Understanding Climate Change Requires Holistic Understanding of the Climate System

Shepardson, D. P., Niyogi, D., Roychoudhury, A., & Hirsch, A. (2012). Conceptualizing climate change in the context of a climate system: implications for climate and environmental education. Environmental Education Research, 18, 323 - 352.

Research has revealed that there is a wide gap between the ways that scientists and students think about climate change. This paper's authors argue that to better understand climate change, students must first understand the climate as a system. They propose a climate system framework that can be used to teach about climate change. Their goal is to present this framework to inform both the design of climate change curricula and future research on climate change education.

The authors conducted a comprehensive review of research on secondary students' learning about climate change and identified six categories of topics that emerged from the review: (1) causes of global warming climate change, (2) greenhouse gases, (3) relationship of global warming and climate change, (4) relationship of climate and weather, (5) the carbon cycle, and (6) the impacts of global warming and climate change. For each of these categories, the authors describe research on the learning that has taken place, looking for sources of the misconceptions that secondary students have. For example, the authors highlight that students believe air pollution, such as acid rain and dust, causes climate change; carbon dioxide is not a greenhouse gas; and greenhouse gases exist as a “layer” in the atmosphere. When it comes to impacts, students are largely focused on the impacts of increasing temperatures, which they see as the cause of sea level rise due to ice melt they believe will be the cause of cause droughts and a loss of drinking water.

The authors use this analysis to construct a generalized model of secondary student conceptions of climate change, including their erroneous ideas. They then use well-accepted scientific models of the climate system to create their own climate system framework. The framework describes the Earth's climate system, including the external and internal causes of climate and natural and human-induced causes of climate variability. The authors juxtapose their climate system framework and the students' conceptual model to highlight what's missing from the student conceptual model. The authors' analysis reveals that students are missing several key concepts “that need to be addressed in order to develop students' conceptualizations of climate change within the context of a climate system.” These concepts include:
• What is a climate system?
• Climate and weather
• The Earth and Earth's energy budget
• System feedbacks
• The sun (solar radiation)
• Atmosphere (troposphere)
• Ice and snow
• Oceans
• Land and vegetation

The authors believe that understanding these concepts will help students understand the climate system as a whole, and they believe it “challenges students' understanding of global warming and climate change as being driven by the greenhouse effect alone.” This system understanding, the authors argue, helps put the variability in the Earth's climate into perspective. But, they acknowledge that teaching students about the Earth's climate is challenging, and more research about how students think about the climate system is needed. The authors have invited the formal and informal education community to provide comments and feedback about their proposed approach at an online discussion board at iclimate.org/ccc.

The Bottom Line

<p>When teaching about climate change, the authors of this paper argue that the curriculum should emphasize climate change in the context of the climate system as a whole. They've developed a climate system framework that describes key concepts and linkages in the climate system. This approach focuses attention on fundamental climate science knowledge and develops students into critical thinkers who can use this knowledge to help interpret and understand climate change. But they acknowledge that teaching about the climate system is not easy, and more research is needed. The authors invite colleagues to weigh in on the challenges of climate education and their proposed teaching approach at iclimate.org/ccc.</p>