What’s up with Arctic shipping, climate change, and invasive species?

In Scientific American you’ll find “Melting Arctic Ice Will Make Way for More Ships–and More Species Invasions,” a story I wrote about the immense increases in shipping that are likely over the North Pole and Arctic Ocean in the coming years. This has alerted scientists studying invasive species. The Arctic is a pristine environment. Scientists are just now beginning to catalogue and classify native and nonnative species in a few select places the Arctic.

Historically, shipping has been the major pathway of invasive species introductions, accounting for 69% of invasions. The cold water over the Arctic provides special opportunities for invasions from hull fouling. In my article, I explain it this way:

Mario Tamburri, a marine scientist and director of the Maritime Environment Resource Center at the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science, has been researching survivorship and reproduction of organisms likely to be transported by ships by mimicking the conditions of shipping traffic. New colder, shorter routes afforded by the retreat of ice help invaders, such as mussels, barnacles and crabs, on a biological level, Tamburri says. Cold water slows metabolism of organisms, which can sustain themselves in low food conditions. “It’s like putting your groceries on ice,” he says.


Shorter routes also mean more organisms either attached to the hull or in ballast water are now more likely to survive the journey. Previously, the high heat and lack of light of longer trips outside the Arctic killed them off. “When ships now transport goods through the Panama Canal, for instance, through warm water and freshwater, natural barriers to invasive species are built into the shipping routes,” Tamburri says. “In the Arctic, those barriers go away.

Check out the complete story in Scientific American; or, if you prefer, it’s also published in Nature. Thanks for reading. And thank you for sharing my stories with your colleagues and social networks. As environmental journalism struggles in many media outlets, reader support means a great deal on many levels. Onward!

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Coal is Dead. Gas is the New Frontier: Fossil Fuel Hogs Conversation at ARPA-E


I don’t have much faith that the world will use less coal any time in the near future.

Certainly energy innovation and natural gas hold promise in the U.S., but the reality of widespread coal use worldwide made its way into many of the main discussions this week at the ARPA-E Energy Innovation Summit.

Blythe Masters, head of global commodities and corporate & investment bank regulatory affairs at JP Morgan, shares my same opinion. Coal will be a main player for the future, and especially in China, she said in an interview at ARPA-E.

New York Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg this week came out swinging at coal in his keynote address at the Summit. He said, “Coal is a dead man walking.”

Sure, in the U.S.

Pressure to squelch coal use in the U.S. has been effective, but that’s due to the increase in cheap natural gas and efforts by the Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal campaign. Still, the U.S. is exporting record amounts of coal and that will continue.

As I wrote for Slate Magazine in their series on coal energy last November, “Despite better alternatives and concern about climate change, coal isn’t disappearing any time soon.”

Efforts to reduce coal use in the America are continuing. Coal is dirty, dangerous and the single biggest contributor to heat-trapping gases that cause climate change. But we are shipping it elsewhere. That means more greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. In my Slate Magazine story, I explained a bit of the economics of why the world uses a lot of coal. Here’s an excerpt:

“It’s cheap. It’s abundant. And it’s going to be in use for a long time. Until recently, coal fueled half of the electricity generated in the United States. That number was whittled to 42 percent last year, mostly due to a new flood of cheap natural gas that made it economical for power plants to make the switch from burning coal.

Efforts to use cleaner sources of energy in the United States have put coal in a state of flux. Air pollution regulations have forced power plants to clean up emissions from their smokestacks or shut down. Many operators are choosing natural gas rather than upgrading outdated coal plants. And renewable energy sources like wind and solar now vie for up to 20 percent of the electricity generated in states such as South Dakota and Iowa. But don’t be fooled into thinking coal is on a deep dive.

While coal consumption in the electric utility sector is down 10 percent, the world’s appetite for coal is driving up the demand for coal like never before. In 2011, U.S. coal exports were valued at $16.2 billion. And now coal producers are eager to supply the newest growth market: Asia.”

In his keynote presentation this week at the Energy Innovation Summit, Bloomberg said that coal doesn’t deserve its reputation as a cheap fuel, and especially not when you factor in the public health costs, he said.

Bloomberg added that economic destruction caused by extreme weather events should also factor into the calculus of the cost of coal. Bloomberg said, “Coal use has dangerous impact on climate change. Coal accounts for 40 percent of the carbon footprint in the U.S., and carbon pollution is accelerating climate chaos worldwide.”

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What’s The Big Idea?

Last week, The New York Times published a story I wrote about a new social enterprise to finance climate change solutions, among other social justice and humanitarian issues, by strengthening individual buying power.

This is an issue worth keeping a close eye on over the coming years. Consumer spending habits have potential to prompt big change, and grass roots organizations like 350.orgknow the value of this kind of individual action.

Read “A Climate Proposal: Bundling Consumer Buying Power” in The New York Times.Here’s how my story begins:

Each year, an estimated 46 percent of the population is responsible for 77 percent of discretionary spending in the United States. To strengthen individual buying power, a Santa Barbara-based entrepreneur and philanthropist has

proposed a new social enterprise to finance climate change solutions, among other social justice and humanitarian issues.

The Big Idea, a nonprofit corporation founded by the entrepreneur Chris Norton and initially backed by his $11 million donation, is loosely modeled after the A.A.R.P., the membership organization that promotes the interests of retired people. The aim is to unify individuals with common interests.

