Ken Hiltner is Professor of English Literature at the University of California, Santa Barbara, where he is Director of the Environmental Humanities Initiative and a participating scholar at EJ/CJ, the Environmental and Climate Justice Studies Research Hub at UCSB’s Orfalea Center for Global & International Relations.
t is imperative that universities provide a comprehensive overview of the climate crisis for all of our students. There are, obviously, a range of reasons why this is important, but it is especially so given the current state of K-12 education in the U.S.
A 2016 report from the National Center for Science Education (NCSE) revealed that as many as 30% of K-12 teachers teaching climate change teach that this is a two-sided argument and that “‘many scientists’ see natural causes behind recent global warming.” Conversely, more than half of K-12 teachers do not teach climate change at all. And those who do teach it only devote an hour or two to the issue. Part of the problem is that many of these teachers are themselves unclear on the facts. The most referenced of all papers on climate change notes that 97% of scientists are in agreement that anthropogenic climate change is real and happening. However, when questioned about this scientific consensus by the NCSE, only 30% of middle-school and 45% of high-school teachers selected the correct answer from a broad range (“81 to 100%”).
This confusion is not too surprising, as teachers have been targeted by fossil fuel affiliates like the Heartland Institute, which mailed 300,000 unsolicited and free copies of *Why Scientists Disagree About Global Warming* to teachers across the U.S. in 2017. They have also made a PDF of the book free on their website for the public. As the Heartland Institute notes, this book purports to explain “why the claim of ‘scientific consensus’ on the causes and consequences of climate change is without merit. The authors comprehensively and specifically rebut the surveys and studies used to support claims of a consensus. They…then provide a detailed survey of the physical science of global warming.”
Even if K-12 teachers are correctly informed and desire to teach the climate crisis, in a number of states (Maine, South Dakota, and Virginia, for example) bills have recently been introduced that would hamper their efforts. The Virginia bill argues that this is necessary because “many teachers in public elementary and secondary school classrooms are abusing taxpayer resources and abusing their ability to speak to captive audiences of students in an attempt to indoctrinate or influence students…under the guise of ‘teaching for social justice’ and other sectarian doctrines.” Some states are attempting to go even further in mandating that students be taught that the scientific consensus on climate change is simply wrong. A bill introduced in Montana in 2019 states that “when providing educational and informational materials on climate change,” the following findings should be observed: “reasonable amounts of carbon dioxide released into the atmosphere have no verifiable impacts on the environment; science shows human emissions do not change atmospheric carbon dioxide emissions enough to cause climate change; claims that carbon associated with human activities causes climate change are invalid; and nature, not human activity, causes climate change.”
While many of our students may come to us with secondary educations that have introduced the climate crisis accurately, we simply cannot assume that this is always the case. Hence, it is imperative that we counter potential misinformation at the university level by teaching our students the facts concerning climate change and what each of us can do about it. The second part is especially important, as once students learn about climate change in detail their first response is often to ask what can be done to combat it – and more pointedly, what can they personally do to help. Given the scope and severity of the climate crisis, we should do anything that we can to mobilize them to help.
Consequently, it is crucial that we offer a “Climate Crisis 101” course to all of our students. Ideally, it should be a campus-wide requirement. However, this raises two important questions: 1) To whom should we be teaching it? 2) How should we be teaching it?
The first of these questions has an obvious answer: To our students, of course. But should we also, given the urgency of the issue, be directing ourselves to the public as well? Since groups like the Heartland Institute are targeting the public and specific groups, like K-12 teachers and policy makers, shouldn’t we also be taking on the role of directly educating these individuals? In many respects, this job has largely fallen to various media outlets, who sometimes report on our university research. The problem is that this sort of topical, spotty, and at times sensational coverage is very different from a comprehensive overview of the topic that would be provided by a “Climate Crisis 101” course.
This raises our second question: how should we be teaching it? In other words, how should material be structured to be informative, thought-provoking, and appealing to both students and the public? For over a decade now, efforts have been made to make university lectures available to the public online. These range from simply uploading videos of an entire lecture series online (such as to iTunes University, which I first did as a visiting professor at Princeton University back in 2012-13) to full-fledged courses offered for university credit at places like Stanford and UC Irvine via the Coursera platform. The problem with this approach is that it seems unlikely that most members of the public (and perhaps most K-12 teachers and policy makers) would be willing to sit through many hours of lectures over ten or more weeks. Hence, this approach, while potentially offering a comprehensive overview of the climate crisis, risks largely failing when it comes to delivering it to the public at large.
