Climate Action

Living Edition
| Editors: Walter Leal Filho, Anabela Marisa Azul, Luciana Brandli, Pinar Gökcin Özuyar, Tony Wall

Climate Change Literacy to Combat Climate Change and Its Impacts

  • Julie D. JohnstonEmail author
Living reference work entry
DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-319-71063-1_31-1

Synonyms

Definitions

Literacy

UNESCO (2004) defines literacy as “the ability to identify, understand, interpret, create, communicate, compute and use printed and written materials associated with varying contexts […] enabling individuals to achieve their goals to develop their knowledge and potential and to participate fully in their community and wider society” (p. 13). Literacy can also be defined as competence or knowledge in a specific area.

Climate Change Literacy

If literacy can be defined as competence or knowledge in a specific area, then climate change literacy is competence or knowledge in the area of climate change, its impacts, and its solutions. The goals of climate change education entail:

that the learner has an understanding of the basic science of climate and climate change; that people and organizations can make informed decisions; and that our behavior changes to a degree that we are not causing the climate to change from our actions, but instead we become stewards of the Earth and its climate so as to ensure the sustainability of humanity and all other species on which we depend. (Compass Education 2014, p. 9)

Introduction

Climate change literacy is a vital element in strategies for meeting the United Nations Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 13: “Take urgent action to combat climate change and its impacts.” Developing climate change literacy – individually, institutionally, and societally – entails understanding why it is important, who must be involved, what it includes, where and when it takes place, how to deal with challenges that arise, and what the end result, a climate change-literate citizen, will look like.

Why Is Climate Change Literacy Important?

Achieving Sustainable Development Goal 13

With the global average temperature still rising, greenhouse gas emissions still increasing, and extreme weather events and wildfires still intensifying, the climate change emergency (Carter 2018) calls for “urgent and accelerated action by countries as they implement their commitments to the Paris Agreement on Climate Change” (UN 2016). Achieving commitments to the Paris Agreement and meeting Sustainable Development Goal 13 will not be possible without widespread climate change literacy.

Knowledge of climate change science is necessary for developing policies and making decisions that will effectively combat climate change and its impacts. Miléř and Sládek (2011) see climate change literacy as essential to both mitigation and adaptation. “Climate literacy is crucial for future low-carbon living” (p. 150). “Without climate education, climate disruption is unavoidable. Even if humanity fails to stabilize climate, climate literacy will be urgently needed for adaptation” (p. 153).

SDG Target 13.3 is “to build knowledge and capacity to meet climate change.” This means “improving education, awareness-raising and human and institutional capacity on climate change mitigation, adaptation, impact reduction and early warning” (UN 2016). Climate change literacy is that knowledge, and the knowledge is, in turn, part of human and institutional capacity.

Meeting Other SDGs

Climate change literacy is also necessary for understanding how to minimize the disruptions caused by a changing climate that could hamper the successful implementation of other SDGs. For example, the effects of global warming on heat waves and soil moisture will impact SDG 2 – Zero Hunger. “Adverse climate events” already share the blame for a rise in world hunger that started in 2015 (FAO 2018); ocean acidification will impact SDG 14 – Life Below Water by making it more difficult for calcifying organisms (such as mollusks, corals, some plankton, etc.) to build shell or skeleton due to their dependence on abundant carbonate (Tanhua et al. 2015). Furthermore, because the goals are interconnected, the key to success for one goal might involve meeting the targets for another goal (e.g., SDG 7 – Affordable and Clean Energy will lead to lower carbon emissions from energy production; SDG 16 – Peace, Justice, and Strong Institutions will lead to fewer carbon-intensive conflicts). Climate change literacy plays a role in understanding how each of these SDGs can be met.

Filling Knowledge Gaps and Fixing Misconceptions

Local, national, and global surveys (e.g., Lee et al. 2015; Marcinkowski et al. 2011) consistently show a general public that either lacks awareness of climate change or does not understand it.

Analysis of a global survey (over 100 countries) found that more than a third of the world’s adults have never heard of climate change (reported by McSweeney 2015). For some countries, such as South Africa, Bangladesh, and Nigeria, that number rose to more than two-thirds of the adult population.

The study says that education is the “single strongest predictor” of public awareness of climate change. Improving basic education and public understanding of climate change are vital to garner support for climate action, the researchers add. (McSweeney 2015)

Building Sustainable Societies

According to Climate Literacy: The Essential Principles of Climate Science (the climate change literacy “bible”), a climate-literate citizenry is essential for protecting fragile ecosystems and building sustainable communities that are resilient to climate change. “Such understanding improves our ability to make decisions about activities that increase vulnerability to the impacts of climate change and to take precautionary steps in our lives and livelihoods that would reduce those vulnerabilities” (U.S. Global Change Research Program 2009a).

