Clarity on Climate Change

Since reading Lab Girl, I, like many others, have kept an eye out for more writing by Hope Jahren. Her latest book, The Story of More: How We Got to Climate Change and Where to Go from Here, is outstanding. It’s engaging, informative, and relatable while dealing with a topic that can quickly be overwhelming. Only published in paperback to keep costs and materials down, it has me thinking about what we in higher education can do to help our students understand more about the climate and climate change.

Jahren has a personal message that frames the book’s content and thrust – “Just like many of the people I meet each day, I have plenty of questions about climate change: mostly along the lines of What should I believe? and Should I be afraid? Because a teacher’s job is to answer questions, I did my research and wrote a book.” That neatly summarizes the book’s tone and structure, too. She writes as a caring teacher who very much wants us to get her lesson.

Jahren is a geobiologist whose research looks across chemistry, biology and eons of time. For example, her studies of fossilized trees in the Arctic enabled deeper understanding of the climate 45 million years ago. Now a professor at the University of Oslo, she’s earned numerous grants and received many awards. Jahren is active in the classroom and her course on climate change is the nub of the book. In this work, she zeroes in on change, in particular what has happened in the past 50 years and accompanying trends. Her entire approach makes it easy to picture her as a charismatic and passionate teacher.

Skillfully marrying high-level facts (like the increasing urbanization of the world’s population) with personal anecdotes and perspectives (what it was like growing up in rural Austin, Minnesota), Jahren transforms the abstract into the recognizable. It’s extremely effective, giving the reader a feeling of growth and accomplishment. The story of change, too, is very complex, and there are many facts that on their own do not add up to a clear narrative.

For example, we learn that worldwide agricultural production per farm across the global has basically doubled in the past fifty years. Iowa has nine hogs per every person in the state. The US produces twice as much milk as it did fifty years ago and it does this with three million fewer cows. Because of aqua-farming, salmon production has increased more than 20,000 percent in the past fifty years. The US, with 4% of the world’s population, makes 15% of the world’s organic waste. Average global surface temperature has increased 1.5 degrees Fahrenheit in the last hundred years. What makes the book so powerful is that these and many other facts are knitted together in ways so that we understand the interconnected nature of how we live, how we eat, how we get energy – and it’s larger overall impact on our planet.

Through it all, scary though the data and facts may be, Jahren remains hopeful. She emphasizes, though, that hope requires courage. That means understanding the facts and being willing to make changes. The book’s appendix is rightly titled The Story of Less and it contains two sections, one about the actions we might take and the other about the differences those changes would make.

Jahren is wise. She suggests that we consult our values and focus our efforts accordingly, gathering information and deciding to live in concert with our values. It’s hard, she stresses, but still possible. As an example of concrete actions she proposes using less electricity (which often comes from fossil fuels), and to be mindful of appliances. This is not the message of the book, however. Instead she is after something grander: informed readers making informed choices in concert with their interests and values. That might mean being a vegetarian, or traveling by bicycle, or simply cutting down on purchases. The overall message remains consistent: our choices have consequences. Use less and share more is what we come away with, a reasonable and totally appropriate request.

In researching the book, I learned that several colleges have made The Story of More a required common text for students. That greatly cheered me, for there is no single discipline or commonly scheduled course that would expose students to this book. In the academia’s pursuit of disciplinary rigor and speeding students’ progress for degrees, we sometimes risk bypassing important issues. After all, most of these broader topics do not fit within the strictures of a department or discipline. Climate change is an issue that demands that all of us learn more and make informed decisions. That high-level aim is at the heart of a college education. Unless we make that commitment, however, to wrestle with climate change, many of our students might never engage with it in an informed manner.

I heartily recommend The Story of More to you and your students. I’m going to recommend it to mine.

David Potash

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