Building Support for Climate Change Policy: Breaking Down Misconceptions Through Hands-on Inquiry Learning

By Drew Bush and Renee Sieber

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On June 10th, 2017, the New York Times reported on Gwen Beatty, a high school junior in Wellston, Ohio, who disagreed with her teacher on climate change. When he presented evidence that human emissions of greenhouse gases were causing the Earth to warm, she repeated a refrain common to many who dispute the scientific evidence tying human actions to climatic changes.

It could be natural causes. Scientists often get it wrong. Predictions of future warming could be inaccurate.

The reporter writes that if Beatty had told her math teacher that one plus one does not equal two then she would be wrong. Not all of the sciences work with the absolutes of mathematics, yet each has a way of establishing accuracy. In the public discourse on climate change—both in schools and during governmental processes—inaccuracies about climate science and global change are commonplace. A lack of public Earth and climate science understanding results in a political debate that often ignores scientific evidence of possible severe long-term impacts.

The result has been increasing concentrations of atmospheric CO2 and serious impacts for human health, the environment and the United States economy.[1] To foster a citizenry capable of engaging productively with policies addressing climate change, we believe that the public requires better understanding of the issue, how it connects to people’s lives, and what policies might benefit them in relation to it.[2],[3]

Over the past five years in McGill University’s Department of Geography and School of Environment, we’ve investigated how lessons learned through decades of science education research can be applied to improving public understandings of climate science and related mitigation/adaptation policies. Our goal has been to educate the scientific community on how to communicate climate change and to help teachers accurately present the science in school classrooms.

We reviewed the literature to look for trends and recommendations. We found that educational reformers advocate teaching climate science using the actual methods of climate scientists. This includes asking students to pose research questions, evaluate evidence-based answers or explanations, and communicate their own findings.[4], [5], [6], [7], [8], [9]

Unlike physics or chemistry, it is not easy to teach climate change this way. Climate change consists of abstract processes occurring at global and local scales. It’s difficult for students to tangibly experience climate change. To compound the problem, the causes and risks of climate change are often represented in politics and public discourse in conflicting manners. Sometimes even graduate students have trouble understanding them.[10]


Because climate scientists rely on complex procedures and technologies, new approaches to teaching climate change often adopt climate education technologies. Our approach involved an interdisciplinary group of researchers located at NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies in New York, NY and McGill University’s Faculty of Education. Over the past three years, Dr. Bush has collaborated with college and secondary school educators at John Abbott College and McGill University in Montreal, QC and the American Museum of Natural History in New York, NY. He’s taught students how to conduct research on climate change using a variety of modeling technologies.


At John Abbot College, we had a control group of students and a treatment group. In our control, students learned about GCMs through a traditional lecture and worked with climate education technologies suggested by the American Association of Geographers. These included the University Corporation for Atmospheric Research’s Very, Very Simple Climate Model, NASA GISS’s Surface Temperature Analysis Page and data/visualizations from sites like the National Snow and Ice Data Center.

The treatment group of 39 students worked with Columbia University-NASA GISS’s Educational Global Climate Model (EdGCM). This software is based on an actual GCM. Dr. James Hansen first wrote about GISS’s GCM in 1983 when he used it to conduct long-range climate experiments.[11] EdGCM itself consists of a suite of user interfaces that allows students to design experiments by manipulating inputs, and then run the model and post-process and visualize more than 80 different variables. Other graduate students in Dr. Sieber’s lab have designed new interfaces for GCMs that work online and possess more intuitive user interactions.

All of the student groups posed realistic climate research questions. But only those in the treatment group interrogated the spatial components of climate impacts and its diverse relationships between human actions today and potential regional/global conditions in the future. Overall, these students demonstrated significantly greater learning gains on pre to post diagnostic exams than those in the control.

The control students showed us the power of a well-organized and clear lecture. On the post exam, they out-scored treatment students on five multiple-choice questions that tested recall of facts about GCMs. Yet only those students who had worked with EdGCM appeared highly motivated in their work and demonstrated critical thinking about the work of climate scientists and the issue of climate change.