Who Is Climate Change Literacy For?

Will it be possible to achieve SDG 13 without a climate change-literate populace? “The focus [of this goal] is on establishing an enabling environment for climate change adaptation, mitigation, and sustainable development to occur, through national policies that promote the participation of all citizens, especially marginalised communities, in adapting to climate change” (Open Development Cambodia 2018).

Miléř and Sládek (2011) pose a key question: “Do we need climate literacy for all? If we look at the timescale, in the short term it is not a realistic objective to achieve. But, in the long term at least, basic climate literacy for all is crucial” (p. 152). Given the climate change emergency time crunch (IPCC 2018), should climate change literacy initiatives be prioritized by most to least influential audience?

The world needs climate literate leaders to make correct decisions and implement tough measures. It is a duty of politicians to set the rules which can guide the world to a healthy, pleasant and earth-friendly low-carbon future…. We suggest that effective climate education should be selective. It is better for the society to have one climate literate politician than one climate literate carpenter. Of course every individual has a human right of climate literacy. But in the limited time we have, it is not a realistic goal to achieve climate literacy for all. (Miléř and Sládek 2011, pp. 151–152)

Three populations must be climate change literate in the short term if society-wide literacy is to follow. “If the society had climate literate leaders, journalists and teachers, the public would receive relevant information from them” (Miléř and Sládek 2011, p. 153).

Members of society who, once climate change literate themselves, have the influence and opportunity to spread awareness, teach understanding, and encourage participation in mitigation and adaptation strategies include:
  • Students at all levels

  • Parents and other community-minded citizens

  • Elected leaders and decision-makers

  • Civil servants, especially those in charge of policymaking

  • Educators at all levels

  • Journalists

  • Doctors and others working in health care

  • Farmers and others working in the food system

  • Faith leaders and others working in social justice

What Are the Vital Components of Climate Change Literacy?

In practice, climate change literacy is a combination of competencies that can include (1) knowledge of climate system science, (2) understanding of the impacts and threats of climate change, and (3) motivation to make informed decisions to implement mitigative and adaptive solutions to the climate crisis (in short, what causes climate change, what climate change causes, and what can be done about it).

Climate change literacy also includes skill in systems thinking and, more and more, in communicating about climate change. Climate change literacy “presents information that is deemed important for individuals and communities to know and understand about Earth’s climate, impacts of climate change, and approaches to adaptation or mitigation” (U.S. Global Change Research Program 2009a).

The ultimate goal then, is that we have positive impacts on the climate with regards to stabilizing and mitigating emissions of greenhouse gases, along with the capacity to adapt to the consequences of climate change. What is obvious to many now, is that knowledge about climate change alone will certainly be insufficient to motivate the necessary change in behavior that is required to achieve the above stated goals. (Compass Education 2014)

Knowledge of Climate System Science

“Climate science literacy is an understanding of the climate’s influence on you and society and your influence on climate,” as defined in Climate Literacy – The Essential Principles of Climate Science: A Guide for Individuals and Communities (USGCRP 2009a).

Facet 1: Scientific Literacy

Although science knowledge is the foundation of climate change literacy, scientific literacy is not widespread (Abrahams 2015). For example, according to Suzuki and Hanington (2018), “Many people aren’t familiar with the precise definitions of scientific terms [such as the term “theory”], and this can lead to misunderstanding.”

Global warming theories are based on a wide range of research and knowledge, from the physics of the greenhouse effect to science regarding ocean currents, the carbon cycle, wind patterns and feedback loops. There may be some uncertainty about warming rates and consequences, but there’s no doubt the world is heating because of human activity—mostly through burning fossil fuels and damaging or destroying carbon sinks like forests and wetlands—and that the consequences are already severe and will worsen if we fail to act decisively. (Suzuki and Hanington 2018)

Part of scientific literacy is acknowledging expertise; climate scientists assemble and share their research data and conclusions through research journals and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, or IPCC (2018).

The scientific community uses a highly formalized version of peer review to validate research results and our understanding of their significance. [P]eer review does not guarantee that any particular published result is valid, [but] it does provide a high assurance that the work has been carefully vetted for accuracy by informed experts prior to publication. (United States Global Change Research Program 2009a)

Facet 2: Climate as a System

The second facet of knowledge of climate system science is an understanding of the climate system, especially in relationship with forests, oceans, and other global and local ecosystems.