Acting as a green intermediary, The Big Idea bundles purchases of regular services like like cellphone plans and auto insurance — what Mr. Norton calls “low-engagement  products” — to achieve social impact. By harnessing group buying power, members achieve a cost savings and share it with social justice and environmental action groups like the Natural Resources Defense Council,Environmental Defense Fund and 350.org, among others.

The article goes on to explain some of the challenges The Big Idea faces, including how consumers often doubt that their individual choices will make a difference. Read the complete story and let me know your thoughts.

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Growing Focus on Coastal Flooding

FEMA Flood Zone Maps Make Case for Climate Resiliency
By Lisa Palmer
Protest photo

New Jersey Governor Chris Christie’s advice to coastal property owners to elevate their homes or face higher insurance premiums is a harbinger of more things likely to come.

Governor Chris Christie, pragmatic but resolute after months overseeing rebuilding efforts after Superstorm Sandy, has announced that residents in flood-prone areas of New Jersey must elevate their homes or face high insurance premiums under new rebuilding standards.

His guidance? New preliminary flood maps being released by the Federal Emergency Management Agency that will appreciably expand flood zones into new neighborhoods and industrial parks.

Christie’s was a forceful stance, especially coming from a fiscally conservative politician, but it could become the norm across the United States. FEMA is to continue to roll-out updated maps for the whole country through mid-2013 indicating new flood hazards. Many of the maps expand the areas newly falling into 10-and 100-year flood zones.

The broader flood zones mean that owners of many of those properties will likely be forced to buy flood insurance for the first time. For many already having flood insurance, higher premiums are likely.

FEMA’s flood maps include historical flooding as well as recent surge and storm flooding. They don’t include flood risks from projected future sea-level rise. On January 28, new FEMA flood maps for parts of New York City showed that 35,000 buildings and homes have been added to flood zones.

In its reporting on those new flood zone maps, The New York Times wrote that the FEMA action brought news “many New Yorkers were girding for after Hurricane Sandy sloshed away: More areas farther inland are expected to flood. Tidal surges will be more ferocious. And 35,000 more homes and businesses will be located in flood zones, which will almost certainly nudge up insurance rates and determine how some structures are rebuilt.”

The paper reported New York City’s deputy mayor for operations as saying that the new maps will not affect the city’s evacuation zone maps, but that they are predictors for new flood insurance rate maps. That official told the newspaper that the city’s building code will eventually take into account the new maps.

The Times’ Cara Buckley reported also that “far more structures are now in areas where flooding is expected to top three feet,” a level, she reported, that “could easily shove a structure off its foundation.”

She ended her report with this:

“This is going to be very rough on people,” said Chuck Reichenthal, district manager for Brooklyn’s Community Board 13, which includes Coney Island. “Insurance is going to zoom through the roof.”

Resiliency urged for ‘a lot of property at risk’

According to Margaret Davidson, acting director of NOAA’s Office of Ocean and Coastal Resource Management, property owners and managers wanting to improve building resiliency for climate change are not only taking FEMA’s flood maps into consideration, they’re also consulting the National Climate Assessment’s sea-level rise projections.

“With 60 percent of the national economy on the coast and 50 percent of the people, you have a lot of property at risk,” Davidson said.

Because government money often helps those affected by flooding, many in the reinsurance industry and in coastal resources management have been advocating for better mapping and risk management. Under the new Flood Insurance Reform Act of 2012, those who don’t have flood insurance but are hit by a flood-event will get a one-time pass. If they want to rebuild, the owner is required to pay more actuarial rates for flood insurance.

Davidson says the key to better management on the coast involves combining both the FEMA advisory risks with the national assessment risks. “You would actually change the demography of the coast a lot. It would be a lot like it was before the flood insurance program. Before the early 70s, two kinds of people lived on the coast: people who couldn’t afford to live somewhere else and people who could afford to rebuild but didn’t build fancy stuff.”

States requiring insurers disclose climate response plans

In New York, Washington, and California, insurance companies are now required to disclose their climate change response plans. According to Sharlene Leurig of Ceres, insurers are considering modifying rates and payouts to address the increase in extreme weather events and damages resulting from rising sea levels. In 2011, extreme weather events cost the U.S. insurance industry $32 billion, she said. The damage caused by Superstorm Sandy is estimated to be between $40 billion to 50 billion in New York.

Leurig said that extreme weather events are increasing the number of businesses and homes unable to get insurance on the private market. In 2012, The Daily Climate reported that “insurance companies like Allstate, Nationwide, and State Farm have quietly stopped writing new policies in many zones near [the] shore.” As a result, state governments and taxpayers are gaining liability for wind storm risks as insurers’ former customers are absorbed into state-backed insurance groups. That shift adds to taxpayer exposures alongside the National Flood Insurance Program, which has had to borrow $17 billion from the U.S. government. [Editor’s Note: The previous two sentences were added on 1/31 to clarify the point made in the earlier now-deleted sentence.]


View larger image (Posted with permission from Ceres.)

Disincentivizing moves to most vulnerable places

Leurig said that businesses, communities, and those responsible for infrastructure should now be examining ways to build with climate resilience and disaster resistance in mind, which she says will help decrease their vulnerability and provide long-term savings for taxpayers, households, and insurers.

