Why Our Students Should Debate Climate Change

Before I go any further, let me be clear: climate change is real. It is happening now. Humans drive the process by burning fossil fuels. And there is no dissent among scientists about these things.

In the world off campus, we academics often deploy these statements to shut down climate denialism, or the dismissal of the existence, threat, and consensus of climate change. Our words profess a faith in scientists, the scientific method, and the peer-review process to provide citizens with the most authoritative picture of the global environment.

On campus, I have a harder time bringing closure to such conversations. I experienced this in my classroom last spring, where I spent the majority of the semester convincing students to shift their views on science and nature. Week after week, I documented how science was socially constructed. I told them Science did not have direct access to Truth. I wanted them to understand that scientists do not stand apart from society; rather they, and the research questions they pursue, are influenced by that society. Even more, the project of knowledge production had for centuries been entangled with economic expansion, colonialism, environmental degradation, and environmental control. This was especially apparent in the corner of the planet where I do research, the North American Arctic, which formed the center of this course. That region is also warming faster than most places on Earth.

When, at the end of the term, we turned to modern-day climate change, my students scrunched their faces in skepticism. Wait a second, they said. How do we believe the knowledge claims of scientists if science is inherently political? Why should we expect climate science to avoid or prevent the social and ecological trauma of science’s past?

These are important questions for anyone teaching environmental studies. They strike at issues not resolved by our responses to denialists. I gave answers when they were first asked, but haven’t been satisfied with what I said. I’ve since given them more careful thought and I think all environmental scholars—and their students—should, too.

Chinese scientists deploy a camp onto the sea ice during an expedition to the Arctic. The logistics of doing research in the far north reminds scholars and students of the connections among knowledge, environment, and society. They help us frame the question, how do scientists move through the world? Image by Timo Palo, 2010. Wikimedia Commons.

Chinese scientists deploy a camp onto the sea ice during an expedition to the Arctic. The logistics of doing research in the far north reminds scholars and students of the connections among knowledge, environment, and society. They help us frame the question, how do scientists move through the world? Image by Timo Palo, 2010. Wikimedia Commons.

Both of my students’ questions revolved around the same issue: trust in science.  There is a subtle, yet crucial distinction obscured by the words they chose to frame this issue. That is, value-laden does not mean intellectually bankrupt or inherently power-hungry. The assertion that science is tainted through contact with politics reifies artificial boundaries between scientists and society. It imagines the spaces of science—labs, field sites, conferences, board rooms of granting agencies, and so on—as somehow floating above a world of special interests and hidden agendas. If the Professor claims science is actually situated in that world, it logically follows for Students that science is infiltrated by these same subjectivities. My students couldn’t envision a form of knowledge production that moved through the messiness of the world and retained its scientific integrity.

The reason for students’ lack of vision, I now realize, derived from my teaching. My lectures, selected readings, and assignments emphasized science as a destructive historical force. I had assumed my students entered the room with triumphalist notions of science and progress in their heads, so I went to work dismantling, complicating, and, as we sometimes say, “problematizing” those ideas. In doing so, I failed to offer any opportunity to understand how a socially constructed science, one embedded in politics, could be good for people and nature. Even the traditional “victories” of science and environmental protection—like the creation of National Parks and National Forests in the early 1900s—became, in my classroom, case studies of scientifically-managed dispossession and commodification. I wonder if many of our courses create the same effect, by design. When looking to the past, we want to take black and white and make gray. We may achieve this without preparing our students to apply gray in matters of environmental crisis colored by controversy, manufactured or not.

We don’t have to rely on our imaginations to find instances of a socially constructive environmental science. And we don’t have to retreat from nuance either. There are rich examples in environmental history, perhaps hidden in plain sight. Rachel Carson and Barry Commoner, two researchers who figure prominently in our stories of nature’s past, argued forcefully for science to be understood through its relations with society. Even more useful, in terms of our teaching on climate change today, they built these arguments as a platform for enacting social and environmental reform. In 1966, Commoner—himself trained as a molecular biologist—wrote, “The notion that…scientists have a special competence in public affairs is . . . profoundly destructive of the democratic process. If we are guided by this view, science will not only create [problems] but also shield them from the customary process of administrative decision making and public judgment.”1 If a climate scientist were to make such an announcement now, we would fear she had been bought and paid for by industry, like other denialists. We shouldn’t read Commoner’s words through today’s discourse of anti-intellectualism, though. Instead, as historian Michael Egan has argued, we need to interpret them with the spirit of citizen empowerment.

Perhaps ironically, then, the key to trusting scientists—and the answer to my students’ questions—lies in Commoner’s call to reposition them in society. Commoner wrote to critique an era of Big Science, one in which researchers worked behind closed doors with the government and the military to transform nature in the name of defense and development. He wrote to open those doors, to make science transparent, and to ensure science served the interests of the people. He promoted intellectual rigor, civic engagement, and ecological ethics among academics, but particularly among non-academics. In contrast to the ability to complicate matters, these principles hew much closer to what I think history can offer students interested in, and heated by, global warming.

By using histories of science and nature to think about society, we can do more than address thorny questions about trust. We can also flip the rhetoric of a “debate” on climate change—often a tactic to stall or undermine action—into a vehicle for action. Scientific data should be the fuel of environmental decision-making, while the public should be the drivers. We, as public intellectuals, need to encourage our students to be involved in both science and participatory democracy. Fortunately, two recent movements, both now in full steam, offer an assist to getting this kind of conversation started in our classrooms. First is the growing commitment among climate scientists to new forms of science communication. As researchers focus on how they frame climate impacts in various media outlets, they are also investing in “more and ongoing dialogue with policy makers and the public” to build effective solutions, social cohesion, equity, and trust2. At Bucknell University, my students have had the opportunity to talk directly with leading climate scientists in this fashion.

Artists and scientists gather at TippingPoint, a workshop sponsored by the Arts Council of England and designed to transform climate science and policy into narratives accessible to the public. Image by Gorm Ashurst, January 2015.

The other movement facilitating discussions of science, democracy, and climate change is the proliferation of public scholarship initiatives across college campuses. Through workshops, conferences, and publications, public scholarship offers an arsenal of tools and tips for teaching. My students have blended historical and scientific research methods to analyze pressing issues like biodiversity loss, environmental justice, and climate change—and have shared these in public venues. They’ve also updated dozens of Wikipedia articles on major concepts and figures in the history of ecology, which sometimes forced them into direct dialogue with other Wikipedia editors on the nature of knowledge (and knowledge of nature).

The point of this kind of debate—among students, between students and scientists, and across the campus-community divide—is to generate new understandings of citizenship on a changing planet. This way, the skepticism produced by histories of science doesn’t erode the will to make a difference in environmental issues; rather, that will is compelled by those histories. We need our students to engage science and climate change in public fora. Not because the jury is out on whether humans are causing global warming. But because they don’t yet feel empowered to trust or transform the research on global change into meaningful action where they live. This is why—and how—our students should debate climate change.

Featured image: The Field Museum invites visitors into the conversation of how to move forward on climate action. Image by America’s Power, July 2010, via Flickr

Andrew Stuhl is an Assistant Professor of Environmental Humanities at Bucknell University. When not teaching about history, climate science, and civic engagement, he spends time finishing a book project on the colonial history of environmental change in the North American Arctic. That project, Unfreezing the Arctic, will be published by The University of Chicago Press. Contact. Twitter. Website.

  1. Barry Commoner, Science and Survival (Viking Press, 1966), 108. 

  2. Andrew Pleasant, “Letters: The Risks and Advantages of Framing Science,” Science Vol. 317 (August 2007): 1168 

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