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IB Community Theme: sharing our humanity

Climate change: A Theory of Knowledge Lesson for Earth Day, 22 April

John Kamau and Julian Kitching SOS-Hermann Gmeiner International College, Ghana

To stimulate a general interest in the planet on which we live To explain and understand the variety of attitudes that exist concerning changing climate To examine how knowers respond to the knowledge claims made by other people To promote an understanding of the nature of the natural and human sciences, and ethics To explore the implications of how knowledge is generated and distributed in these areas To develop an appreciation of the complexity of knowledge

Climate change: Theory of Knowledge global lesson


To highlight how theoretical knowledge can, and often must, be translated into actions

Climate change: Theory of Knowledge global lesson



for Teachers

The Shape of the Lesson

This diagram shows the intended trajectory of the lesson. At the upper level, we have the real world of practical problems that need to be addressed and, wherever possible, resolved. At the lower level, we enter the TOK world in which more fundamental issues of knowledge are examined. Firstly, aspects of climate change that relate directly to science and economics are identified; followed by a deeper exploration of the relationship between those two disciplinary areas. The products of the analysis can then be employed in order to gain insights about the original problem and the solutions to it that might be possible and desirable. Additionally, it is suggested that this material will offer some guidance as to how other global issues could be addressed. These developments return us to the upper level of the diagram again.

The Components of the Lesson

This resource is divided into four parts:


A. Discovery: what the scientists claim and what the lay person makes of it B. Policy: what the economists say and the basis upon which their claims lie

Climate change: Theory of Knowledge global lesson


C. Territory: what the scientists and the economists have to say to each other D. Action: what practical responses should be implemented
These components can be visually represented as in this diagram:

Realistically, the material presented here is likely to occupy at least two sessions of around 80 minutes. For a shorter and slightly shallower treatment, it would be possible to eliminate the territory section. -----------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------

Prior requirements for students

This lesson is probably best undertaken at a later stage in the TOK course. This is because it demands some familiarity with the nature of the natural sciences, the human sciences and ethics as areas of knowledge. -----------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------

Preparation by students

Climate change: Theory of Knowledge global lesson


It might be advisable to give the students the statements from Part A in advance. In fact, the whole of focus activity 1 could be set as a preceding homework assignment in order to save time.

Climate change: Theory of Knowledge global lesson


PART A: DISCOVERY Focus Activity 1: Scientific Claims

Science is the best defence against believing what we want to. (Jack Cohen) Climate change, global warming, greenhouse effect. These terms often dominate discussion in our time. We are told they are important even that they describe the single most important challenge facing humanity in the 21st century. Lets start by taking a dispassionate look at some things that scientists are telling us

1. Since 2005, the mean concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, as measured at the Mauna Loa Observatory, has increased from 378ppm to 387ppm. (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration 2009) 2. In 1960, measurements at the same location showed a carbon dioxide concentration of slightly less than 320ppm. (NOAA 2009) 3. Data from historical records, ice cores, tree rings, corals, and thermometers show no general upward trend in mean global temperature between the years 1000 and 1900. (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change 2001) 4. Over the 100-year period from 1906 to 2005, there was an increase in mean global temperature of 0.74C. (IPCC 2007) 5. Measurements of historical data from Antarctic ice cores show wide fluctuations in carbon dioxide concentration and air temperatures (derived from relative isotopic abundance) over the last 500,000 years, BUT there is a close positive correlation between their values throughout. (NOAA 1997) 6. Since 1910, tide-gauge measurements have shown an mean sea level rise of almost 20cm. (Permanent Service for Mean Sea Level 2008)

1. Increasing levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere contribute to an increase in the mean global temperature (i.e. carbon dioxide is a greenhouse gas). 2. Increases in the mean global temperature contribute to an increase in mean sea level. 3. Recent increases in carbon dioxide concentration in the atmosphere are mainly the result of human activity. 4. Computer modeling suggests that, depending upon our responses to the current situation, global warming by the end of the 21st century will produce a further mean sea level rise of between 19cm and 58cm (IPCC 2007)

Climate change: Theory of Knowledge global lesson


5. Carbon dioxide is a fertilizer, so more of it will promote plant growth 6. Global warming may interfere with deep ocean circulation shutting off the Gulf Stream air movement and thus plunging Europe into a much colder climate 7. Low-lying countries like the Maldives may cease to exist or, like highlypopulated Bangladesh, become largely inundated with water Questions 1. As an IB student (i.e. a non-specialist), what grounds do you have for accepting or challenging each of the statements above? What leads you to confidence or to doubt? 2. Is there any general difference between your responses to the items under information and inference?