In the New York Time story, Gwen Beatty’s father had once been a coal miner. If we are to mitigate climate change or adapt to its worst impacts, we’ll need his daughter. Her generation will require well-trained scientists, entrepreneurs, engineers and visionaries who can reshape the world’s use of energy and adapt to any social, ecological and climatic changes.

Achieving this goal means we must treat our students as individuals who possess ideas shaped by their peers and parents. To engage them with science, most will require an introduction to the scientific habits of mind common to all scientists. Such skills will be needed to navigate a world increasingly altered by changes to the Earth’s climate.

This work was supported through a Richard H. Tomlinson Fellowship in University Science Teaching and the first author’s work instructing graduate teaching workshops as a Tomlinson Project in University-Level Science Teaching Fellow at McGill University.


[1] See IPCC (2014). Summary for policymakers. In , C.B. Field, V.R. Barros, D.J. Dokken, K.J. Mach, M.D. Mastrandrea, T.E. Bilir, M. Chatterjee, K.L. Ebi, Y.O. Estrada, R.C. Genova, B. Girma, E.S. Kissel, A.N. Levy, S. MacCracken, P.R. Mastrandrea, & L.L. White (Eds.) Climate change 2014: Impacts, adaptation, and vulnerability. Part A: Global and Sectoral Aspects. Contribution of Working Group II to the Fifth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (pp. 1-32) Cambridge, UK and New York, NY: Cambridge University Press.

[2] See Bord, R. J., O’Connor, R. E., & Fisher, A. (2000). In what sense does the public need to understand global climate change?. Public Understanding of Science, 9(3), 205-218.

[3] See Bord, R. J., O’Connor, R. E., & Fisher, A. (2000). In what sense does the public need to understand global climate change?. Public Understanding of Science, 9(3), 205-218.

[4] See National Research Council (NRC). (1996). National science education standards. Washington, DC: National Academies Press.

[5] See Ministry of Education [Taiwan] (2001). Standards for nine-year continuous curriculum at elementary and junior high level in Taiwan. Taipei: Ministry of Education, R.O.C.

[6] See American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) (1990). Science for all Americans: Project 2061. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

[7] See Department for Education/Welsh Office (DFE/WO) (1995). Science in the national curriculum (1995). London: HMSO.

[8] See NGSS Lead States. (2013). Next Generation Science Standards: For states, by states. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press.

[9] See Olson, S. & Loucks-Horsley, S. (Eds.) (2000). Inquiry and the national science education standards: A guide for teaching and learning. Washington, DC: National Academies Press.

[10] See Sterman, J. D. (2008). Risk communication on climate: Mental models and mass balance. Science, 322(5901), 532-533.

[11] See Hansen, J., Russell, G., Rind, D., Stone, P., Lacis, A., Lebedeff, S., Ruedy R. & Travis, L. (1983). Efficient three-dimensional global models for climate studies: Models I and II. Monthly Weather Review, 111(4), 609-662.



Call for Power Point Slides and Presentations: Climate Geoengineering

earthwrenchOne of the missions of The Forum for Climate Engineering Assessment ( is to provide pertinent resources to educators and who do, or wish to, introduce the concept of climate engineering into their classrooms. We are also interested in how our colleagues who give presentations on climate engineering are packaging and presenting material. Pursuant to this, we are currently developing a collection of Power Point slides, fully categorized and ready for download from our site. If you have slides that you are willing to share, please send them to me ([email protected]) and we will incorporate them into our collection. We are hoping to post both full presentations and discrete slides on the site.

We will give appropriate attribution on each slide of any slideshow that you send to us. Our hope is to create a valuable resource for those seeking to explain climate engineering to an expanding array of audiences, as well as a revealing snapshot of how major concepts and questions in this field are currently being treated.