Joshua Saks, legislative director of the National Wildlife Federation, has been increasingly involved in issues involving flood mapping.

“From our perspective the best way to protect people is to use the best flood control money can buy — nature,” he said. “Any time you actually show people the risk and move them away from it, you are going to be protecting natural flood plains, wetlands, beaches, and so on. For us, mapping is very important because it shows the risk. Ideally if the market signal is right, it disincentivizes people from moving into these spots.”

Saks said flood insurance reforms passed in 2012 will establish a mapping advisory council that will examine what climate change is going to do to future storm intensity and frequency, both of which, he continued, affect flood plains. Researchers at Georgetown University’s Climate Center provide a useful background paper on the National Flood Insurance Plan and the 2012 “Reform Act.”)

Smarter Safer, something of a strange-bedfellows coalition involving organizations such as the Environmental Defense Fund, American Rivers, the American Conservative Union and SwissRe, is expected soon to issue a two-page framework guidance to help communities better prepare for climate resiliency.

Impacts of the revised FEMA flood zone maps are expected to ripple through many coastal communities as the agency releases new ones throughout the year.


This article was originally published in The Yale Forum on Climate Change & The Media

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Climate Change 2.0: National Assessment Hammers Home Science Findings

By Lisa Palmer

The newly released National Climate Assessment from a team of federal agencies reinforces the climate-concerned messages from other reports and from a record year of natural disaster damages. But a question remains: Are the public and their leaders hearing the messages?



You may have heard that a draft of the National Climate Assessment has been released for public review by a federal advisory panel organized under the United States Global Change Research Program.

You may have heard too that the climate assessment was released just days after 2012 was named the hottest year on record for the contiguous U.S. It was the same day also that a new climate stabilization study highlighted 19, or as many as 31, stabilization wedges needed to prevent rapidly rising carbon emissions. (In 2004, scientists had suggested just seven wedges could do the job.)

You may have heard that a landmark study by 26 researchers from 47 institutions recently found that the rate of ice sheet melting in Antarctica and Greenland is now accelerating, and that those rates of melting are three times what had been projected in the 1990s. (It adds a half inch to rising sea levels — not a worst-case scenario — but the pace of melting in Greenland has heightened worry among scientists.)

And, you may have heard this week that recent record warm temperatures have resulted in the earliest spring flowering in the eastern U.S. in more than 150 years.

Feel the urgency of a warming planet, yet?

From ‘Distant Future’ … to Now ‘Firmly into the Present’

A dry California river bed shows the impacts of a 2009 drought. Photo credit: NOAA

“Climate change, once considered an issue for a distant future, has moved firmly into the present,” wrote the leaders who produced the National Climate Assessment report, in an introduction. “Americans are noticing changes all around them. Summers are longer and hotter, and periods of extreme heat last longer than any living American has ever experienced. Winters are generally shorter and warmer. Rain comes in heavier downpours, though in many regions there are longer dry spells in between.”

The latest alert about what some might consider to be climate change 2.0, the acknowledgement by 240 scientists that climate change is occurring faster than anticipated, culminates with the comprehensive assessment by the Global Change Research Program. Could this critical mass of studies trigger movement for climate change policy action? Given the “uncompromising language of the report, and the stark picture that its authors have painted of the likely effects of global warming,” The Guardian reported, evidence is stacking up that may tip the scales.

Or, it may not.

The climate assessment also reveals the workings of a science communications success. A conversational tone. Use of strong language. Revamped messaging. The report’s “Letter to the American People” states clearly that climate change is occurring and is caused by human activities, and that the U.S. is already seeing dramatic effects:

Residents of some coastal cities see their streets flood more regularly during storms and high tides. Inland cities near large rivers also experience more flooding, especially in the Midwest and Northeast. Hotter and drier weather and earlier snow melt mean that wildfires in the West start earlier in the year, last later into the fall, threaten more homes, cause more evacuations, and burn more acreage.

You get the message. Or, do you? And will the American public?

According to Texas Tech associate professor Katharine Hayhoe, a prominent climate scientist and lead author of the U.S. National Climate Assessment, and an expert reviewer for the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the language doesn’t differ all that much from previous national assessments.

National Guard soldiers conducting Hurricane Sandy reconnaissance patrols. Photo credit: U.S. Army 

“This assessment is not written for other scientists; it’s written for everyone who is or will be affected by climate change in the United States, and today that includes nearly all of us,” she explained. “For that reason, to the extent possible, we have written the report using straightforward language that does not sacrifice scientific accuracy but aims to be much easier to understand than the average scientific study.”

The straightforward communication, coupled with widespread impacts and last year’s costly natural disasters, could combine to give climate change its 15 minutes of “fame” in the public and media consciousness and in the public policy spotlight. Since the last assessment, in 2009, the U.S. has observed enough accelerated effects of climate impacts and weather whoppers to lead the Los Angeles Times to call the assessment “a grim overview.”

Media Reporting on the Findings

Federal reports are a tricky thing, from the inter-agency politicking to the timing of the release and the messaging and all else that goes into the daily news cycle. Yet with strong language and a synthesis of robust research, the assessment vividly describes a heavy toll that climate change is causing.

