Dealing with Climate Skepticism in Environmental Law Survey Classes

Students who are skeptical of the basic climate science present one of the more persistent problems I find when attempting to integrate climate change considerations into environmental law survey courses.  In a more in-depth course, we can take the time to spend a couple of classes exploring the supposed “debate” and educate students about the data behind the headlines.  In a survey course, however, it is much more difficult to find the time for this type of in-depth examination.

One method I’ve used that has yielded some success involves the incorporation of electronic course “discussion boards.”  This allows me to post sites like that give students a quick reference for thinking about claims attacking the consensus position.  Further, the electronic forum also allows students to post news and other articles that seem to support the skeptical position.  This creates an opportunity for me or for other students to post materials in response.  For example, a student recently posted this BBC News article that suggest recent temperature data calls climate change science into question.  In response, I posted an AP article on independent statistical review of the data and its implications for climate science.  Below the link, I include the following quote:

“The AP sent expert statisticians NOAA’s year-to-year ground temperature changes over 130 years and the 30 years of satellite-measured temperatures preferred by skeptics and gathered by scientists at the University of Alabama in Huntsville. Statisticians who analyzed the data found a distinct decades-long upward trend in the numbers, but could not find a significant drop in the past 10 years in either data set. The ups and downs during the last decade repeat random variability in data as far back as 1880. Saying there’s a downward trend since 1998 is not scientifically legitimate, said David Peterson, a retired Duke University statistics professor and one of those analyzing the numbers. Identifying a downward trend is a case of “people coming at the data with preconceived notions,” said Peterson, author of the book “Why Did They Do That? An Introduction to Forensic Decision Analysis.”

While this type of interaction is not likely to be as meaningful as an all-out discussion of the scientific evidence over several class periods, it does seem to be effective in softening the resistance to thinking about climate change as a problem likely to face environmental regulators.  I think it is a reasonable compromise in a class where there is hardly enough time to fully explore the more “traditional” environmental law topics — basics of the Clean Air Act, Clean Water Act, etc.  Perhaps this electronic interaction, supplemented briefly in class, is also enough to raise students’ interests to dig a little deeper into data behind their own pre-conceptions.

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