As climate science researchers and educators, we need to do more for our students than just teach them about their dismal futures
– By Dr. Heather Short –
I resigned from my tenured position teaching climate science at a small college in August of this year. It wasn’t to take a better job offer, or to use as a bargaining chip for better pay; it was an act of conscientious objection to an educational system that is preparing students for a future that will not exist. Students are climate-crisis-fatigued, angry, confused, hopeless, and often in denial because the world outside of the classroom is in denial. They need to have a climate-literate world of support outside of the classroom, and they need to see us ‘adults’ behaving as though we are in the emergency that they learn about at school; that we are actively working to avoid a hellish future for them.
Teaching young people about the Earth System is very rewarding- the science is interesting and the systems-thinking and historical nature of the discipline is different from what most students have previously experienced as ‘science’. There are a lot of ‘ah-ha’ moments as they make connections between the basic physics, chemistry, and biology that they’ve learned in the allied sciences, and place those connections in the context of complex evolving systems through geologic time. It’s great fun.
Many of us became scientists because we enjoy collecting data and figuring out what it might be telling us. We have curious minds and love the process of scientific discovery, in our own labs on our own machines, in our own subject areas. Collaboration with other scientists is great—we speak the same science-language and share the same basic knowledge of how the physical world works, and it is essential to the process of reaching scientific consensus.
We did not, however, become scientists in order to become public figures or political activists. We are taught how to share our research with peers and students, not the general public and certainly not with politicians and heads of corporations. That was not part of the plan. None of us took courses in graduate school about communicating the end of the world as we know it, to the public, or to anyone.
However, this is exactly what I found myself doing after 25 years of teaching geology, earth systems, and climate science. What was abstract and interesting at the beginning of my career, over time became increasingly dissonant with what was not happening politically in order to prevent climate and ecological breakdown. Teaching young people about the climate system and its human-caused breakdown while they do not have the agency to stop it, while we scientists and educators plod along in our (mostly) secure lives and jobs, is morally problematic.
The IPCC recommends that humanity reduce CO2 emissions by 45% of 2010 levels by 2030 in order to give us a 66% chance of keeping global heating below 1.5° C above preindustrial levels. This guideline is the bare minimum of what governments should be aiming for as it does not include the possibility of near-term, self-amplifying feedbacks in earth systems, which would accelerate heating and related impacts. The Canadian government’s new emissions reduction pledges at COP26 are an incremental step in the right direction but do not come close to what is necessary to mitigate climate catastrophe. Climate Action Tracker rates Canada’s climate target, policies, and finance as “Highly Insufficient,” in the same category as Brazil, China, Saudi Arabia, and Australia. As Bill McKibben has said, winning too slowly is the same thing as losing.
On our present course, we are on track to reach 2° C heating in the next 30 years and to experience the devastating heat, floods, and fires that come with it, even without passing tipping points in earth systems that would trigger amplifying feedbacks. However, new climate modelling tells us that the climate is likely to stabilize within decades, not centuries, once humanity stops pumping greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. This is good news. It means that the sooner and more aggressively that we act, the more likely it is that the living world will have a livable future. Most non-scientists do not understand this, and fall into one of two coping mechanisms: despair or passive denial, neither of which lead to action, political or otherwise. In times of massive upheaval and uncertainty, people tend to want to cling to what is familiar, which leads to more business-as-usual and a tragic lack of imagination- trying to ‘solve’ the climate and ecological crises within the structures of the system that got us here in the first place.
More than just learning about climate science and its implications in our classrooms, our students need to see action. They need to be shown that we understand the implications of what we teach them for their lives and futures and that we’ve got their backs. This means educating our colleagues, administrators, public officials, politicians, and the public at large on basic climate literacy, through free lectures, courses, advice, and op-eds in local and national newspapers. It means writing expert statements in defence of those who are able to participate in civil disobedience in protest of government and corporate inaction to prevent climate breakdown. It means creating and participating in an independent, no-fossil-fuel-industry-ties National Climate Science Advisory Panel, to serve as a double-check to government policies and news stories, much like SAGE did for Covid response advise for the World Health Organization, or the newly-formed European Scientific Advisory Board on Climate Change.
What needs to happen now is for those of us who are climate scientists and educators, who can articulate the immense scale and urgency of radical greenhouse gas emissions reductions, to step out onto the public stage. There is a severe lack of scientific authority in public and political discussions in Canada, and we have an obligation to use our collective credibility to inform public opinion and government policy. This is an extraordinary time to be alive, and it is crucial that we use our privilege as climate-science-literate Global Northerners who have benefitted from decades of unmitigated extraction and emissions, to speak the scientific truth as publicly as possible.
This is the origionaly version of an article that was published in the Globe and Mail on Janurary 1, 2022.
Dr. Heather Short holds a PhD in Earth Sciences and has been teaching college and university students for 25 years. She now works as a consulting content specialist for climate literacy courses at Sterling College, Vermont. She trusts scientific consensus and would like to encourage everyone to think about how they can contribute to transformative systemic change in all aspects of society. She can be reached on Twitter, by email, or on her website.