And many in the media have paid attention:

  • Associated Press reporter Seth Borenstein wrote that climate change is already changing daily life. “Global warming is already changing America from sea to rising sea and is affecting how Americans live …”
  • USA Today put it this way: “How far off are the effects of climate change? Not far at all, says a new federal report that warns American lives are already being changed, and their behavior could make the problem worse.”
  • And according to Reuters, “The consequences of climate change are now hitting the United States on several fronts, including health, infrastructure, water supply, agriculture and especially more frequent severe weather, a congressionally mandated study has concluded.”

Looking at the ‘What’s New?’ in the Assessment

One area in the report that has gained more attention than it did in the last assessment involves the social sciences and the economics of climate impacts. The climate has delivered accelerated effects and infrastructure is being compromised. Businesses are impacted. Governments are planning for adaptation. Meant as a guide for decisionmakers on how to prepare for climate change, the assessment has no policy recommendations. Instead, it looks at how society’s choices about climate change will affect impacts. It examines economic and social costs, and looks at how all levels of government need to address and prepare for impacts and reduce emissions. For example, the report says that “rapid population growth and development in areas that are particularly susceptible to climate change impacts can amplify those impacts. Recognition of these couplings, together with recognition of the multiple-stresses perspective, helps identify the information needs of decisionmakers as they manage risk.”

According to climate scientist Todd Sanford, of the Union of Concerned Scientists, the report reflects an evolution in scientific knowledge about climate change and makes it useful.

“They’ve included chapters on mitigation and adaptation that speak more to the ‘news you can use’ for the elected and appointed officials who are already integrating climate change into their planning,” he said.

Sanford points to the cross-cutting theme chapters, such as the nexus of water, energy, and land-use. He said that the assessment more clearly emphasizes how climate impacts combine with stressors or other elements of change, including changes to land use, increasing water use, and other factors.

“Climate change isn’t happening to individual regions or sectors alone,” Sanford says, “so putting it into a bigger context will help decisionmakers.”

Impacts on Business and Overall Economy Cited

So might the climate assessment, along with other recent reports and findings, help provide a fresh alert? Ceres president Mindy Lubber thinks so. She cites, among other things, economics as a key motivator.

Lubber said, “The draft report is a powerful message that climate change is having widespread impacts that are hurting businesses, hurting the economy and hurting taxpayers who oftentimes bear the biggest financial brunt of extreme weather events.

“We’re still reeling from a year that was marked by an unprecedented hurricane, a historic drought, damaging wildfires and other climate-influenced extreme weather. For insurers alone, U.S. losses last year from these natural disasters totaled $58 billion, more than double the 2000 to 2011 average yearly losses of $27 billion.”

The climate news hasn’t been so rosey lately. Human activity is warming the planet, and evidence indicates that the burning of fossil fuels has been the main contributor to that warming over the past 50 years.

Whether the assessment prompts action on climate is anyone’s guess. One thing’s for sure: There’s a clearer and clearer understanding by scientists and a continuing effort to find the most effective ways to get their message to the American public and their leaders.


(Excerpts from the Assessment)

  • “Global climate is changing, and this is apparent across the U.S. in a wide range of observations. The climate change of the past 50 years is due primarily to human activities, predominantly the burning of fossil fuels.”
  • “Some extreme weather and climate events have increased in recent decades, and there is new and stronger evidence that many of these increases are related to human activities.”
  • “Human-induced climate change is projected to continue and accelerate significantly if emissions of heat-trapping gases continue to increase.”
  • “Impacts related to climate change are already evident in many sectors and are expected to become increasingly challenging across the nation throughout this century and beyond.”
  • “Climate change threatens human health and well-being in many ways, including impacts from increased extreme weather events, wildfire, decreased air quality, diseases transmitted by insects, food, and water, and threats to mental health.”
  • “Infrastructure across the U.S. is being adversely affected by phenomena associated with climate change, including sea-level rise, storm surge, heavy downpours, and extreme heat.”
  • “Reliability of water supplies is being reduced by climate change in a variety of ways that affect ecosystems and livelihoods in many regions, particularly the Southwest, the Great Plains, the Southeast, and the islands of the Caribbean and the Pacific, including the state of Hawaii.”
  • “Adverse impacts to crops and livestock over the next 100 years are expected. Over the next 25 years or so, the agriculture sector is projected to be relatively resilient, even though there will be increasing disruptions from extreme heat, drought, and heavy downpours. U.S. food security and farm incomes will also depend on how agricultural systems adapt to climate changes in other regions of the world.”
  • “Natural ecosystems are being directly affected by climate change, including changes in biodiversity and location of species. As a result, the capacity of ecosystems to moderate the consequences of disturbances such as droughts, floods, and severe storms is being diminished.”
  • “Life in the oceans is changing as ocean waters become warmer and more acidic.”
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Superstorm Sandy was a kind of storm scientists don’t understand well.

Recently I wrote at Slate Magazine about Superstorm Sandy as she barreled into Maryland. It was 10 am and my editor  just asked me to write about whether Sandy’s enormous size was related to climate change. Or, should we assume all storms have a global warming component because climate change has altered the playing field?

