Abstract

Like many of the world’s most pressing challenges, climate change is a complex problem spanning the realms of science, economics, law and policy, ethics, communication, and more. With this multitude of implications, tomorrow’s leaders require the ability to think across academic disciplines to solve such problems. Here, we describe a newly developed course that responds to these demands by introducing undergraduate students to climate change as both a scientific theory and a policy concern. Through this integration of the fields of atmospheric science and communication, novel, pedagogically valuable questions and course themes emerged. Thus, students were engaged in readings and discussions of what science is and what it means for decision-making to be science based, in addition to acquiring a fundamental understanding of climate change science. Moreover, students developed media literacy skills by analyzing how science is presented in the public sphere and the challenges of communicating scientific uncertainty. In informative, narrative, and persuasive speech assignments, students practiced using rhetorical techniques to build audience interest in scientific questions of public relevance. These assignments required students to participate in public discourse on various aspects of climate change. With this note, we encourage other educators in a variety of disciplines to develop novel approaches to climate change education.

This article describes a general education course on climate change that explores the intersections of science and public discourse and encourages students and faculty alike to think in interdisciplinary ways.

Scholarly deliberations on scientific pedagogy are oftentimes limited to its relevance to science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) fields, such as igniting scientific curiosity, fostering expertise, and preparing future professionals. Equally important to scientific pedagogy is its civic mission of preparing a nonscientific public to appropriately utilize science in carefully forming opinions on public matters and boost credibility in voicing public opinions in deliberative public settings. The escalation of climate change into a public controversy illustrates that the public is susceptible to accept misrepresentations of scientific uncertainty that have thwarted public policy in the interest of the people. The general education course, “The Science and Rhetoric of Climate Change,” taught at Longwood University in the fall semester of 2017, treated the climate change controversy not just as a symptom of an inadequate public understanding of climate science, but as a symptom of an inadequate understanding of the scientific process and its contribution to informed decision-making in the realm of public policy. The 3-credit-hour course was developed as part of Longwood University’s new Civitae Core Curriculum (http://catalog.longwood.edu/content.php?catoid=4&navoid=215). While sections of this course are themed and can change each semester, they all share the common objectives of introducing students to principles of citizenship and civil discourse. The course was designed to engage incoming freshman students as citizen leaders. In this context, the course introduces these future citizen leaders to climate change as not just a scientific phenomenon, but also as a policy concern. Hence, this course was designed to benefit nonscience and science majors alike by helping nonscientists to appropriately trust and utilize science in their roles as citizens, and helping science majors to appreciate the civic importance of their field of study and manage the challenges of communicating science to nonscientists.

The course’s endorsement of climate change science is not an expression of political agenda but an expression of an appropriate degree of trust in the scientific method and the legitimacy of scientific consensus. The course’s objectives were for students to develop a higher level of trust in the scientific process and in theories that have reached scientific consensus. The instructors hope that such trust will continue to promote a more educated understanding of public problems and an appreciation of science’s contributions to public decision-making. In short, rather than pressure students to pick a side in its discourse, the course’s objective was to give students the tools and understanding that empower their own acceptance or rejection of climate change theory.

To nurture a more adequate understanding of the role of science in public discourse, the course built on two principles: first, it dispensed the myth of the single scientist’s discovery of eternal truth by emphasizing how the scientific method is a process practiced in a community of experts seeking scientific consensus, rather than complete certainty. Through this clarification, students could understand all scientific theories as entailing a variance in degrees of uncertainty, including the theory of anthropogenic climate change. This recognition prevented singling out anthropogenic climate change as an exceptional case of uncertainty and guided students toward judging a scientific theory in terms of its relative affirmation of scientific consensus.

