The best way to teach students about the climate change debate is to show it to them, not to involve them in it. There is a subtle but central distinction here. The goal is not for students to take sides (although some may). It is for the students to see that there is a huge scientific debate going on. I liken this to a field trip to a big laboratory or a scientific facility like an atom smasher. The student is not expected to understand the advanced science that is going on, but they can see that it is going on and what that looks like.
No one would show a youngster what pro football is by putting them into a game, but this is just what many advocacy materials try to do with the climate change debate. If the student then tries to take a position, they are easily overwhelmed by technical arguments they do not understand.
In fact the primary point of skepticism is simply that there is a complex scientific debate over climate change. This is something that the alarmists often deny, by claiming that the important science is settled. So what is needed is not for the student to win the scientific debate, but simply to understand that it is there and it is big.
Seeing the debate settles the issue of its existence. So how do we see it? Where is the game going on? There is no one way and this is a grand opportunity for experimentation. Given that scientific debate is not normally taught in K-12, the field is wide open. Here are some simple ideas, just to give the flavor of the challenge. Many other approaches are possible, each with their own pros and cons.
1. Explain the basic arguments. This is the simplest approach but it may also be the least effective, because the students do not see anything except the words and pictures that the teacher presents. To use our analogies, it is like describing a laboratory or a football game with no one seeing it.
2. Show some blogs favoring different sides. Much of the climate debate takes place in the blogosphere. It is partly because of blogs that so many people are taking part and there is no lack of blogs that take opposing views. One problem might be that most climate debate blogs are pretty technical, but then this is part of the point of the lesson. A tougher problem might be that some blogs are emotional, or even downright offensive, especially the comments. This does not make for good scientific instruction.
3. Show some people with opposing views. One could look at the websites of several people who write personal blogs or articles, on opposing sides of the debate. There may also be videos, especially interviews. There are even a few videos of debates between people on different sides. One downside here is that looking at a few people does not convey the grand scope of the debate, which involves a huge number of participants.
4. Use Google searches (or other search engines). This is a technique that I have been experimenting with. It helps to take a specific topic that is in the news, where a lot is being written on different sides. Looking at the search result snippets often clearly displays the debate, without going to any of the actual articles. Individual students might then look at articles on their own time, but that is not part of the exercise. The search results show the debate. But as with bogs, one must be careful that the results are not offensive.
Ideas for other approaches are welcome. We are breaking new ground here. Keep in mind that the lesson must fit into a class period