Lights flickered and sirens blared in my neighborhood. I knew it was only a matter of time before I lost power. So the interviews happened in quick succession. I first reached MIT’s Kerry Emmanuel, who explained to me that Sandy was a hybrid storm–a rare combination of enormous hurricane and powerful winter storm. From my story:

Emmanuel: It is correct to say that in no individual [weather] event can you really make an attribution to anything, whether it is climate change or El Nino or your grandmother had her tooth pulled this morning. You just can’t do it for a single event. It is just the nature of the game. Now, Sandy is an example of what we call a hybrid storm. It works on some of the same principles as the way hurricanes work but it also works on the same principles as winter storms work. Hurricanes and winter storms are powered by completely different energy sources. The hurricane is powered by the evaporation of sea water. Winter storms are powered by horizontal temperature contrasts in the atmosphere. So hybrid storms are able to tap into both energy sources. That’s why they can be so powerful.

An hour later I reached NCAR climate scientist Kevin Trenberth in Colorado. He explained that a few inches of sea level rise had the potential to make Sandy even more catastrophic. Most scientists seem to be reluctant to tie a single storm to climate change, but sea level rise is much more clearly climate-related and disastrous. It doesn’t take much for an extreme event with a little bit of extra sea level to overtop coastal defenses. I asked Trenberth: What should we expect with Sandy?

Trenberth: You have this picture sometimes that sea level is going up at this slow rate of 3 millimeters per year. You stand there and you watch, and finally it gets up to your toes or it gets up to your ankles. You think finally, I better do something about this. That’s not the way it works. Sea level-rise happens episodically. One minute it looks benign and then a week later suddenly a storm or hurricane comes along like Sandy, and there are major waves, 20-foot waves, and major storm surge, and tremendous damage occurs.

He went on to say:

Even if the storm just happened to do exactly the same things it’s doing anyway, the fact that sea level went up 6 inches last century, and that sea level is somewhat higher now than it has been at any time in recent history, means that all of the coastal regions are experiencing new levels of pounding and erosion. I expect there could be some quite surprising events along some of the coast as a result of that.

In my story headlined Hybrid Hell published at Slate Magazine (their Science and Health section is excellent, check it out!), you can read the complete interviews that I tapped out on my keyboard as water flooded my basement and tree limbs fell around my house.






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Climate Concerns in Boardrooms, But in Business Magazines?

Mention the words business risk and climate change to Howard Kunreuther of Penn’s Wharton School, and he’ll tell you about big changes in risk management in the corporate world. Yet major business periodicals appear to lag behind corporate boardrooms in increasing the awareness of risks posed by a changing climate.

In a story headlined Risky Business, published recently at The Yale Forum, I took a look at how U.S. businesses now are facing major changes in their assessment of catastrophic risk. Floods and droughts are increasingly coming into focus. Supply chain management is now a big concern, because natural hazards around the world can disrupt business at home. Here is how the story begins:

As little as ten years ago, few of the world’s largest corporations issued sustainability strategies to shareholders, reported on greenhouse gas emissions, or disclosed climate change risks. Today, more than 80 percent do.

But while catastrophic risk and sustainability concerns associated with climate change now are increasingly reflected on corporate agendas, leading business magazines — no doubt suffering some of the same economic and growth challenges facing mass media overall — show little real appetite for substantive climate-related reporting.

Nevertheless, climate news important to the business sector clearly is happening. For the first time, G20 leaders put disaster risk management on the agenda at their 2012 summit in Mexico. And U.S. corporations have made substantial progress on emission reduction goals, according to a September 2012 report by the Carbon Disclosure Project, a system for companies to measure and disclose environmental information. As emissions reductions and physical risks of climate change — including drought, wildfires, and floods — raise concerns in boardrooms and among finance ministers in the world’s richest countries, business press coverage appears not to be meeting needs, leaving things to specialized high-priced “insider” newsletters to fill the void.

 I admire the reporting and writing skills of many of the business journalists mentioned in my article and hope they will pursue these big stories, but they will also need the support and backing of their managing editors. You can read the complete story here.
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Digging into climate change, students find more than science

To find the vanguard of climate education in the United States, keep an eye on four teachers in Maryland’s Wicomico County public school district.

Using field trips, editorial cartoons, even parent objections, they’re taking climate change far from the science classroom.

By Lisa Palmer
for the Daily Climate

BERLIN, Md. – Fifth grader Aman Shahzad looked closely at the level attached to the plumb line. “Lower, lower,” she called out. “OK! The bubble is in the middle.” Her classmate, holding the wooden surveyor’s pole, read the measurement: 14 centimeters.

The two students were from Pemberton Elementary School in nearby Salisbury, Md., the first to participate in a new, three-month interdisciplinary unit called “Investigating Climate Science” that spans science, math, economics and government. On this day in early spring on Maryland’s eastern shore, they were on a field trip to Assateague Island, measuring the slope of the beach as the first step in a lesson on sea-level rise.

The unit represents the vanguard of a nationwide effort, pushed by education and science groups, to broaden climate change education

The unit represents the vanguard of a nationwide effort, pushed by education and science groups, to broaden climate change education into a variety of physical and social science classes in public school curricula.

Yet even here, in one the most sophisticated climate change education units in the nation, teachers still feel the need to balance what the world’s scientific bodies know about climate change with what is represented in the public dialogue, avoiding terms like “global warming” and including a lesson questioning humanity’s impact on the problem.

Honing critical thinking

The three-month unit is designed for middle school and high-achieving elementary students. It was developed by four teachers in theWicomico County Public Schools’ gifted and talented program, with help from environmental educator Carrie Samis of the Maryland Coastal Bays Program. Lessons focus on climate science and hone critical thinking skills.