Second, the course situated scientific theory in the context of public policy. In primarily addressing students as civic agents (rather than future scientists), this course invited students to operate in the public sphere under the assumption that the theory of anthropogenic climate change has already been adjudicated by scientific experts (Ceccarelli 2011), while the questions of how to cope and respond to climate change are still awaiting public deliberation. The course juxtaposed science and public policy as taking place in distinct, yet interrelated, spheres of argument. Goodnight (1982) differentiated between the public and technical spheres of uncertainty reduction, wherein “sphere” denotes “the grounds upon which arguments are built and the authorities to which arguers appeal” (Goodnight 1982). Whereas the public sphere advances value and policy claims and takes as its ground of argumentation the common welfare, the technical sphere advances epistemic claims and takes as its ground of argumentation factual evidence (Goodnight 1982; Ceccarelli 2011).

In this course, the distinction between those two spheres was first introduced as the importance of communicating technical information to public lay audiences with the informative speech assignment. Moreover, the relation between those two spheres was more fully deliberated in the persuasive speech unit, when students advocated for ethical and effective policy solutions to the scientifically validated public problem of climate change. Acceptance of these two principles invited the conclusion that although scientific theories entail minimal degrees of uncertainty, they provide the best available foundation for the conception of public problems, and the strength to the practical reasoning that sustains policy solutions. Hence, students were invited to value science for helping them arrive at an educated assessment of a public problem that would then inform their development of strategic solutions.

The course was divided into four major components. The first was dedicated to discussing concepts of the scientific method, peer review, and scientific consensus, followed by a general overview of climate change science facilitated by lectures, videos, and guided in-class discussions. Students examined basic atmospheric components, differentiated between weather and climate, and identified evidence of climate change. Moreover, students studied climatic variability and analyzed climatic drivers on various time scales, including solar variability, continental drift, Milankovitch cycles, land-cover change, and greenhouse gases. Finally, students examined climate change impacts by reviewing the National Climate Assessment (Melillo et al. 2014) and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Climate Change 2014: Synthesis Report summary for policymakers (IPCC 2014). During this first portion of the course, students gained valuable background knowledge from which they drew for all of their course work, which included a series of scaffolded speech assignments. An explanation of each of these assignment follows.

INFORMATIVE SPEECHES.

Since scientific findings do not necessarily speak for themselves, a central skill in science communication is the ability to make scientific information accessible for a public lay audience. The informative speech assignments served as checkup of students’ understanding of basic climate change science, practice in effective communication of climate science, and opportunity for exploring the relationship between science and public discourse. Students selected a particular symptom of climate change and presented it as a public problem.

In the informative speech unit, students were trained in a variety of communication strategies and techniques to effectively reach a lay audience. For example, students learned about the differences in content arrangement between the scientific and the public texts. When going over the process of the scientific method, students were introduced to the layout of scientific journal articles as presenting the data before concluding with theoretical implications. Whereas the epistemic purpose of science requires scientists to be conservative in their advancement of meaning (i.e., theory), the decision-making purpose of the public sphere chiefly demands an understanding of the data’s implications in order to understand their public relevance. Students were supposed to arrange their speeches by first stating meaningful claims, and subsequently supplying scientific data as evidence for those claims. Further, students had to start their speeches with strong explanations of how their information matters to the audience’s welfare.

Other communication strategies in this unit focused on language, as, for example, the advice to use jargon in moderation so as to avoid overwhelming lay audiences with new vocabulary, or the advantage of analogies to allow audiences to integrate novel information through familiar frames. Examples of this practice included describing the atmosphere like a blanket around the Earth, or comparing the difference between weather and climate to the difference between human mood and personality. This shifting in communication style from the scientific or technical sphere to the public sphere is good practice for science and nonscience majors alike as science majors learn to foreground the public relevance of their findings, and nonscience majors learn to rely on scientific findings to validate their statements. Apart from content accuracy, the communication skills of logical arrangement of publicly relevant claims, the support of these claims with empirical data, and the choice of audience-centered language were each elements of the grading rubric for this assignment.

NARRATIVE SPEECHES.