Notes for the Teacher on Focus Activity 1

Here are some possible responses. If they do not arise from student discussion, they can be used as prompts: ACCEPTING INFORMATION 1. The sources seem authoritative. 2. Scientists know what they are doing they are highly trained and have specialized knowledge and published results are reviewed by expert peers. CHALLENGING INFORMATION 1. Why Mauna Loa? this is just one location, and where is it anyway? 2. How did they measure mean global temperature? You cant measure the temperature everywhere! What about the oceans, for example? 3. How can we be sure about how to interpret proxy variables such as tree rings and coral growth? Especially as we are to believe that the result of all these measurements is such a small and precise temperature increase 4. I cannot see much evidence from my own everyday experience that supports this (carbon dioxide is invisible, less than one degree Celsius is not really detectable). 5. Whats a tide gauge? ACCEPTING INFERENCES 1. Our chemistry teacher explained how carbon dioxide traps certain kinds of radiation she knows what shes talking about. 2. Reasoning is an essential component of science it is unlikely that scientists would employ it badly.

Climate change: Theory of Knowledge global lesson


3. When ice (over land) melts and flows into the oceans as liquid water, it will raise sea level because there will now be more water in the oceans its logical! CHALLENGING INFERENCES 1. Just because the variation in two variables shows a correlation, it doesnt mean that one causes the other. A could cause B, or B could cause A, or (unknown) C could cause both A and B, etc 2. If carbon dioxide levels have risen many times before in the earths history, why should we believe that humans are responsible for it this time? 3. Even if the rise in sea level over the past century is true, how can we know how the environment will behave in the next century? its all too complex! 4. Computer modeling is only as good as the inputted data, and how do we know that the algorithms themselves are accurate? 5. The term fertilizer is confusing here as it conflicts with general usage of the term. 6. That carbon dioxide promotes plant growth is a well-known fact, but it is taken out of context here and applied to the whole biosphere without consideration of other variables particularly temperature! 7. The relation between deep ocean circulation and major movements of air masses is at best speculative. Further research will reveal the methods through which climatological data is collected. For example, the use of satellites to measure sea level must take into account the slow progressive decay in their orbits. Sea temperatures over the years have been measured by ships, but the methods used have changed and corrective calculations must be made in the interests of consistency. Sometimes, critics of science cite these alterations in the treatment of data as evidence that scientists are cooking the books this is another example that supports the need for scientific literacy among the general public. There is a potential connection here with internal assessment skills in Group 4 subjects. Students are expected to show awareness of uncertainties as they apply to data collection. In biology, the natural variability in data collected from living systems tends to dwarf the possible errors that arise from the instruments of measurement, whereas in physics it is often the other way around (hence the need in physics to propagate uncertainties arising from the use of instruments through the processing).

Focus Activity 2: The Problem of the Lay Knower

To the lay person, true knowledge about climate change is not so simple. In 1992, His Royal Highness the Prince of Wales, in a speech titled "First Unshake the Spirit", captured the dilemma:

Climate change: Theory of Knowledge global lesson


"The difficulty, of course, is that to the vast majority of lay observers, everything seems to function perfectly happily in our immediate environment. On the whole, we cannot smell, feel, hear or sense anything particularly wrong with the world about us. We have only the scientists' word to go by and, people will say, they have got it wrong in the past, haven't they? (Prins 3) Not all of the statements offered in focus activity 1, amongst many more on the topic, are universally accepted by ordinary people (let us call such people lay knowers). Why is this so? What are the root causes of the disagreements between ordinary intelligent people (like you!)?