    • In one lesson, students examined and analyzed editorial cartoons related to the proposed Keystone XL pipeline, and discussed the advantages and disadvantages of building a pipeline to ferry crude oil from Alberta’s tarsands to the United States.
    • Another lesson examined the possible causes of changing climates, differentiating between anthropogenic and natural ones. Students studied greenhouse gases, climate indicators, and carbon footprints, then predicted positive and negative effects climate change may have on agriculture, the economy, infrastructure and wildlife.
    • GabeDuhn-400The full-day field trip to Assateague Island showed students how vulnerable the barrier island is to sea-level rise. They conducted a mock debate, acting as local stakeholders, on the impacts of salt marsh migration.
    • One lesson, called “the controversy,” probes “both sides of the story.” It examines uncertainties in historic data, fossil records, ice core samples and tree rings, posing the questions, “How do we know?” and “Where is the proof?”
    • Several lessons are devoted to developing climate action plans and deciding what – if anything – students should do about climate change.

The diversified approach reaches and engages students via a number of different avenues. Gabe Dunn, a fifth grader at Westside Intermediate School, in Hebron, Md., liked the unit’s hands-on science and civics activities, especially debating the viability of land development amid marsh migration and sea-level rise. Cade Stone, a fifth grader at Pemberton Elementary, found the editorial cartoons appealing.

A need for ‘balance’

The unit has generated controversy.

Months before the lessons began, parents voiced concern over the contents and stressed a need for “balance.” Virtually every scientist studying atmospheric and earth sciences says climate change is real and that humans are the cause. But some parents sought inclusion of opposing theories, such as other causes and doubts that climate change is occurring.

Teachers need to discern what is credible and not credible, and part of the job of teachers is to provide signposts to that end.

– Susan Buhr, University of Colorado

In response, Nancy Rowe, one of four teachers developing the unit, devised lessons to show that climate change is not all caused by humans. “We want to be balanced,” Rowe said.

That desire of balance lead the program’s creators to avoid terms like “climate change” or “global warming” in lesson plans, Rowe said, “which would have sent a biased point of view.”

Scientists and educators who conduct workshops for teachers on climate change say this “false-balance” is not the correct approach.

“Human activities are the drivers of recent climate change,” said Susan Buhr, a climate scientist and director of the education and outreach program of the Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Science at the University of Colorado. “Teachers need to discern what is credible and not credible, and part of the job of teachers is to provide signposts to that end.”

‘Science has to lead’

Debate over the tradeoffs and values of how to respond to climate change is appropriate for environmental education, Buhr and other educators say. However, the strong evidence that supports the climate science and human causation of climate change doesn’t warrant equal weight with minority claims, often disputed by other research, that are not credible, they add. “Science has to lead,” Buhr said.

SurveyClass-550Teachers drafting the program said criticism – or the desire to avoid it – influenced their decision to include alternate views. Parental opposition may have been small, said Samis, who helped write the climate curriculum for the Wicomico students. But it “has been at the forefront of my mind the whole time.”

After a local newspaper reported a front-page news story of the Wicomico County schools’ field trip to Assateague, readers accused the teachers of “brainwashing the kids with biased information” that climate change is occurring. “That hurt,” Rowe said. “We are really trying to expose them to both sides so that they can make their own decision about what to think.”

Lively lessons

Buhr disagrees with efforts that allow kids to make their own decisions about established scientific conclusions. “We don’t ask students in science class to make up their own minds over whether they believe in photosynthesis or if the earth is round,” she said. “Why would we be doing that here?”

We aren’t hiding anything. The kids love seeing both sides of a story.
– Nancy Rowe, teacher

Still, the teachers note that teaching the controversy has made for lively lessons in civics, politics and skeptical thinking – part of the goal of the whole unit. And the science is getting through.

The field trip was proof of that.

On this unseasonably warm March day, 160 students on a field trip from the Wicomico County gifted and talented program learned how climate change, sea level rise, and salt marsh migration will affect Maryland’s coastal areas. They also learned about economic, cultural, and social policies and decisions that local land owners, farmers, watermen, developers, and elected officials may have to make as the climate changes.

Science is really a process of discovery, of skepticism, of challenging long-held constructs, and controversy. By addressing parental concerns, discussing the different newspaper stories and linking student experiments to real-world situations, Rowe and her colleagues are, in effect, teaching the kids how to do science.

“We aren’t hiding anything,” Rowe said. “The kids love seeing both sides of a story.”

© Lisa Palmer 2012. All rights reserved.

Lisa Palmer is a freelance reporter in Maryland. Her work has appeared in Scientific American, Nature Climate Change, Fortune, and The Yale Forum, among other outlets. DailyClimate.org is a foundation-funded news service that covers climate change.

Photos of Wicomico County Public Schools students on a field trip to Assateague Island © Lisa Palmer.

This story was originally published by The Daily Climate.

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Climate science education graduates to the next level

The science of global warming has opened rifts in U.S. classrooms like evolution before it, but teaching it differently may improve science literacy overall

By Lisa Palmer

BALTIMORE—Ninth grade science at the Academy for Career and College Education began the usual way last fall. Victoria Matthew’s students learned the difference between biotic and abiotic characteristics, then progressed to the basics of scientific method. By Thanksgiving, they were ready for climate change. That’s when Matthew braced herself.