Besides gaining an understanding of climate change science, and the skills to communicate expert knowledge to a public audience, another major goal of the course was to train students in civic advocacy through the assignments of narrative and policy speeches. Both are persuasive speeches that build on the students’ informative speech topics, but whereas the narrative unit covered emotion-building strategies for fomenting public concern about climate change, the persuasive policy unit covered problem-solving skills and logical argumentation. For the narrative speeches, students faced the challenge of getting the audience to care about climate change, which requires an understanding of public emotion as a necessary driver of public action. Hence, students related climate change to the personal interests of their audience by placing the audience as an active player in a story with either a hopeful or threatening outcome. Students learned about the narrative arc of exposition, rising action, climax, falling action, and resolution, and were assigned to present the specific climate change problems covered in their informative speeches as a story following this narrative arrangement. For examples of how public climate change discourse is presented in narrative form, students analyzed Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth (Gore et al. 2006) and Leonardo DiCaprio’s Before the Flood (Stevens et al. 2017). In class, they discussed the advantages and disadvantages of an apocalyptic frame on climate change (Nerlich 2009) as well as optimum levels of fear, guilt, and compassion, so as to motivate involvement without provoking denial, cynicism, fatalism, or paralysis.

An important element to the development of public emotion is the use of metaphors about the environment. In class, students evaluated metaphors in terms of their effects on how audiences perceive their relation to nature in general, and climate change in particular. For example, students discussed the polar bear’s representative status for all species threatened by extinction through the effects of climate change, its function in triggering compassion, and the significance of compassion in climate change discourse. Students also learned about more implicit ideological and cultural metaphors that structure how the public perceives its relation to nature. The most prominent ideological metaphors are “war,” which depicts humanity as threatened by or harmful to nature, and “web,” which conceives of humans as integral elements of natural ecosystems (Väliverronen and Hellsten 2002). Each metaphor tells a different story about humans and nature, triggers different emotions, and may motivate a different audience response set.

In addition to the assessment elements of the informative speeches, the narrative speeches were evaluated based on how well students applied the narrative arc and used appropriate language and an engaging presentation so as to activate a specific emotion in relation to climate change.

PERSUASIVE SPEECHES.

Whereas the informative course units established the distinctions between Goodnight’s (1982) technical and public sphere, the persuasive course unit showed how these two spheres interact. Based on their individual case studies and class discussions on the then-current disastrous hurricane season, instructors introduced the public sphere as a platform of civic empowerment for the deliberation of appropriate courses of action. They reminded students of their roles as democratic citizens in advocating for solutions to public problems.

The final speech assignment had students develop and advocate an ethical and effective solution to their specific climate change problems. With this unit, the relation between science and policy was demonstrated in the way in which probable solutions respond to fact-based problems. To develop a probable mitigation or adaptation strategy, students relied on the scientific information they researched and received in the first course unit while also having to use problem-solving skills that account for effectiveness and ethics. To argue that their solutions were probable, students received lessons on the basic structure of an argument that clarified the distinction between a probable claim about the future (policy), and fact-based evidence that increases the solution’s probability, as well as the logical connection between the two (Toulmin 1958). This speech continued to build on the skills and information emphasized in previous assignments. Additionally, the persuasive grading rubric assessed students’ ability to research or invent a specific solution that met the standards of effectiveness, ethics, and feasibility, the corresponding evidence, as well as the logical connection between such evidence and the arguments claiming such effectiveness, ethics, or feasibility.

CLIMATE CHANGE AS PUBLIC CONTROVERSY.

The course’s lessons on the distinctiveness and interrelation of science and the public sphere provided a valuable foundation for students to ponder climate change as a public controversy. After understanding the basics of climate change science, the scientific process, and the rhetorical challenges of science communication, students were able to engage Ceccarelli’s (2011) argument that climate change is a manufactured controversy that is produced through the strategic and inappropriate extension of the more exclusive technical domain into the relatively open public domain. After watching sets of media excerpts that depicted a balanced debate between climate change advocates and climate change deniers, students evaluated the legitimacy and ethicality of such representations. Having learned about uncertainty as an element in all scientific theories, students were able to discern its inappropriate amplification in the public sphere of having nonscientists participate along with scientists in discussing the theory of anthropogenic climate change. What is more, students considered the obstructive effects that a stagnant public discourse centered on the technical sphere has on the democratic problem-solving process.