Notes for the Teacher on Focus Activity 2

Responses from students might include: 1. Prior knowledge: in order to understand the claims, you need a certain basic level of knowledge about the topic without that, you might believe anything (ergo, the need for basic education!) 2. Diversity of knowledge: your prior knowledge of the topic may differ from that of other knowers, and this can result in divergent beliefs. 3. Volume of knowledge: no one can know all there is to know about the topic it is too large so a totally balanced view might be unattainable. 4. Conformity: your beliefs tend to gravitate towards those of others in your community, people like to conform 5. Motivations: it is often in your interests to believe or disbelieve something (consider motivations for belief other than truth). 6. Confidence in science: in order to trust the claims, you need to accept the reliability of scientific methods as ways of gaining knowledge. 7. Expert authority: in order to trust what they claim, you need to accept the expert authority and integrity of scientific researchers. 8. Presentation: in order to understand and evaluate claims for which you have insufficient prior knowledge, you need to rely on the objectivity and disinterestedness of those who interpret them for you, the way they wield language and so on. 9. Prediction: certainty about the future is impossible in order to accept a prediction you need to believe that the uncertainties have been examined and minimized. Though many have tried, no-one has ever yet explained away the decisive fact that science, which can do so much, cannot decide what it ought to do. (Joseph Wood Krutch) While the majority of scientists are in agreement that the causes of climate change include human (anthropogenic) activity they do not speak with a singular voice

Climate change: Theory of Knowledge global lesson


in regards to possible solutions. Science-centred environmentalism is contested and vulnerable to deconstruction as environmental problems by definition involve multiple interacting causes. This allows scientists to question the definitions and procedures of other scientists, promote alternative explanations and cast doubt on the certainty of predictions. In turn, people trying to influence policy often find the lack of scientific closure on the issue is a potent weapon (Owens p 407). As TOK students, we understand this for we are fully aware that analysts have values and preconceptions as a result of their backgrounds and cultural contexts. It is perhaps worth remembering some of the limitations of environmental science claims in the past assertions in the 1970s that we might be on the brink of a new ice age, and predictions that sources of important metals would be exhausted by the 1980s. We humans also seem to have a macabre enthusiasm for tales of imminent disaster, especially when centuries or millennia are reaching their close! From the courts of law, we are familiar with the concept of the burden of proof. As science is fundamentally about evidence rather than proof, we can reformulate this to ask where the burden of evidence should rest. In the case of humaninduced change, should the burden rest with those who are concerned about the dangers of change, or with those who are responsible for the alleged change? If the change is seen as minor, it is normal to expect the former to provide evidence that the change would result in harm, but if the consequences are potentially catastrophic, we may be justified in shifting the burden onto the latter to show that no harm will eventuate. This is known as the precautionary principle, and it is often invoked in issues to do with health and environment. Climate change is just such as case. It is perhaps becoming clear that the findings of science cannot always be cleanly separated from issues of action and policy. In TOK, we have come to appreciate the messy nature of reality, and definitions and solutions of the problem are not as easy in real practice. The debate as to who owns or defines the problems and, consequently, the solutions, does not exist exclusively within the scientific arena, but also between and within other disciplines.


Climate change: Theory of Knowledge global lesson


How can you buy or sell the sky? We do not own the freshness of the air or the sparkle of the water. How then can you buy them from us? (Chief Seattle of Suquamish Indians, responding to advancing Whites who asked to buy his lands in 1885) I can't put a value on a meadow full of flower or a wood filled with birdsong. (David Bellamy) The first problem an economist confronts is that of the tragedy of the commons as captured by Garrett Hardin. Economists can be wrongly accused of assuming that everything that is of value can be privately owned. But in reality this is not possible. Some goods are public; to be enjoyed by everybody in society as they belong to everyone. Examples are the air we breathe, nature reserves, oceans, etc. The dilemma here is that, what is everyones is also no ones. Because of this, people do not have incentives to protect what is not theirs as they assume others will not do so. Either as an individual or country, it is hard to protect what you do not own. A good example is the extraction of fish stocks in the world. Then there is the intangible nature of many environmental goods (the problem of quantifying the unquantifiable). Not everything that people value can readily be accounted in monetary terms. Activities that adversely affect the environment are justified or defended in terms of quantifiable benefits like jobs, profits, cheaper power, etc. Considering that we have different and varying values and needs, it is hard to capture the environmental costs. How can aesthetic or spiritual values be reconciled with development and Jobs (Owens p 14)? Can an economist capture the value of a tree when its alive or only when it has been converted into a table or paper? While we can state unambiguously that there is a finite amount of resources in the world (total resources), its accurate measurement is impossible. Because of this, economists have introduced categories such as hypothetical resources, speculative resources, unconceived resources (Owens p 31). But throughout all of this, the economist expresses confidence in the power of markets to solve problems. Economists, confront a big problem when it comes to calculating actual costs, and using current figures. Does the it will cost argument focus too much on the current generation and not that of the future? Does it negate potential benefits, creation of new industries, etc.? While it is evident that we live under one biosphere, we are a differentiated we can we then act as if the global warming problem is a unitary one, considering that all parties are affected differently? This section, on policy, seeks to show the problems an economist confronts when it comes to the environment.