“Initially, I thought I was going to get a lot of pushback from the kids, said Matthew, a teacher at the inner-city charter school for grades six through 12. “But I didn’t encounter any. I was surprised.”

Like teaching evolution, efforts to improve climate science lessons have opened rifts in classrooms and school districts across the United States. Parents have pressured teachers not to teach the subject. Teachers have watered down the science. Special interests – from the Heartland Institute on the right to Facing the Future on the left – have vied to influence curriculum. Some states and districts have ignored the topic altogether. Others insist on a “balanced” debate that pits a small minority of scientists who deny human-driven climate change against the findings of nearly all earth and atmospheric scientists.

But the landscape is changing rapidly and profoundly in public schools.picture of classroomImage: Wikimedia Commons/Canadian2006

Earlier this month, the education-based nonprofit Achieve, Inc. released draft “next generation science standards” for elementary, middle- and high-school classrooms. Developed from recommendations by the National Research Council, the standards represent the first comprehensive revision of U.S. science curricula in 15 years. They highlight “cross-cutting” concepts that touch various disciplines, giving students a  “cumulative, coherent and usable understanding” of science and engineering. Climate change plays a key role.

Groups are stepping forward to buttress climate science in schools, pushing to ensure the topic is well-represented in new national science standards. Science and education leaders are seeking ways to broaden climate science from a narrow unit of earth science curriculum into an interdisciplinary subject taught across a variety of physical and social science classes.

The hope is that, if educators can effectively teach the nuance and complexity of climate change, the gains would bolster larger efforts to improve science education overall, aiding literacy and critical thinking.

“The reality of climate change is that it’s utterly interdisciplinary,” said Frank Niepold, climate education coordinator for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. “Effective climate change education … has to have strong earth science, biology and physics components, and it has to connect to social science, history, psychology, and economics. It has to answer ‘How did we get into this pickle?'”

Two problems with climate change make it a subject teachers are loath to teach: Climate change is complex – touching on economic, social, political and scientific issues to a far greater degree than most other science topics. And climate change politics put teachers square in the middle of an ideological battle.

Climate science is now taught in many districts in the earth science curriculum, mostly in middle school grades. Left there, it’s doomed for failure, Niepold said. As students advance to high school, core science becomes specialized, displacing interdisciplinary, predominantly earth science-based concepts like climate change.

Statistics show that 83 percent of U.S. high school students take biology, 50 percent take chemistry, 20 percent take physics, and just 20 percent take earth science courses, said Niepold. “Even if the earth science classes were amazingly effective, we’re only reaching 20 percent of all high school students.”

More troubling, earth science is frequently reserved for kids not destined for college, said Niepold. Many college-bound high school students are fast-tracked through biology, chemistry, physics, and advanced placement science classes, skipping the topic. As a result, college-bound seniors can emerge from high school without much exposure to climate science.

“Climate change should be everywhere in the curriculum, but as a result of its complexity it is nowhere,” said Jill Karsten, program director for education and diversity at the geosciences directorate of the National Science Foundation.

The push to broaden climate science curricula brings up the second problem: By embedding climate change into an economics or ecology lesson, schools and teachers expose themselves to charges that they’re politicizing the classroom.

Roberta Johnson, executive director of Boulder, Colo.-based National Earth Science Teachers Association, recalls an incident reported by an Indiana teacher on a recent survey: The teacher had started a climate change unit. A parent, angry at the lesson plan, threatened to commandeer the classroom and dispute the legitimacy of the science. The teacher, thinking the dispute could lead to a useful discussion on science and truth, welcomed a debate. But before any such thing could happen, school administrators killed the entire unit.

That teacher’s struggle is not unique, Johnson noted. Last fall the association surveyed 555 kindergarten through 12th grade teachers across the United States who teach climate change. Forty percent said they were pressured not to teach climate change at all. A separate poll conducted by the National Science Teachers Association in Arlington, Va., found that 82 percent of high school and middle school science educators have faced skepticism about climate change from their students.

“It is disheartening to see the struggle teachers are having in the classroom,” Johnson said.

As of 2008, the latest year available, 29 states taught climate change directly, via a course that specifically covered it, according to an analysis by NOAA and the Technical Education Research Center for earth and space science education. Twelve others taught it indirectly – mentioning it, for example, in a chemistry lesson on greenhouse gases. Eight states failed to adequately address atmosphere, weather or climate concepts: Florida, Kentucky, Maine, Nebraska, North Dakota, Oklahoma, Wisconsin and Wyoming. Iowa had no state standards.

State laws in Texas, South Dakota, and Louisiana require that any lesson on climate science be balanced equally with instruction that other scientists dispute the consensus findings that society’s greenhouse gas emissions are altering planetary systems such as the atmosphere and oceans. The newest is in Tennessee, where state law, enacted in April, allows teachers to challenge climate change and evolution in their classrooms without fear of sanction. Gov. Bill Haslam, noting the bill passed the Legislature by a three-to-one margin, allowed the measure to become law despite misgivings, saying he did not believe the legislation “changes the scientific standards that are taught in our schools.”

Tennessee, Texas and South Dakota aren’t alone.

In state legislatures and before local school boards across the country – Oklahoma, Mississippi, Washington State, Wyoming, Colorado, California, among others – political battles over the teaching of climate change in public schools have flared [Sidebar: Conflict abounds in climate education].

