Lessons learned from teaching global warming facts

I teach biology at a local community college, and every semester discussions about global warming facts are part of the curriculum.  This year, I decided to supplement my teaching with screening the documentary Before the Flood in the classroom.   I then gave the students an assignment asking them to answer this question:

What did you learn from watching Before the Flood, and state what you will do differently as  a result of what you learned

Here is what I learned from my small classroom experiment about the level of awareness on global warming facts among college students:

Student attitudes about Global Warming facts

A universal lack of knowledge about global warming facts

All student feedback had one thing in common: a lack of awareness about global warming facts and how different sectors of our society are contributing to exacerbation of global warming.  This finding has important implications for how we approach driving public action towards climate change mitigation.  We need to first fill the knowledge gaps that exist about global warming before we can expect anyone to take action.  Before the Flood and similar documentaries, such as Years of Living Dangerously, can play an important role towards filling these knowledge gaps.

A range of attitudes towards global warming facts

When it came to offering solutions for mitigating global warming, there were a range of attitudes among the students:

  • Those who learned the facts but were not willing to think about solutions
  • Those who learned the facts, could offer solutions but were pessimistic and felt powerless
  • Those who learned the facts, offered solutions and pledged to take action
  • Those who learned the facts, offered and already implemented some of the solutions within a matter of a week.

The implications of this range of attitudes is that simply delivering the knowledge about global warming facts is not enough to entice action in an audience.  In addition, different attitudes may require different approaches.  For example, for inspiring action in a pessimistic crowd, making them aware of global warming facts must take a positive, solution oriented tone.  Such an approach could involve making them aware of all the strides that has been made to switch to 100% renewable energy by some European countries.  Such positive news can also include the fierce commitment of states such as California to creating a carbon neutral economy. This way, not only a pessimistic audience can become aware of the problems, but they also gain the confidence that effective real solutions are a reality.

In the case of students who are not interested in solutions, bringing global warming consequences closer to them and showing how it can affect them directly may motivate them to begin to care.

As to students who promise action, we should pair them up with those who are already taking action, or pave the way for them towards taking action.  This could be done by connecting the students with local organizations who are active in citizen engagement, such as Citizens Climate Lobby, or the organization behind Our Climate which focuses on getting college students involved in the fight against climate change.

The bottom line is, transferring global warming facts must be strategic, thoughtful and informed by knowledge about attitudes and preconceptions of the audience.

If you are interested in learning how to strategically communicate global warming facts, you can find a step by step detailed guide in Social Solutions for Climate Change.  This book is the most complete guide to targeted, effective and measurable climate change communication.  The first three chapters provide research-tested strategies for effective communication. The remaining chapters offer a step-by-step detailed guide for applying these communication strategies to outreach through the tools of blogging and social media.

Actual Student feedback after watching Before the Flood

If you are interested in reading the actual text of the feedback I received from my students, I proivde a sampling of a few of them below:

The “I don’t care” response

I learned that the sea levels are rising due to melting glaciers. The melting glaciers are due to all of the carbon dioxide being released into the air . I also learned that there is no such thing as clean fossil fuel.  I also learned that everything we do daily can the foods we buy and consume contribute to the negative changes occurring on Earth today.

The pessimistic response

After watching Leonardo DiCaprio’s documentary “Before the Flood”, I learned how quickly climate change is affecting our oceans and ice caps. I also learned how many senators are bought by corporations in order to protect their production of fossil fuels that destroy our Earth.

Although there aren’t a lot of options to make a large difference, I can consume less beef, use less energy, and vote/use my voice to spread awareness.

The optimistic response offering solutions

I did not know that 50% of all coral has disappeared the last 30 years, that there have been public service announcements about the environment being destroyed since the 1950’s, that since 2014 people can now sail through the North Pole, that cows produce so much methane, or that people in China wear face masks to go outside because air pollution is so bad.  Besides voting for eco-friendly representatives, I will now be more aware of choosing chicken in my diet as opposed to beef, and also eliminating food products associated with palm oil in my diet. Also, Elon Musk’s Gigafactory is the business! I support all things of like nature. I am now armed with facts to verbally combat anyone who suggests climate change is a myth-we cannot afford any more denial in our society.

The optimistic activist response

Before the movie I didn’t really know how bad the situation was with climate change. I feel that this information should be  talked about more so more people can be made aware. I will also be making changes to my everyday life, such as switching from beef to chicken, and putting pressure on our government to switch to more fuel efficient resources. The movie impacted me greatly and I’ve already made my entire family watch it. Also, I contacted my old high school teacher to see if she can show it to her science classes. She watched ti and said she will be playing it after Christmas break!

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