16 March 2021

Why (and How) Astronomers Should Teach Climate Change

Travis Rector University of Alaska, Anchorage

Participants at a AAS EPD grant funded climate change education workshop at the 235th AAS Meeting in Honolulu, Hawai‘i, January 2020.
Participants at an AAS EPD grant funded climate change education workshop at the 235th AAS Meeting in Honolulu, Hawai‘i, January 2020. Photo by Travis Rector

Many years ago one day in my solar system astronomy class, we were talking about the searing hellscape of Venus. A student asked me, "Is that what climate change is going to do to the Earth?" I assured her the answer was no — we weren't going to turn into Venus. But I soon realized I didn't really know how to answer her other questions. What was going to happen to the Earth? How worried should we be? And what can we do about it? That day, and future ones, made it clear that many of my students were deeply concerned about climate change, and they weren't getting the information they needed from other places. As the climate crisis has hurt my home state of Alaska, in ways that are no longer deniable, that desire has only increased.

Why astronomers? Should we be teaching about climate change? Or should we leave it to the "experts"? The good news is that astronomers are in an excellent position to teach climate change. The science is woven into the topics we teach. For example, the climate history of the terrestrial planets is a common pathway to talking about climate change. This topic is particularly important because the most common misconception is that natural variability, not human activity, can explain climate change. Solar variability is also often mistakenly blamed. Other pathways include exoplanets, Milankovitch cycles, and astrobiology. Even topics such as the nature of light and telescopes are connected; e.g., we put infrared telescopes on mountaintops and in space to get above the water vapor that traps heat. You are often teaching about climate change even though you may not know it.

Second, the astronomer’s perspective is important. A common question is, "Can we move to another planet?" The frequent announcements of the discovery of exoplanets, often in "habitable zones," has led to a misconception that there is a wealth of worlds out there that we could possibly move to if needed. The message that there truly is "no Planet B" is an important educational goal for an astronomy course.

Third, astronomers are highly trusted. We tend to be less controversial than other branches of science. And we have no “skin in the game.” Climate scientists are often accused of being in it for the money — that is, they are motivated to fabricate or exaggerate the science of climate change to attract funding for their research. Astronomy is therefore a way to approach the topic that is less political.

Finally, astronomers reach a lot of people. Andy Fraknoi has estimated that in the United States about 300,000 undergraduate students take an "Astro 101" course every year. And for many this will be the last science class they ever take. If you don't teach it to them, perhaps no one will. Whether you intend it to be or not, climate change is the most important topic you teach.

In teaching climate change you need to be aware of the following:

  • Climate change is different from other topics we teach. It is of course highly politicized and more prone to skepticism. An audience that readily listens when we talk about supermassive black holes may be doubtful if we describe how satellites are used to measure the temperature of the Earth (which is ironic, considering it is largely the same technology.) Climate change is also highly emotional. We are after all talking about the survival of humanity! There is valuable research on effective communication strategies that I link to below. 
  • You need to talk about solutions. Otherwise, you can create the misconception that there's nothing we can do about climate change. The good news is that we can still avoid the worst consequences, but time is running out. We need to convey the urgency of the situation but we also need to create hope. Project Drawdown is a wonderful resource for learning about solutions that address climate change and can also make our lives better.
  • It's not just about the science. People make decisions about how they feel about climate change primarily based upon their livelihoods, communities, and values. You therefore need to help people see how climate change affects things they care about. Don't talk about polar bears (unless you live in Alaska!). Keep it local. How is climate change affecting where you live? What are solutions that will appeal to your audience?
  • There is an active campaign of climate change disinformation. The goal is to confuse and distract so as to prevent or delay solutions that affect the profitability of some industries, particularly fossil fuels. You need to address it. Show examples of climate disinformation and talk about why it is happening. Talk about topics like "climate doomism" and "greenwashing." I also like to give examples of denialism from other industries, e.g., tobacco.  

Here are some resources that will help you improve your teaching and communication about climate change:

I hope these resources help you to improve your teaching and knowledge of climate change. If you have questions please feel free to reach out to me at [email protected].

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