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Teaching climate change: why the physical is not enough …

Published on 02 March 2012
Updated on 05 April 2024

How to teach about climate change is a key question. While the physical science basis is important, it is clearly not enough and maybe shouldn’t even be our main focus.

David Hone (climate advisor for shell and a background as a chemical engineer) raised the question in a recent Huffington Post piece

I found his answer intriguing and yet, I wasn’t quite satisfied. Hone asks: how should climate change be taught in schools?  His conclusion: we need to teach the physical science basis of climate change more rigorously. “One of the difficulties with this subject is that it starts from a very small fact base of core physical principles and grows almost exponentially in both complexity and uncertainty. We then end up making very uncertain connections at the top, which not surprisingly raises the ire of some people.”

This response makes a lot of sense, especially as a response to climate scepticism which it is in part aimed at. Yet, there seems to be something missing.

I am coming from a very different educational and vocational background. I am teaching on DiploFoundation’s online course on Climate Change Diplomacy and have a social science background.

Obviously, the different vantage points are not mutually exclusive. Yet, I still feel that a too strong focus on the physical science basis is missing out on other key lessons from the climate debate. And these lessons are not secondary to the physical science basis at all. I don’t think that we first need to get the physical science basis “straight” in order to reflect on the social aspects of the debate.

There is a key sociological as well as political dimension to it. The fact that we understand how climate change works physically does not explain why it came to matter so much as part of international institutions and conferences. It does not explain why climate change has become a key focal point of development assistance and international technical cooperation (to the extent that applicants will desperately seek to frame the issue in terms of climate change to increase their chances of funding). It also does not explain why one approach to address climate change is favoured over another within international institutions and scientific bodies.

But let’s break this point down even more and move away from the level of international politics and states. If we take the individual human being whose livelihood is threatened by sea level rise or increasing drought as our staring point, what matters is the response to that situation by governments and international institutions. That response is not determined by the physical science basis of climate change but by the way we frame the debate and the kind of international regime we currently have in place.

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3 replies
  1. Katharina Hone
    Katharina Hone says:

    This is quite interesting and
    This is quite interesting and fits nicely within our debate. Andrew Revkin (environmental journalist, blogger, and educator) commented on facebook on a new job opening at the Environmental Defense Fund: “Sign of spreading awareness that behavioral sciences are as important as physical sciences if your goal is environmental progress: EDF seeks senior social scientist: https://www.edf.org/jobs/senior-social-scientist-2

  2. Katharina Hone
    Katharina Hone says:

    The shifts in the US are
    The shifts in the US are definitely interesting to watch. From what I see (I follow Andrew Revkin and his Dot Earth blog) there are also interesting questions on how to teach climate change, if at all, in schools. And last but not least teaching climate change online and furthering knowledge transfer raises some interesting questions (see here for example https://dotearth.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/01/16/climate-101-online-and-free/). All the best, Katharina.

  3. David Hone
    David Hone says:


    Thanks for your thinking on this. I agree that a better understanding of the social dimension of climate change is critical, particularly as nations struggle to forge a solution. The “human” reaction to the issue will be pivotal. This appears to be shifting again in the USA as individuals are increasingly asking questions about weather phenomena over the past few years.


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