Interactive Climate Exercises

The folks at the website Simple Climate have posted a really good set of exercises to guide those interested in learning more about climate change science. The exercises includes an excellent method to calculate one’s carbon footprint, an interactive map on the Keeling curve, and NASA’s Global Equilibrium Energy Balance Interactive Tinker Toy ((GEEBITT). There is also an excellent app for Apple platforms to guide users on how scientists construct and use global circulation models to predict climate change.

Oxford Online Short course

The University of Oxford is delighted to announce that enrolment is open for the seven-week advanced online short-course Constructing and Applying High Resolution Climate Scenarios to commence Monday 17 February 2014.

This course draws upon the world-class climate science expertise at the University of Oxford and the UK MET Office, and is taught online by Dr Friederike Otto and Dr Pete Walton at the Oxford Environmental Change Institute.  It is designed to enable policy-makers and other professionals to gain the skills and scientific understanding necessary to support organisations in climate change policy and practice.


The course provides a detailed investigation of regional climate modelling, examining how global climate change information can be ‘downscaled’ to regional levels, how this information can produce climate scenarios appropriate for input to impacts models, and how results from regional climate modelling systems can be interpreted and utilised.  The course will also be of significant benefit to users of PRECIS.

As an online course, it can be taken from anywhere in the world and is attractive to an international community.  Participants are able to interact with one another and the course tutor online via our dedicated Virtual Learning Environment.  For more information and enrolment please visit:

Additionally, the University also offers a free online untutored course An Introduction to the Science of Climate and Climate Change.  This course provides an introduction to climate science and current issues surrounding the use of model projections of climate change.  It will be of great value to those wishing to learn about the basics of climate science and modelling, such as volunteers or students, and how to go about interpreting the results of modelling experiments.  For further information and registration please visit:

For full details of all of our climate change science and policy courses please visit or contact the course team on or +44 (0)1865 286953. 

Kind regards,

Chris Thompson


Administrative Officer (Environment & Sustainability)

Continuing Professional Development Centre

Department for Continuing Education

University of Oxford


Tel: +44 (0)1865 286952

Fax: +44 (0)1865 286934

New Courses from the GHGMI

Dear colleagues:

The Greenhouse Gas Management Institute (GHGMI) is developing* a new series of online courses based on the 2006 IPCC guidelines for greenhouse gas inventories. The curriculum in these courses is the definitive “source code” for carbon accounting at all scales: from national inventory estimation down to corporate footprinting.

The first course in this series, “501 IPCC: Introduction and Cross-Cutting Issues,” is now open for enrollment. This course teaches the techniques fundamental to compiling an inventory of greenhouse gas emissions and removals.

This spring, we will be launching a series of sectoral online courses also based on the 2006 IPCC Guidelines, including:

511 IPCC: Energy
521 IPCC: Industrial Processes and Other Product Use
531 IPCC: Agriculture
541 IPCC: Forestry and Other Land Uses
551 IPCC: Waste

For more information and registration details for the “501 IPCC: Introduction and Cross-Cutting Issues” course or other GHGMI curriculum please email [email protected] or visit:

100 Views of Climate Change Teaching Resource

Please take a look at the website 100 Views of Climate Change (, a collection of annotated resources (videos, books, articles, websites) from a wide range of disciplinary perspectives (sciences, social sciences, humanities, arts), each characterized by college-level content and primer-level clarity, most of them lively and inviting to readers. These sources are for interested, non-specialist adults—for climate citizens—including (but by no means limited to) college students and their teachers (who will also find here a few resources such as syllabi).

This website is a project of Changing Climates @ Colorado State University, a multidisciplinary education and outreach initiative housed in the English Department and supported by the NSF-funded Center for Multiscale Modeling of Atmospheric Processes (CMMAP). CC@CSU began with several series of talks by specialists for the campus and wider community (over 120 talks so far, to audiences totaling some 6,000). Current activities include this website and various efforts to help specialists communicate more clearly and effectively to the general public.

To suggest resources for the website, or for further information, please contact SueEllen Campbell, co-director of CC@CSU: .


