How do you teach Miami University students a politically-charged topic like climate change? Erase the smoke and mirrors, and show them the facts.
That’s what Miami assistant professor Kevin Armitage and John Tchernev do in their classes. Step one: look at the research.
“I was someone who had heard about climate change, I generally believed that it was probably true… it seemed like there was a lot of different types of information out there, and I wasn’t sure what to trust,” Tchernev said.
While in graduate school at Ohio State University (OSU), Tchernev took a class that examined how the public learns about climate change and the public dialogue around it. Experts from other departments often came to talk with the class and answer questions.
“It was a chance for me to read a lot of the scientific research on climate change, which when you read it, it’s really very clear…. it is happening, it’s already happening, the globe is warming and humans are behind a lot of it,” said Tchernev. “The only areas of uncertainty are how bad it’s going to be and exactly what’s the timeframe when these things are going to happen.”
Where does the research come from? Tchernev turns to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) annual report – an over 4,700-page analysis of the scientific, technical and socio-economic information around climate change set up by the United Nations to inform governments across the globe. Tchernev refers to the 130-page Synthesis Report and uses an even shorter version in his News and Numbers class.
“How uniform the scientific consensus is…it’s almost unprecedented in the history of science,” said Armitage, who received his Ph.D in American History.
Of the thousands of peer-reviewed articles on climate change, only 22 deny the human impact on global warming, and none of those are based in ongoing research, Armitage added.
The largest document arguing the IPCC is the Nongovernmental International Panel on Climate Change (NIPCC), a mirror image of the IPCC in appearance but not substance. Rather than composed of a group of scientists, the NIPCC is a group of climate change “sceptics” financed by the libertarian Heartland Institute.
“That’s the best, strongest anti-climate change argument that scientists can come up with; and in class, in just one hour, we found a lot of problems with it,” said Tchernev. “It’s biased, it cherry-picks data, and that’s the strongest argument they can come up with, with a lot of money behind them.”
So what about the climate change “sceptics” in the classroom? Although neither professor has had a student in their classroom come out against climate change, the potential is there.
“You have to account for denialism,” said Armitage. “As far as I know, we’ve only had two denialists in our faculty.” Both worked in Farmer School of Business, he said.
“If students think they’re in the minority in a class… they will be afraid to talk because they don’t want to be outcast or ostracized, but also, sometimes people just don’t really want to get into heavy political stuff unless they’re really pushed into it, so I think that’s one barrier that we face with that,” said Tchernev.
“I’ve found mozst students want to know what the facts are and what the science says,” said Armitage, “and [students] almost uniformly get it right away.”
Armitage presents an analogy to his students: Most students recognize that smoking causes heart problems and lung disease. Why? Because there is overwhelming scientific evidence to support that claim. But throughout the 1960s, 70s’ and 80s’, many smokers, non-smokers and media figures denied this because the tobacco companies hired public relations and communications professionals to fog the link between smoking and lung cancer.
“It was an extremely successful strategy for them,” said Armitage.
In his class, Armitage asks the students to read “Merchants of Doubt,” a book by Naomi Oreskes and Erik M. Conway that shows how a small group of scientists and businessmen cloud public understanding of the tobacco industry and climate change. Tchernev uses the documentary version in his class.
In both cases, the students discover that the same people who worked for the tobacco industry now work for ExxonMobil Pacific Gas and Electric and other climate change deniers.
“The primary goal of most propaganda is it’s not usually outright… but rather the claim that the science is in doubt,” said Armitage.
Tchernev agrees that part of the success of this small group of climate change “sceptics” is the fault of effective strategic communication, in which he received his Ph.D at OSU. His current research focuses on how entertainment media can persuade a person’s opinion, from satirical political comedy like “The Daily Show with Trevor Noah,” to environmental TV shows, to science fiction movies like “The Day After Tomorrow.”
“There are lots of ways where it can go wrong… you could lose a sense of reality, or it could seem like it is overblown… sometimes people don’t like having a persuasive or a preachy message inside of an entertainment context,” Tchernev said.
“So it doesn’t always work, but what we have found is that with well-told stories that are engaging and also things with humor, things like The Daily Show; these can really help people be interested in something that maybe they wouldn’t have noticed otherwise, and it could also make them pay more attention, and it can also make them learn something,” he added.
But how interested in climate change are students at Miami?
Armitage said he found most of his students to be engaged in climate change discussion, and once they know the facts, they are eager to discuss policies around adapting to and lessening global warming.
“[Students] may not know what to do about it, or they may not feel comfortable discussing it a lot in class because they… don’t want to get into uncomfortable situations where someone disagrees with them, especially because it is a very politically-charged issue,” said Tchernev.
While Earth Day has come and gone, Armitage and Tchernev continue to peel away the politics from climate change, one class at a time.