results of a national survey indicating that science teachers in American high schools and middle schools spend only one or two hours per year on average teaching about climate change, and that as many as 30% of them tell students that recent global warming is due to natural causes. This is a serious problem in our schools since climate science education about global warming is vital for the next generation.
At the recent COP21 Paris climate conference last December, it was clear that the single greatest impediment to developing a rational, world-wide climate change policy is the U.S. Congress. Much of the discussion centered on strategies that would address the human-generated warming process while circumventing Congress’ authority. But Congress responds to the moods of the American people. Special interests, such as energy companies, pour vast sums of money into Congressional campaigns, of course, but the money would have only limited impact if the American public understood the extent of the danger and the falsity of arguments that deny it.
Sooner or later, the impact of climate change will be undeniable, but at that point, widespread disaster will be unavoidable and humanity’s options for dealing with it will be severely limited. Consequently, educating the American public is -- to use an old cliché that happens to apply -- a race against time. As is the case with same sex marriage, attitude change in the United States will be driven by the entry of new age cohorts into our political and social discourse. But with same sex marriage, the stupidity of older people’s entrenched beliefs and prejudices was self-evident.
Bypassing more complicated arguments about equal protection and substantive due process, younger generations asked their elders: “If you believe that marriage is about love, why shouldn’t two people who love each other be allowed to marry?” Love denial was simply not an available response.
Climate change is not as readily observable as love. The obvious reason is that it is a long-term trend, rather than an immediate event. A deeper reason is that it depends on cumulative effects, complex causal connections and statistical relationships that are not as easy to grasp as human emotions or definitive events. An average world temperature increase of two degrees Centigrade, which will now be virtually impossible to avoid, doesn’t sound like very much, after all. What difference does it make if the temperature is 95 degrees on a hot day instead of 93? You need to know that a sustained increase in global temperatures will produce enormous effects.
The last Ice Age, when glaciers covered most of North America, was caused by a six degree decrease in average temperatures. You also need to know that changes in average temperature can disrupt ocean currents, wind patterns and precipitation levels in ways that only the world’s most powerful computer programs can determine. We still cannot be sure when the West Antarctic Ice Sheet may begin to collapse and threaten to inundate the seven of our ten largest cities located on seacoasts.
You also need to know that an average increase in temperature of two degrees means that the maximum temperature during heat waves might by ten or fifteen degrees. This will make significant portions of the world virtually uninhabitable. And you need to understand that even though hurricanes, tornadoes and droughts always occur (as the deniers point out), climate change will make them more frequent. A city can recover from one Katrina or Sandy every fifty years or so; it is likely to collapse if a similar event occurs every decade.
Understanding things like cumulative effects, causal connections and statistical relationships requires education. At present, the U.S. is at an impasse. The Republican Party is fully committed to denying climate change, in part because energy companies are pouring money into its coffers, in part because it wants to appeal to people who fear change and dislike collective action. The Democrats seem to understand the issue, but lack the nerve to propose even minor inconveniences, such as raising taxes to build mass transit, discouraging people from driving pickup trucks and SUV’s to work and increasing prices on energy products. The new entrants into our voting population and our public discourse generally can break this impasse, but only if they are educated about the nature of the crisis that we face.
The survey that the Times reported focused on science teachers. That is certainly the right place to start, but it should not be the limit of our educational efforts. Geography and social studies teachers need to educate students about different cultures, so that they will understand the impact that climate change will produce and have a sense of empathy for those whose lives will be the first to be disrupted or destroyed.
Literature teachers need to assign books in the newly emerging genre of climate change fiction (“cli-fi”) so that students will be able to imagine the consequences for our nation and the world.
To speak personally, I’m an educator -- a law professor at a university -- but I’m now teaching two courses on climate change fiction, one to freshmen and one to seniors.
I also have recently published a cli-fi novel titled ''The Heatstroke Line'' because I felt that there weren’t enough books that depict the actual situation that might occur in our own country as a direct result of global warming.
I think educators throughout the entire nation, in all fields, need to inform the members of our new generations about this all-important issue. They are the ones that will change the attitudes that currently make the U.S. a rogue nation, the single greatest impediment to a rational world policy. And they are the ones who will suffer if such a policy is not developed.