Teaching Climate Controversies: Lessons Learned from the CLEAN Climate Communications Workshop

Summary written by Karin Kirk, based on presentations at the 2012 workshop, Communicating Climate Science in the Classroom.

Controversial scientific issues are often closely tied to public policy, thus it is essential that educators respond with effective pedagogy for teaching controversy and strive to create a scientifically literate population. Climate change can be particularly challenging to teach and educators face several challenges:

  • Complex science that spans multiple disciplines and is rapidly evolving
  • Widespread public misunderstanding of basic climate science (Leiserowitz et al., 2010)
  • Deliberate misinformation campaigns (Hoggan and Littlemore, 2009; Oreskes and Conway, 2010)
  • Close ties between public policy and climate science; climate-related policy can have negative perceptions such as economic ramifications or emissions caps
  • Conflicts between students' worldviews and ability to accurately understand the science.

This page presents some insights and tactics for teaching climate science, based on presentations at the 2012 Climate Communications workshop.

Know your Audience

Public opinion research conducted by Anthony Lieserowitz and others has revealed that individuals perceive climate change in different ways. Their research identified 6 distinct types, termed "Global Warming's Six Americas" by Lieserowitz et al. (2009). The percentage of Americans in each of the Six Americas categories evolves over time and can reflect economic and political environment of the country.

This is connected to classroom teaching because it reveals that people perceive the same information differently. Students do not process new information in a uniform way, rather new ideas are actively interpreted according to the existing knowledge and values of the listener. "The facts are actively interpreted by these different audiences, who construct their own mental models in accordance with what they "know", value, and feel. Knowledge is necessary, but insufficient." (Lieserowitz, 2010).

This means that when you present material about climate change to your class, it may be interpreted differently by different students. Thus it is worthwhile to know your audience and seek a pathway that encourages cognitive change.

Some examples:

  • Students who are already familiar with climate change but are concerned or upset about the negative impacts would benefit from focusing on solutions and adaptation measures.
  • Students who are disengaged with climate science would need to understand how climate change is relevant to their own lives, such as by using local examples of climate records or climate impacts.
  • Students who are confused about the divergent opinions about climate science would benefit from an activity that allows them to construct their own knowledge, such as by working with datasets.
  • People who fall into the "dissmissive" category can be the most reluctant to change their minds. This is partly because of the worldview backfire effect (discussed further below) and because the substantial accumulation of climate data can all be viewed as part of a conspiracy. Hence the more educators rely on data from government agencies and reports by the IPCC, the more this reinforces the perceived conspiracy (Leiserowitz, 2009).


Misconceptions are a fact of life in teaching, and play a significant role in teaching climate change because of the widespread occurrence of climate misconceptions (Leiserowitz et al., 2010). These misconceptions "lead some people to doubt that global warming is happening or that human activities are a major contributor, to misunderstand the cause and therefore the solutions, and to be unaware of the risks" (Leiserowitz, 2009).

Uncovering misconceptions

Sometimes misconceptions make themselves apparent without any special prompting from the instructor, but there may well be more misconceptions than you realize. Many techniques can be used to uncover misconceptions, including:

To learn more about about techniques to understand student knowledge, see the On the Cutting Edge website about assessing student learning or the book Classroom Assessment Techniques by Angelo and Cross (1993) .

Types of misconceptions

Some misconceptions are largely cognitive such as a misunderstanding of the role of the ozone layer. But misconceptions can be intertwined with one's worldview, such as the degree of anthropogenic forcing in the climate system. There is likely to be some overlap between both types of misconceptions.

It's important to understand the underlying cause of a student's misunderstanding so that you can take the best course to address it. A 'simple' cognitive misconception can be addressed using common pedagogies as described below. But worldview misconceptions are persistent and can actually be strengthened by traditional approaches (Nyhan and Reifler 2010). Read more about the worldview backfire effect below.

Addressing misconceptions

Suggestions from Susan Buhr include:

  • Raise student metacognition (Learn more from the On the Cutting Edge website about metacognition)
  • Cause cognitive conflict
  • Understand the nature of science and the quality of research (learn more about Teaching the Process of Science
  • Help students "self-repair" misconceptions and work through problems that require a new understanding
  • Engage students in argumentation techniques to strengthen and articulate new knowledge. Note that scientific argumentation is not the same thing as arguing. For example, using Structured Academic Controversy.

For explanations of these strategies and more information about misconceptions, see How Do I Get My Students Over Their Alternative Conceptions (Misconceptions) for Learning? by Joan Lucariello.

The Debunking Handbook
Debunking Myths

As has been described above, misconceptions are common, stem from multiple sources and are hard to correct. Some well-intentioned attempts to correct misinformation may actually serve to strengthen it. The Myth Debunking Handbook , by John Cook and Stephan Lewandowsky, provides insights and strategies for correcting misconceptions.

Common backfire effects

The familiarity backfire effect

Repeating a misconception can unintentionally reinforce it. Instead, focus on the key scientific facts you wish to communicate. The fact sheet pictured at right was produced by the Centers for Disease Control and was intended to correct misconceptions about the flu vaccine. An experimental study found that some people had a diminished understanding about the vaccine 30 minutes after reading the flyer (Skurnik et al., 2005). The headlines in the flyer repeat common myths and therefore reinforced them. In a classroom setting, emphasize and underscore the key facts. Repeat these concepts often enough so that you increase your students' familiarity with them.