Climate change: Theory of Knowledge global lesson


Focus Activity 3: Setting Priorities

You have a basket of goods as follows: Play station, a good education, clean air, a meat burger, a pet, a vacation in Hawaii, healthy teeth, peace in Darfur, a good road. 1. Rank the items in the basket from what you think you need most to need least. Discuss your lists with others. What items were at the top and which items were at the bottom? Why? Do the lists differ in any way? If so, why? 2. Now imagine you have $100 to spend. Attach an economic value to each of the items. How much of the $100 are you willing to spend on each item? Have your rankings changed? If so, why? Is there a conflict between what we think is important and the financial value that we attach to those things? What difficulties did you experience in trying to attach a monetary value to the things in your list? Can your two lists be reconciled? Consider a student living in a very different country from yours. Specify the country and construct the priorities that you think that person would set. Justify your responses. What issues arise when people prioritize for others?



5. On what sound basis and assumptions does the discipline of economics rest?

Notes for the Teacher on Focus Activity 3

This activity will highlight problems faced by policy makers. Priorities for the students initial list might include: values, culture, available information, personal preferences, and background. Differences between this list and the second one (inspired by hard cash) might relate to situations where the cost is borne by the individual but the benefits are shared, or where others have responsibilities to provide, or where a collective effort is expected. It might be worth mentioning the physical fallacy at this point the belief that an object has a true and constant value rather than being worth what someone is willing to pay for it. Question 4 is crucial in order to try to establish the fact that different communities around the world will have different immediate priorities. The prominent Danish statistician and campaigner Bjrn Lomborg has presented a list of ten global problems for prioritization (Lomborg 2005) would it be the same? Climate change Communicable diseases Conflict Education Financial instability Governance and corruption Malnutrition and hunger Population and migration Sanitation and water Subsidies and trade barriers


Climate change: Theory of Knowledge global lesson


(Note that Lomborgs list does not include issues relating to the natural world reduction of biodiversity, elimination of natural habitats etc. Does this list suggest anything about his background and interests?) Is there perhaps a danger that the globalization of our thinking will de-sensitize us to local perspectives, resulting in a reduction or simplification of knowledge rather than a worthwhile synthesis? For question 5, some aspects of the basis of economics include the need to assign values to things, and that those values must align with human needs and wants in a way that is sensitive to whole communities. A pervasive question here is to ask if it is too reductionist to measure everything in dollars and cents? There can be some discussion on tools of measuring the welfare of a country - GDP, GNP, etc., and the possible need for new measures, such as green GNP or gross national happiness (GNH). Or are some things too important to be left to the economists?


Academic disciplines are often separated by gulfs of mutual incomprehension, but the deepest and widest may be the one that separates most economists from most environmentalists. What underlies this is not so much disagreements about facts as disagreement about how to think. (The Economist 2002) We have looked at some of the things that scientists have to say about climate change and global warming. Weve also examined how economists approach the issue. And we tried to explore how most of us, as non-specialists, react to what we are told, and some of the grounds for the beliefs on which we might settle. Now lets look a little more deeply at the nature of some academic disciplines, the problems that can arise when professionals from different areas claim tackle the same topic, and what these problems might tell us about the disciplines involved. Who owns the problems, and consequently, the solutions? Who is justified in claiming the territory in which the topic lies? Can science ever be value-free, confining itself to facts, or should it step in the field of advocacy? On what basis do economists feel confident enough to offer advice?

