CLEAN > Teaching Climate and Energy Science > Teaching Climate Science > 5. Understanding Climate

Teaching about our understanding of climate is supported by five key concepts:

a. The components and processes of Earth's climate system are subject to the same physical laws as the rest of the Universe. Therefore, the behavior of the climate system can be understood and predicted through careful, systematic study.

b. Environmental observations are the foundation for understanding the climate system. From the bottom of the ocean to the surface of the Sun, instruments on weather stations, buoys, satellites, and other platforms collect climate data. To learn about past climates, scientists use natural records, such as tree rings, ice cores, and sedimentary layers. Historical observations, such as native knowledge and personal journals, also document past climate change.

c. Observations, experiments, and theory are used to construct and refine computer models that represent the climate system and make predictions about its future behavior. Results from these models lead to better understanding of the linkages between the atmosphere-ocean system and climate conditions and inspire more observations and experiments. Over time, this iterative process will result in more reliable projections of future climate conditions.

d. Our understanding of climate differs in important ways from our understanding of weather. Climate scientists' ability to predict climate patterns months, years, or decades into the future is constrained by different limitations than those faced by meteorologists in forecasting weather days to weeks into the future.

e. Scientists have conducted extensive research on the fundamental characteristics of the climate system and their understanding will continue to improve. Current climate change projections are reliable enough to help humans evaluate potential decisions and actions in response to climate change.

When it comes to climate science, how do scientists know what they know? This aspect of climate literacy addresses the essential question of how we go about studying and understanding the climate system. Climate science follows the same methods and principles of all scientific research, and is based on asking questions, making observations, testing ideas, interpreting data, peer review, and communication of findings. The process of science has demonstrated its reliability over the course of hundreds of years, and it has brought benefits to all aspects of human society.

Because of its policy implications, climate science tends to be challenged more than other types of science. But that does not refute the overwhelming amount of scientific knowledge we have gained on this topic. Studies repeatedly show that climate researchers virtually all agree that human activities are altering the climate system. Nonetheless, some portion of the general public is under the impression that scientists are still debating whether or not humans are changing the climate. In fact, climate science is one of the most rigorous examples of scientific inquiry, practiced over several decades by scientists all over the world, and from multiple scientific disciplines. As this research expands our understanding, Its basic findings have remained unchanged since the late 1950s.

Science is a formal process, with built-in integrity

Many people do not know how science is actually conducted. A good starting place is to describe the iterative process of scientific research: from the collection of observations, review of prior research, analysis of data, modeling of various scenarios, and communication of findings, Because so few people know an active scientist (let alone a climate scientist), and many researchers do not communicate their research to non-technical audiences, it is important to help learners understand some of the basics of the work of climate scientists. These concepts are not unique to climate science; all areas of scientific research share common themes such as:

  • Data is collected through a wide range of tools and techniques.
  • Data is rigorously checked for quality and accuracy. When scientists use the term "uncertainty," they do not mean that they are unclear in their understanding. Uncertainty is a mathematical term that expresses a range of measured values, rather than one specific pinpoint.
  • Models are a set of mathematical equations that are developed by measuring known processes that operate on Earth. Models are compared to actual observations in a process called calibration. Climate models can reproduce the same variations we see in today's climate, purely by using mathematics. Only once a model is well-calibrated is it used to project future changes in climate.
  • The process of peer review allows for transparency in methods, results, analysis, and conclusions. Data is made available such that any analysis can be repeated by other researchers. Published work is scrutinized by others who are knowledgeable in the details of that topic. Scientists share data, methods, and results with other scientists.
  • Peer reviewed publications are an important part of the scientific research process. Even though these articles are usually very technical and often hard to understand by a non-expert, they still serve as the primary way that climate science is communicated.
  • Scientific agencies such as NOAA, NASA, and the US Geological Survey are public institutions that serve the citizens by studying the Earth.

Helping students understand these ideas

An area of common confusion that educators, students, and the public have is that climate scientists disagree as to whether or not climate change is happening, or if it is happening, whether or not humans are the primary cause. There are a variety of reasons for this, but the bottom line is the vast majority of scientists who study climate and publish in peer reviewed journals do agree that human activity is causing the planet to warm. A related area of confusion is that most people don't understand how climate scientists know what they know, which can make the findings harder to appreciate. This is partially because scientists aren't always good at communicating their research to non-technical audiences, and partially due to the way science is communicated in the media.

Another hurdle is the perception that understanding science is overly challenging. Here, educators can take active steps to engage students in science. Students will experience for themselves that science can be fun, intuitive to understand, and relevant to everyday life.

Bringing these ideas into your classroom

The best - and most fun - way to help students relate to the scientific process is to immerse them in it. The process of engaging in science can be accessible to all grade levels and can be brought into the classroom with a variety of approaches. There are countless relevant scientific questions to examine. Whether in teams or as individuals, learners can become immersed in the inquiry process of research, observations, data analysis, synthesis, and presentation that lies at the heart of all robust science.

  • Make measurements of weather: temperature, rainfall, wind, snow, etc.
  • Measure the temperature of different colored surfaces to explore albedo (the reflectiveness) of different materials.
  • Use local meteorological data to answer questions.
  • Compare local or measured data to other time periods or places.
  • Measure energy use.
  • Communicate findings to peers or the community.

Another tactic is for students to watch videos of engaging scientists at work. Climate scientists like Richard Alley (Earth: The Operators' Manual) and Katherine Hayhoe (Global Weirding) are masters of communicating climate science in an approachable, engaging style.

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2013 IPCC Summary for Policymakers steps through the causes, effects, and impacts of climate change. See also the FAQ brochure (pdf) which is less technical.

The Real Process of Science is an updated, realistic replacement for the cookbook-style "scientific method." This interactive graphic from Berkeley highlights the cyclic process of scientific inquiry and advancement.

Process of Science - This web resource from VisionLearning contains 16 modules describing various aspects of scientific inquiry, data analysis, peer review, ethics and more.

The 97% consensus on global warming from Skeptical Science offers a summary of research that measures the amount of agreement in the climate science community.

Examining the Scientific Consensus on Climate Change, P. Doran, M. Zimmerman. EOS, Transactions American Geophysical Union, 2009, vol. 90, no. 3, p. 22, 200. This article compares the consensus views of scientists and the general public on climate change.

RealClimate - Read real-time discussions of emerging climate science and policy, written by climate scientists.

Scientist at Work - A blog from the New York Times that provides a glimpse of the many challenges of conducting research in Antarctica.

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