How, then, do we reach a broad range individuals? Through the traditional genres of academia: books and articles? Or perhaps the newer form adopted by some scholars, the blog? Perhaps not surprising, in the age of digital media, information is more often disseminated in other ways. Social media is now more popular than any of these genres, by a long shot. Which social media platform is the most used? If you ask Americans who are the age of our students (18-24, which the Pew Research Center did in March of 2018), it is not Facebook, Twitter, or even Instagram. Instead, Youtube is now the undisputed 800-pound gorilla in the room, used by 94% of these young adults. Indeed, three quarters of all American adults now use it. Teens now watch YouTube more than TV, and, according to Nielsen data, this may soon become true for the rest of Americans. Like it or not, YouTube videos are quickly becoming the preferred way for Americans to consume information.
With this in mind, what if we took the highlights of a lecture series and presented them in the form of relatively short YouTube videos? Would students and the public really want to watch YouTube videos on the sort of material that we present in lectures?
Natalie Wynn, who was for a time a PhD candidate in philosophy at Northwestern University, has a remarkably successful YouTube channel entitled “ContraPoints,” where she posts videos on such topics as “What’s Wrong with Capitalism.” Astonishingly, this video has been viewed over a million times. This is all the more striking given that it is essentially a 40-minute lecture broken into two YouTube videos of roughly equal length. Although ContraPoints is apparently an amateur production from one individual, Wynn and others have proven that people by the millions are electing to watch meaningful content on YouTube – some of it quite like what we disseminate in university lectures.
Could online lecture snippets on YouTube work hand-in-hand with traditional lectures? in other words, since we would be offering Climate Crisis 101 as a traditional lecture attended by students on campus, could YouTube videos augment and enhance this classroom experience, while at the same time being vectored toward the public and K-12 instructors?
One thought would be to create YouTube videos that introduce individual lectures. For example, imagine a lecture on why the climate crisis needs to be addressed with cultural changes as well as technological innovations. While we may hope that a range of wonder technologies will allow us to live our lives without change, the simple fact is that Western culture and many of its practices need to change if we hope to live sustainability on our planet. An effective way of beginning such a lecture (in other words, a way of gaining the attention of students) would be to give an example of a problem that cannot be solely addressed with technological innovations, but instead will necessitate significant cultural changes.
Transportation would be an interesting example, as many people in the U.S. seem to be holding out the hope that the emerging technologies of electric vehicles will allow us to keep driving our beloved cars. However, as the global population rises and automobile use is spreading around the world, estimates are that there will be two billion cars on the planet by 2040 (twice what we have now). Even if they are all electric, there is no way that this many personal vehicles will be sustainable for a host of reasons. Consequently, we need to focus on how we can transition away from the personal automobile to mass transportation and personal mobility options, such as bicycles, as well as to consider denser living, such as in cities, which necessitate far less transportation then their suburban or urban counterparts. In other words, this problem will not principally be solved with technological innovations, but rather with a host of cultural changes.
This example could effectively presented in a relatively short YouTube video. In order to attract the attention the public, it should not be given a dry academic title like “Why the climate crisis needs to be addressed with cultural changes as well as technological innovations.” Instead, it should be designed to engage the public and called something like “Why electric cars are more trouble than good.”
Because it would introduce the necessity of cultural change, such a video could be an effective and though provoking way of beginning a lecture on this issue. These online videos could also serve as study material for the lecture, as students could return to them when preparing for exams.
Such videos could serve additional important purposes. For example, teachers of all sorts, including K-12, could use them as a way of fostering discussion. The idea of a flipped classroom has been around for sometime now. In fact, I used my 2012-13 online Princeton lectures to flip my classroom there. This simply involves having students view online material prior to class, as this can provoke them to think about the issue and thus prepare them for more informed discussion. As they would be freely available on the Internet, K-12 and other teachers could have students view these short videos (either before or during class) as a way of initiating a targeted discussion.
An objection could be made that posting most of a lecture series online makes offering a class redundant. However, depending on the size of the lecture, the classroom experience can be essential, as it gives students the opportunity to ask questions during the presentation, for example.
It is also useful to pause and to reflect on why we give university credit for coursework. Credit is not given for simply showing up to class and observing the material being presented. Doing only this will no doubt result in failing the class. Instead, students are graded on how well they have understood and mastered the material. Even if someone were to watch all of the lecture material online, including the “deep dive” lectures, the instructor would be in no position to grade them on what they had learned. Although it would no doubt be possible to convert the approach outlined here into some sort of graded MOOC course, it is by no means the objective – and certainly not at all necessary in implementing the approach.
In any event, I would argue that every university needs to offer a “Climate Crisis 101” course. If teachers committed to teaching these courses were to post at least some of their lecture material online in the form of YouTube videos, it would create a vast repository of material that could not only be used by their colleagues teaching these courses, but also by K-12 teachers and the public.
I am now preparing to put this idea to the test. In the winter of 2020 I will be teaching a 600-student lecture totaled “The Climate Crisis: what it is and what each of us can do about it.” It is my attempt at a “Climate Crisis 101” course. If all goes well, it will principally be focused on a series of YouTube videos. I will be providing updates to this website in order to let you know how it goes. With fingers crossed!