Focus Activity 4: Two Intellectual Perspectives

Consider the two models below for the relationship between the economy and the environment. What are the implications of each position?

In Our Common Future (the Brundtland Report), from the World Commission on Environment and Development, the claim is made that "perceived needs are socially and culturally determined, and sustainable development requires the promotion of values that encourage consumption standards that are within the bounds of the ecologically possible and to which all can reasonable aspire to. How might these words be connected to this exercise? 14

At the heart of the climate change debate is the issue of conflicting demands. What constitutes a legitimate use of the environment? Consider industry, agriculture, residential use, conservation and recreation Now look at the map below:

The concepts below are paired. Where do they best fit on the map? Justify your choices with explicit reference to the topic of climate change. Positive Policy Subjective Natural Rational Descriptive Data Pessimism Priorities Explanation Evidence Normative Discovery Objective Human Empirical Ethical Theory Optimism Facts Prediction Proof

Notes for the Teacher on Focus Activity 4

The first part of this activity poses the question of which object of study has the upper hand the economy or the environment? Which is a subset of which? Regardless of whichever model is chosen, there are serious implications that need to be explored. Assigning subordinate status to the environment is to assert that humanity lies at the centre of our world and that dominion of nature is within our capacities (the religious heritage of this concept might be explored here). Relegating the economy to a mere outpost of the natural environment leads to a different worldview in which stewardship of the planet is the most we can claim.

S ie c


It is vital that students undertake the latter part of this activity within the context of the climate change topic. Do not allow them to drift too far into the abstract. Some of the entries in the above table should not present any difficulties science as natural and economics as human, for example. Similarly, the progression of the lesson should have made it clear that economics is intimately bound up with policy-making, whereas science is concerned primarily with discovery. But other supposed dichotomies quickly turn out to be much messier. Science is nothing without observation (empirical), but can make no meaningful progress without employing the engine of reason. Economics derives its internal strength from rational principles, but it is difficult to see how the construction of knowledge in the discipline can have practical value without reference to the real world. In the discipline war between these areas, it is the economist who is often portrayed as the optimist confident that future technology and the boundless ingenuity of human beings will respond to any foreseeable crisis. Sometimes the scientist, with his broader scope of vision beyond the human world, appears to diminish the importance of humanity and, correspondingly, the ability of people to control the environment. Remember that there is an intersection on the map and students should not hesitate to locate some concepts there (and perhaps some nowhere at all). The roots of this conflict about ownership of the problem of climate change may lie in how these disciplines assign value to the concepts discussed, and the aim of this activity is to make this as clear as possible. An interesting question at this stage might be directed to those students who offer both a science subject and economics as part of their IB study. Have they noticed any points of conflict between these courses?

PART D: ACTION Responses to Climate Change

Our doubts are traitors/And make us lose the good we oft might win/By fearing to attempt. (William Shakespeare, Measure for Measure) In your treatment of ethics in the TOK course, you may have come across some different ethical theories. These might have included: Utilitarian basing moral judgements and decisions on an appraisal of the costs and benefits Deontological basing moral judgements and decisions on the concept of duty Can economics and science be reconciled through the application of ethical theory? Should our policies be informed by utilitarian values (what can we get from the environment) or by living in tandem with nature even when there are no direct or measurable benefits? Are there any simple rules that we can apply to guide us in our interactions with our environment?

Focus Activity 5: Responses

The Australian ethicist and philosopher Peter Singer speaks of the idea of a circle of ethical concern. What are the boundaries of your circle? Does it extend to the whole world, or to a much smaller community? If you have moral concern, it is likely that there are circumstances in 16

which you feel some responsibility to act. In the light of this comment, has your circle changed its extent? Now instead of this circle arcing through space, imagine it reaching out through time. What are your moral concerns and obligations to the future? What responsibilities do we have to future generations? How far grandchildren, great grandchildren? And how do these complex chains of connection alter our approaches and attitudes to the knowledge that scientists and economists strive to provide? Now, using all you have learned about the climate change topic, including the contributions of science, economics and ethics, put forward an argument for each of the following responses to the climate change issue: Policy A MITIGATION: act now to reduce the future impact of climate change Policy B ADAPTATION: act to reconcile human circumstances with a changed future climate Policy C DO NOTHING: business as usual; no action directed towards potential climate change Now evaluate the arguments for each policy. Which one is most convincing? Why? As a class, discuss the arguments and judgements made about them. To what extent can a consensus be reached?

