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Exploring the Socio-political Dimensions of Global Warming

Troy D. Sadler & Michelle Klosterman College of Education, University of Florida

Manuscript under review for publication in The Science Teacher.

Global warming represents one of the most critical issues facing society today. Given the fundamental connections to science, we believe that science teachers have a responsibility to help students understand this issue and become better prepared to negotiate the difficult decisions associated with global warming. Although global warming is unquestionably a scientific issue in that it deals with the physical, chemical, and biological systems of earth, it is also a socio-political issue. Debates associated with global warming, such as the extent to which the issue is related to anthropogenic processes and what should or should not be done in response, are heavily influenced by social, political, and economic factors.

The science associated with global warming, such as atmospheric composition and the absorption of radiation by CO2 and other gases, easily fits within the canons of traditional science and many states’ science education standards. However, the socio- political dimensions of global warming are less typical content areas for science classrooms. Some may even argue that sociopolitical dimensions of the issue should be actively excluded from science education curricula. In contrast, an emerging group of science educators specifically interested in “socioscientific issues,” like global warming, argue that attempts to isolate the underlying science from other aspects of these issues undermine the educative experiences (Barrett & Pedretti, 2005; Lazarowitz & Bloch, 2005; Zeidler et al., 2005). Students will not become better prepared to deal with complex issues if the issues are artificially decontextualized (Sadler & Zeidler, 2005). Therefore, in order to promote scientific literacy, which entails using “appropriate scientific processes and principles in making personal decisions” and engaging “intelligently in public discourse and debate about matters of scientific and technological concern” (NRC, 1996, p. 13), science teachers need to provide opportunities for students to explore both the scientific and socio-political dimensions of issues such as global warming.

We are not suggesting that science curricula be transformed to focus on the nuances of economic, political, and ethical theories, but we do support the following two points: 1) Socioscientific issues, such as global warming, should be featured aspects of science curricula and 2) Instruction related to issues such as global warming should help students come to understand the complex underpinnings of socioscientific issues including socio-political factors.

Given these theoretical commitments, we designed and implemented a global warming unit with the goal of helping students understand the issue, the underlying science content, and the socio-political controversy associated with the issue. The complete unit spanned three weeks, and students engaged in small group activities, laboratory investigations, and teacher-led discussions. In this report, we outline one of the activities designed to help students conceptualize the socio-political complexity of global warming through an exploration of varied perspectives on the issue.

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