In many ways the political debate over climate science mirrors the fight to teach evolution theory, a battle that has been waged in the nation’s classrooms and courts since the Scopes’ Trial in 1925. But there is a key difference. The teaching of evolution today enjoys constitutional protections separating church from state. Unless all elements of the causes and impacts of climate change are clearly laid out in state standards, no legal mechanisms require that climate science be taught accurately.

Across the country, scientific accuracy is being compromised in schools, say science educators. Even when teachers and school districts include lessons on climate change, earnest teachers think teaching “both sides” of the climate debate is scientifically valid. The Earth Science Teachers Association survey found 36 percent of the teachers polled nationally had been urged to teach “both sides.” In southern states, 12 percent of those teachers said they were required to do so, whereas just 1 percent of teachers in the Northeast reported such a mandate.

“They tell us they need resources to teach ‘both sides’ of climate change well,” said Susan Buhr, who runs teacher workshops as director of the education and outreach program of the Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Science at the University of Colorado.

“From our perspective, there aren’t ‘both sides,'” she added. “There is the scientifically credible side, and then there is the misrepresentation side in the public dialogue.”

But other regions and states, including some with conservative-leaning politics such as West Virginia, have strong standards for earth science, said Mark McCaffrey, program director of the National Center for Science Education, which has long defended the teaching of evolution in public schools and earlier this year announced it would start doing the same for climate science. California and Massachusetts are among states viewed as progressive in climate science because they integrate climate literacy principles into the state standards.

In a California ninth grade ecology unit within biology class, for example, students might examine a 100-year survey of the state’s wildlife population to illustrate the impact climate change is having on animals today.

In Victoria Matthew’s biology class in Baltimore, students examined global ocean water temperatures and coral bleaching, and how that relates to climate change. A hands-on activity included an oyster dissection, and Matthew discussed how climate change is expected to impact oyster populations in Chesapeake Bay.

Efforts are underway to expand curriculum in classrooms. Among the most promising is an initiative underway in Maryland and Delaware, one of 15 test cases funded by the National Science Foundation to research ways to improve climate education [Sidebar: Joint science effort pushes climate education in Maryland and Delaware].

The test program encourages scientists and educators to work together to address local impacts – sea-level rise in the Chesapeake Bay, or rising temperatures in urban areas – and develop lessons that could apply elsewhere in the curriculum, said the study’s principal investigator Donald Boesch, of the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science.

Most information for educators focuses on global climate change, but Boesch said greater learning takes place when climate impacts are examined at the local level.

Similar climate education research programs focused on local impacts are being developed for Great Lakes and southeastern states.

But there is a larger goal here, educators say.

On May 11, the National Research Council, in coordination with the National Science Teachers Association, the American Association for the Advancement of Science and Achieve released the draft Next Generation Science Standards, laying out key scientific ideas and practices all students should learn by the end of high school. Replacing standards issued more than a decade ago, the framework aims to connect knowledge from various disciplines into a “coherent and scientifically based” world view. Climate change factors highly in the effort, which emphasizes earth and space content as well as cross-cutting themes such as modeling, systems behavior, and uncertainty.

Educators say the push to improve the quality of climate change education would directly affect the 26 states that have partnered to develop the standards and could ripple through the entire educational system. Climate change, in effect, has become the poster child for what the National Academy of Sciences hopes to accomplish with science education.

“If we can get the standards … climate-rich, then that’s going to have a domino effect in getting into state standards, and getting into textbooks and curricula,” said Karsten at the National Science Foundation.

“That could be pretty catalytic.”

This article originally appeared at The Daily Climate, the climate change news source published by Environmental Health Sciences, a nonprofit media company.

On the web:

National Center for Science Education

National Earth Science Teachers Assoc.

Facing the Future climate education materials

National Science Teacher’s Assoc. survey summary

National Research Council next generation science standards (draft)

National Research Council’s K-12 science education framework

Maryland-Delaware Climate Change Education, Assessment, and Research program

Great Lakes Climate Change Science and Education Network

Climate Literacy Project in the South East

TERC 2007 study on revolutionizing earth science education [pdf]

TERC 2008 analysis of state climate curricula

Climate Literacy and Energy Awareness project

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Green Business: The bottom line on sustainability

Last week I was in Lubbock, located in the southern high plains in West Texas, for the annual conference of the Society of Environmental Journalists. The event is one of the professional development highlights of my year because I get to hear lectures and a wide range of viewpoints on the latest environmental hot topics. I also get to keep company with the best and brightest editors and reporters in North America.

On Saturday I moderated a panel called Green Business: The bottom line on tackling sustainability, featuring Al Halvorsen, senior director of environmental sustainability at PepsiCo; Sharlene Leurig, senior manager of water and insurance programs at Ceres; and Clint Wilder, senior editor at Clean Edge, Inc. and co-author of Clean Tech Nation. The panelists discussed a full range of sustainability issues, from supply chains, energy use and product planning to manufacturing facilities, natural resources and waste management.

A couple of key points from the panel:

-Sustainability is no longer an option for corporations; it’s a necessity.

-Companies are now influencing their communities to conserve resources.

-Challenges with financing and long term investments in clean tech are limiting this sector from scaling up.

What difficulties are you facing with long-term sustainability planning? I hope you’ll add your comment and join the conversation.

An audio file of the panel is here.

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