Notes for the Teacher on Focus Activity 5

This section is intended to round up the resource. It is important for students to construct the final arguments in a neutral manner before applying their critical analytical skills to evaluate them. If there is time, the more practical measures that must accompany the overall policy can be examined. These might include the scientific development and use of clean fuels and the technology of carbon capture and storage (CCS), economic measures such as carbon taxation or capping and trading, and ambitious large scale projects such as widespread geo-engineering. It might also be worth asking what might trigger a change in the students chosen policy, such as catastrophic events like the sudden melting of ice sheets in Greenland or Antarctica, or the release of large quantities of methane (a very powerful greenhouse gas) from arctic or ocean environments that would set in motion a positive feedback loop of higher temperatures causing more gas release causing even higher temperatures. Even a theoretical danger of this scenario puts enormous strain on our capacity to predict, which in turn can throw our policy decisionmaking into disarray.

Responses to Other Problems

The ten allegedly most important problems (or challenges) facing the modern world, as identified by economists working with Bjrn Lomborg, are listed in Part B. It is possible here to examine them again in the light of the whole treatment here. Do the subject matter and conceptual distinctions that we have made have resonance in other contexts? Could they help us to find ways to make progress is these areas?


Ideas for further work and action

In science, fact can only mean confirmed to such a degree that it would be perverse to withhold provisional assent. I suppose that apples might start to rise tomorrow, but the possibility does not merit equal time in physics classrooms. (Stephen Jay Gould) Go to This website presents articles in two columns those promoting the view that climate change is a real and immediate threat, and those that claim, in one way or another, that the threat is exaggerated or non-existent. On the surface, this seems fair two columns for and against. But is it sometimes misleading to present two sides of an issue in this balanced way? What about setting out in parallel the arguments for evolution and special creation? Former President George W. Bush thought that, when it came to human origins, both sides should be taught in American schools is this reasonable? How about those that say AIDS is caused by HIV and those that say it isnt? Should both sides of the debate be heard with equal time? At what point does a controversy cease to be controversial? What could be meant by the manufacture of doubt? It took many years for a consensus to build as to the causal connection between cigarettes and lung cancer. Examine how simple use of language can alter the playing field of a controversy. Those who underplay the threat of climate change call their opponents alarmists, while those people retort by calling the others deniers. Creationists sometimes call biologists evolutionists how does the addition of the suffix ist change the meaning. Visit What do you think about the content of this website? Can you speculate about the motives of the people who published it? Do some research into the news story that has been dubbed climategate. When is a situation so serious that it justifies taking short cuts with the usually meticulous scientific methods of knowledge accumulation? It may be possible to get involved with CAS projects concerned with climate change issues.

Links to other subjects

Climate change is a matter of concern for the discipline of climatology, into which many traditional subjects flow. In terms of subject matter at IB level, the topic is clearly related to biology, chemistry, physics, economics and geography. The tools of mathematics and computer science are also obviously in demand. The ways ideas are presented connect to language and the visual arts. More specifically, climate change and the greenhouse effect are explicitly addressed in topic 5 of the IB biology programme, core topic 3 of the IB geography programme, and option D of the IB chemistry programme.


Bjrn Lomborgs TED talk Climate change - economic analysis Climate Change Information Kit United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change History of global warming The doubters of global warming Environmentalism as a religion The Last Refuge of the Unquantifiable: Aesthetics, Experience and Environmentalism %2520of%2520the%2520unquantifiable%2520(m %2520hannis).rtf+quantifying+the+unquantifiable, +climate+change+and+economics&cd=5&hl=en&ct=clnk&client=safari The Human Taste for Apocalypse

Prins, Gwyn, ed. Threats without enemies: facing environmental insecurity. London: Earthscan Publications Limited, 1993. Owens, Susan, and Peter L. Owens. Environment, Resources and Conservation. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991.

With thanks to John Kamau and Julian Kitching, SOS-Hermann Gmeiner International College, Ghana, for development of this lesson.