Commentary: My eighth-graders know climatology better than congressmen

Like so many of my colleagues, I have been consumed by the reality that Hurricane Harvey’s destruction was worsened by climate change.

Penn State climatologist Michael Mann has explained that climate change had a measurable impact on Harvey’s intensity and damage. Rising sea levels caused storm surges to be higher. Rising sea temperatures drastically increased the strength of the storm and caused more moisture to be in the air, in turn causing more flooding. The message from the research is clear: Climate change made Harvey’s destruction worse.

ANALYSIS: We’ve seen Texas charity. Let’s now have sensible climate talk.

Teaching climate change to eighth-graders in Texas is not as hard as you might expect. Every year, my students develop the same conclusion as 97 percent of climate scientists have. In my class, students are not taught what to believe simply because science says so; instead, they are presented with the evidence and are taught how to use a scientific framework of thinking to develop their own conclusions.

For example, we conduct an experiment that asks the question: “Do increased concentrations of carbon dioxide in Earth’s atmosphere increase global temperatures?” We develop a model of the Earth’s greenhouse effect by filling plastic bottles with different concentrations of carbon dioxide and place the bottles under a heat lamp. As my students take careful measurements of the bottles’ temperatures, they begin to clearly see the relationship between carbon dioxide concentrations in the atmosphere and the rate of temperature rise.

Science teachers like me teach students how to think, not what to think. Through replicating the work of practicing scientists by developing models, testing hypotheses, analyzing data, and writing scientific explanations, my students reinforce the basic principle of science that to get valid results: We must be able to reproduce fellow scientists’ conclusions. Through numerous investigations, the objective truth we arrive at year after year in my classroom is that our planet’s climate is changing primarily due to human activity.

INSIGHT: 5 things about the Ike Dike, a surge barrier for Texas coast.

I am astounded by the disturbing reality that while my eighth-graders can do this, six out of seven members of Congress who represent Austin deny climate change.

The most notable name among them happens to be that of the representative for my district, Lamar Smith. He chairs the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology. Yet, despite holding a position that would assume he has a firm grasp on established scientific understandings, he employs debunked arguments from climate change denialists.

Climate change, he says, “is due to a combination of factors, including natural cycles, sun spots and human activity. But scientists still don’t know for certain how much each of these factors contributes to the overall climate change that the Earth is experiencing.”

In fact, scientists do know the level of contribution for each of the aforementioned factors. They have conclusively proven that human activity exceeds all other factors by a large margin. Smith has spent much of his tenure on the committee actively ignoring and undermining the work of climate scientists around the globe through such actions as accusing government agencies of doctoring scientific data to support false claims, defunding NASA’s earth science research, publicly shaming climate scientists in committee hearings and writing op-eds that do not reflect the scientific consensus.

A quote from Carl Sagan that has hung on my classroom door for the past six years reads: “It is suicidal to create a society that depends on science and technology in which no one knows anything about science and technology.”

The conversation we’re having in this country is the wrong one. Instead of debating whether climate change exists and if humans are to blame, we should be ferociously debating the political solutions of how to respond to climate change. We don’t have time to wait for Austin’s scientifically illiterate representatives to understand how science works while they continue to ignore the warning signs. Every minute spent in denial further delays the solutions we so desperately need.

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Carlisle teaches eighth-grade science at a charter school in Austin and is a Teach Plus Texas teaching policy fellow.

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