STUDENT FEEDBACK.

Student feedback was provided through three avenues: 1) traditional course evaluations at the end of each semester, 2) interviews with students conducted by a third party at the university, and 3) a follow-up survey conducted in February 2019. A brief overview of these three avenues follows. Traditional course evaluations presented students with the following statement, “The instructor expected students to learn challenging or difficult material” and asked students to respond. On a scale of 1 (hardly ever) to 5 (almost always), students responded with a mean score of 4.2 (standard deviation of 1.2, median score of 5.0). Students are also provided an opportunity to provide open-ended responses and general comments. Selected comments include the following:

Our instructor was very interested in this course…he wanted the rest of the class to be able to communicate scientific findings to the public in a way that they would understand.

[The importance of the subject matter] was the most rewarding.

Sometimes it was a bit difficult because public speaking is not one of my strengths, but I understood the importance of communicating scientific knowledge to the public in a way they would understand.

As part of student interviews conducted by the university, students responded positively, noting both a change in the way they viewed climate change and their own roles as citizen leaders outside the campus community. Selected comments are below:

It’s definitely like a wake-up call to the real world because you know in high school, we’re sheltered…in the first month it was definitely a lot of information, but I studied really hard and I actually was really interested in [climate change] and I developed almost like a passion.

When I come in this class, I feel like we’re learning about more than just me. I feel like I’m part of a group that cares about the walls outside of Longwood University and that means so much to me.

I’d always known about [climate change], but I never really cared about it until taking this course…seeing the issues that are going on and how they affect people…that really got to me.

Finally, in a survey conducted in February 2019, responding students still recognize and value the skills and knowledge obtained in the course. Students were asked, “After taking this course, I feel less intimidated about engaging scientific questions of climate change”; 67% of respondents replied that they strongly agree with this statement, and 33% responded that they agreed with the statement. Students were also asked, “In this course, I learned how to support public arguments with scientific evidence.” Again, 67% of respondents strongly agreed and 33% agreed with the statement.

INTERDISCIPLINARY COTEACHING.

Perhaps it was precisely this course’s lessons in the distinctiveness and interconnectedness of science and rhetoric that prompted its unproblematic administration by an atmospheric scientist and a rhetorician. Simulating the course’s lessons, the two instructors respected each other’s areas of expertise, and were able to complement each other in ways not just interesting to students but to the instructors as well. In seldom moments of contradictions, students had opportunities to witness the collision of two scholarly paradigms—the scientific and the humanistic—in ways that demonstrated the benefits and limitations of each and helped situate the incoming student in a liberal arts environment. Students viewed contributions of both instructors positively. For example, one student wrote on the final course evaluations,

Both professors complimented each other very well. Over the course of the semester we had to learn the importance of climate change and how to communicate scientific knowledge into lay terms.

While this course was on the rhetoric of climate change, we believe that it can serve as a model to inspire similar courses at the intersection of the sciences and the humanities. In particular, the concepts of scientific consensus, degrees of uncertainty, and Goodnight’s public and technical spheres are relevant to course material that integrates science in a larger public discourse. Furthermore, we recommend using scaffolded speech assignments to give students ample opportunity to not only practice their communication skills, but review basic scientific information that in other courses might be memorized just once before moving to other course material. Based on our positive experience of teaching this course, we recommend that educators contextualize science for nonmajors by relating subject matter to civic and personal welfare, and that they empower students to use their knowledge for the greater good.

ACKNOWLEDGMENTS

We thank Longwood University and both authors’ respective departments for their support in piloting this course. We would also like to thank three anonymous reviewers for their comments that greatly improved the manuscript.

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Footnotes

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