Self-Paced Courses on REDD+

The Nature Conservancy, Conservation International, Rainforest Alliance, and the World Wildlife Fund have recently released three new, self-paced and web-based courses on climate change and REDD+ on

The curriculum, Introductory Curriculum on Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation and Conserving and Enhancing Forest Carbon Stocks (REDD+), provides an introductory level of understanding on climate change, deforestation, forest degradation, and REDD+. This new version contains up-to-date information on policy and implementation as well as a cool new facelift and improved interactivity. It is divided into three courses:

• In Course 1, Introduction to Climate Change and the Role of Forests, the focus is on background information on climate change, the drivers of deforestation, and strategies for reducing deforestation and forest degradation.

• In Course 2, REDD+ Policy, the essential aspects of the technical, political, financial, social, and environmental issues related to REDD+ are covered.

• Finally, in Course 3, REDD+ Implementation, the focus is on the basics of implementing REDD+ activities at various scales.

The course is freely available to anyone who is interested.

TERI Distance Learning Program on Climate Science

Responding  to increasing concerns over climate change, TERI, the Institute for  Global Environmental Strategies (IGES:, and World Bank Tokyo  Development  Learning  Center  (TDLC: had jointly developed  a  distance learning programme on ‘Science and Policy of Climate Change’ using blended learning technologies.

After the success of this programme for the past two years, we are happy to announce  the  start  of  the  3rd  batch  now from 13 September 2013, with enhanced scope and coverage.

Programme Details

Registration Dates:                           1 August – 31 August 2013

Programme Start Date:           13 September 2013

Duration of the programme:             12 weeks

Programme website:               

Programme Content

Module 1: Science of Climate Change

Module 2: Impacts of Climate Change

Module 3: Coping with Climate Change

Module 4: Action and Political Economy

What Certification will be awarded?

On successful completion of the programme, the participants will be awarded a joint certificate from TERI, IGES and TDLC

New Energy Syllabus Bank

The Energy Policy & Climate program at Johns Hopkins has developed a new Energy syllabus bank, collecting syllabi from energy science, law, policy and economics courses: It is our intention to regularly update this resource, so please send pertinent syllabi to my attention.

Just a reminder, we’re always seeking syllabi for the Climate Change syllabus bank also:

Please send syllabi to Dr. Wil Burns: [email protected].

Climate Leader Online Course

Climate Interactive invites you to join us for The Climate Leader, an online course to better understand the interconnections and pathways to addressing our complex climate challenge. Through The Climate Leader, we will share some time-tested insights developed at MIT’s business school that we will apply to taking action on climate.

The Climate Leader will be led by Climate Interactive co-directors Beth Sawin and Drew Jones who have decades of experience helping groups navigate the challenges they face using systems thinking. The first Climate Leader course will be this fall.

Whether you are top government official or working within a small community group, The Climate Leader will offer you some practical and proven approaches for:

  • navigating complex issues
  • enhancing strategy
  • drawing on your own rational brilliance
  • using your own deep intuitive instincts

The course will help you answer questions like:

  • How can I best look at the big picture, and why is that so useful?
  • How do I identify places in my work that will have the most impact?
  • How can my efforts best be amplified?
  • What are the root causes of the challenge I’m facing?

The first course will cover things like feedback loops and techniques for mapping complex economic, social, and environmental systems to identify paths forward on climate. Later courses will cover using Climate Interactive’s suite of user-friendly climate and energy simulators, such as C-ROADS, or be specific to particular audiences.

The course is free, although if you can, we’d love you to donate to support us. In return for what we provide, we expect you will use what you can to make a difference, share what you like, and give us feedback. Our strategy is: we help you, you help us, and together we will do our best to win on climate.

If this sounds useful to your work, please join us by signing up at We will be in touch with more details, as we get closer to launching the program. 



p.s. Please share with any colleagues or networks that may be interested.



Ellie Johnston

Climate Interactive