I can teach someone to know the following: “The safe upper limit for atmospheric CO2is no more than 350 ppm.”

One approach to teaching the above is to use it as a starting point. Then we talk about ways to change behaviors in order to get the number down to 350 ppm. We talk about what the world might look like, how we might all make small changes that can add up, and so on.

My approach would be different. I would use the statement itself as a far-distant goal. I would start with wonder. Did you know that a tree is made mostly of air? Did you know that the carbon you’re breathing out right now is the same carbon that was once in a dinosaur’s body? It’s the same carbon that was here (almost all of it) when the Earth first formed? It is carbon that was forged billions of years ago in a dying star, and it’s in you, right now.

Next, I want my learners to know why carbon dioxide in large quantities can change the climate. I want them to understand where carbon dioxide comes from, where it’s going, how it got there in the first place. I want them to understand how carbon dioxide and sunlight interact, and what is sunlight, anyway? I want them to know that plants eat carbon dioxide, that humans breathe out carbon dioxide, and that the weight of carbon dioxide we breathe out every day is greater than the weight of waste we get rid of via, um, other means. That’s right, most of the waste from the food we eat comes out our mouths, not the other end.

I want my learners to be able to answer the critics who say, “well, we humans breathe out all this CO2, maybe we should just stop breathing.” No, because the carbon dioxide we breathe out was carbon in a chicken or a kernel of corn or in a loaf of bread. And that CO2 came right out of the atmosphere when the plant “ate” it. So our eating and breathing just recycles the CO2 that was already there.

But when we burn fossil fuels, we are releasing carbon that has been hidden underground for millions of years. Not only that, but this carbon is incredibly concentrated (which is, of course, what makes coal and oil so good for fuel in the first place).  

What I’ve described is the difference between knowing and understanding. A reductionist approach to this topic promotes understanding. The holistic approach promotes dogma. It is the “four legs good, two legs baaaad” mantra learned by the sheep in Animal Farm. And yet is the holistic approach is certainly the more popular. Why?

I have a hunch, but to say it would make my reductionist stance less popular still. So I’ll remain frustrated. But secretly, I’ll keep teaching the way I know is best.