The overkill backfire effect

Deliberate misinformation can be packaged into tidy headlines, but scientists tend to respond with lengthy paragraphs. A simple myth is more cognitively attractive than an over-complicated correction (Schwarz et al., 2007).

As you prepare for teaching climate topics in class, think about the areas that are complex to explain. Strive to streamline your explanations while still keeping the science accurate.

Tips from Skeptical Science:

  • Use simple language, short sentences, subheadings and paragraphs.
  • Avoid dramatic language and derogatory comments that alienate people.
  • Stick to the facts.
  • Use graphics wherever possible to illustrate your points.
  • End on a strong and simple message that people will remember.

The Skeptical Science website has a list of climate science "headlines" that present concise corrections for common myths.

The worldview backfire effect

When an issue is strongly tied to an individual's values, they are very reluctant to change their mind about it. Setting aside the matter of climate change for a moment, think about a philosophy with which you closely identify. Now, consider what it would take to reverse your opinion of that closely-held belief. More than likely, it would be difficult for you to change your mind, and rightfully so since this belief is related to your overall sense of values.

That is the worldview effect. The more you identify personally with an issue, the more resolute you are about it. In the case of climate change, there are several opportunities for worldview backfire effects. Where potential climate policy overlaps with worldviews on the role of government regulation, the economic impacts of steps to protect the environment, and the concept of cooperation among nations in an otherwise competitive economy.

Research has shown that attempts to correct misinformation that is in conflict with one's worldview can actually serve to reinforce it (Nyhan and Reifler, 2010). So where does that leave educators? Cook and Lewandowsky advise framing the topics in a way that it will not conflict with people's worldview. For example, a conservative audience was more accepting of climate science when nuclear power was presented as part of the solution (Kahan et al., 2007). In another example, the Global Warming's Six Americas study reveals considerable alignment between the dismissive group and the concerned group when asked about energy-saving measures (Leiserowitz, 2009).

Affective Domain and Teaching Controversy

Good practices when teaching controversy, from Susan Buhr, include:

  • Simple tactics like acknowledging the value in a person's question can help prevent a breakdown in communication.
  • Separate students' political beliefs from their scientific understanding.
  • Do stay personable and maintain a professional affect.

For more information, see Teaching Controversial Issues from the On the Cutting Edge website about the affective domain.

Suggested Pedagogies

  • Be concise whenever possible. Work on simple, direct explanations, even for complex processes.
  • Use evidence or reason.
  • Don't rely on appealing to authority, such as "the IPCC says...." Use clear and logical explanations for processes and projections.
  • Generate curiosity in students, then fill their "curiosity gap" with new information. "Fight sticky ideas with stickier ideas" (Heath and Heath, 'Made to Stick')
  • Analogies can be powerful teaching tools and can translate complex ideas in a memorable way.
  • Compelling visuals can portray volumes of information at a glance.

Specific Pedagogic Strategies

  • Active learning (students construct knowledge)
  • Role-playing
  • Case studies
  • Working with data
  • Using local representations of global problems
  • Deliberate use of misinformation (agnotology)
  • Beware of preachy lectures, jargon, excessive appeals to authority

Examples from the CLEAN collection

These three examples were used at the Climate Communication workshop as demonstrations of teaching activities that encompass active learning and deliberate communication about climate change.

Related materials from the Climate Communication workshop

  • Workshop program, with links to presentations and webcast recordings.
  • Workshop products, including activities specifically selected for successful communications and examples of myth debunking written by workshop participants.


Angelo and Cross (1993) Classroom Assessment Techniques: A Handbook for College Teachers . San Francisco : Jossey-Bass Publishers.

Cook, J., Lewandowsky, S. (2011), The Debunking Handbook. St. Lucia, Australia: University of Queensland. November 5. ISBN 978-0-646-56812-6.

Leiserowitz, A., Smith, N. & Marlon, J.R. (2010) Americans' Knowledge of Climate Change . Yale University. New Haven, CT: Yale Project on Climate Change Communication. 

Leiserowitz, A., Smith, N. & Marlon, J.R. (2009) Global Warming's Six Americas. Yale University. New Haven, CT: Yale Project on Climate Change Communication.

Leiserowitz, A., Maibach, E., Roser-Renouf, C., Feinberg, G., & Howe, P. (2012) Climate change in the American mind: Americans' global warming beliefs and attitudes in September, 2012. Yale University and George Mason University. New Haven, CT: Yale Project on Climate Change Communication.

Lucariello, J. How Do I Get My Students Over Their Alternative Conceptions (Misconceptions) for Learning? City University of New York.

Kahan, D. Braman, D., Gastil, J., Slovic, P., Mertz, C.K. (2007) Culture and identity-protective cognition: explaining the white male effect in risk perception. Journal of Empirical Legal Studies, 4 (3) (2007), pp. 465–505.

Keeley, P. and Tugel, J. Uncovering Student Ideas in Science, Vol 4: 25 New Formative Assessment Probes, (2009) NSTA Press Book, 208p.

Nyhan, B., and Reifler, J. (2010). When Corrections Fail: The Persistence of Political Misperceptions. Political Behavior, 32, 303-330.

Schwarz, N., Sanna, L., Skurnik, I., & Yoon, C. (2007). [link https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S006526010639003X 'Metacognitive experiences and the intricacies of setting people straight: Implications for debiasing and public information campaigns']. Advances in Experimental Social Psychology, 39, 127-161.

Skurnik, I., Yoon, C., Park, D., & Schwarz, N. (2005). How warnings about false claims become recommendations. Journal of Consumer Research, 31, 713-724.