[C]limate literacy draws on climate science (i.e., the dynamics of the earth–atmosphere–ocean–biosphere across spatio-temporal scales), the quantitative and geospatial technologies by which it is understood, and the interconnectedness of human beings with their environment. The appreciation of the complexity of climate literacy is firmly grounded in the systems approach that is central to the earth sciences and geosciences. (Dupigny-Giroux and Cole 2018)

Facet 3: Fundamental Terms, Concepts, and Principles of Climate Science to Be Understood

Key climate science terms (as defined in United States Global Change Research Program 2009a):
  • Weather and weather forecast

  • Climate and climate forecast

  • Climate variability

  • Climate change

  • Global warming

  • Climate system

  • Likely, very likely, extremely likely, virtually certain

  • Mitigation

  • Adaptation

  • Fossil fuels

  • Feedback

  • Carbon cycle

Key climate science concepts (as defined in IPCC 2014 and elsewhere):
  • Abrupt climate change

  • Irreversible climate change

  • Tipping points

  • Large-scale singularities

  • Albedo

  • Reasons for concern

  • Amplifying feedbacks

  • Triple ocean degradation (heating, acidification, oxygen depletion)

  • Climate change commitment

  • Carbon cycles (short and long term)

  • Extreme weather events

  • Climate sensitivity

  • CO2 equivalent

  • El Niño/La Niña

  • Emission scenarios

  • Runaway [not runaway greenhouse]

  • Geoengineering

  • Global warming potential

  • Carbon sources/carbon sinks

  • MOC (meridional overturning circulation)

Key principles of climate science (as explained in USGCRP 2009a):
  1. 1.

    The sun is the primary source of energy for Earth’s climate system.

     
  2. 2.

    Climate is regulated by complex interactions among components of the Earth system.

     
  3. 3.

    Life on Earth depends on, is shaped by, and affects climate.

     
  4. 4.

    Climate varies over space and time through both natural and man-made processes.

     
  5. 5.

    Our understanding of the climate systems is improved through observations, theoretical studies, and modeling.

     
  6. 6.

    Human activities are impacting the climate system.

     
  7. 7.

    Climate change will have consequences for the Earth system and human lives.

     

While it is not expected that any one person will ever completely understand every fundamental climate science concept, “[f]ull comprehension of these interconnected concepts will require a systems-thinking approach, meaning the ability to understand complex interconnections among all of the components of the climate system” (United States Global Change Research Program 2009a).

Understanding of the Impacts and Threats of Climate Change

Anthropogenic climate change is damaging to many aspects of the natural and built environments and to human and environmental health and well-being. Climate change literacy involves gaining an understanding of risk and of the risks, impacts, and threats of a changing climate.

In the coming decades, scientists expect climate change to have an increasing impact on human and natural systems. In a warmer world, accessibility to food, water, raw materials, and energy [is] likely to change. Human health, biodiversity, economic stability, and national security are also expected to be affected by climate change. Climate model projections suggest that negative effects of climate change will significantly outweigh positive ones. The nation’s ability to prepare for and adapt to new conditions may be exceeded as the rate of climate change increases. […] The impacts of climate change may affect the security of nations. Reduced availability of water, food, and land can lead to competition and conflict among humans, potentially resulting in large groups of climate refugees. (USGCRP 2009a)

There are several ways to learn about the impacts and threats of climate change. These include observation of impacts in one’s own environment; experiential learning in a laboratory setting, for example, with a “predict-observe-explain” strategy (see Sharma 2017); research into what is happening around the world (see Union of Concerned Scientists n.d.); extending empathy and compassion to those already impacted (see DARA’s Climate Vulnerability Monitor 2012); and through narrative and the humanities:

Teaching the science and policy of climate change is necessary but insufficient for helping students to develop a robust climate literacy. Climate change educators must also teach students how to evaluate historical trends, to unpack the assumptions in shared cultural narratives, to grapple with ethical dilemmas, and more generally to traverse the turbulence of feeling that is a hallmark of living in a time of global climate chaos. In short, climate literacy must include the skills and strategies of the humanities, and specifically literary and cultural studies. (Siperstein 2015)

Motivation to Make Informed Decisions to Implement Mitigative and Adaptive Solutions to the Climate Crisis

According to Azevedo and Marques (2017), climate literacy includes “attitudes, beliefs, motivational orientations, self-efficacy, and values” (p. 9). They found that in the literature, the most valued attitude is making informed and responsible decisions, suggesting that the goal of climate change literacy is “the possibility of acting upon that knowledge, in the personal, professional and communal lives” (p. 9). Climate change literacy, therefore, should include the learning necessary to make informed decisions about climate change solutions.

The guiding principle for informed climate decision-making is “Humans can take actions to reduce climate change and its impacts” (United States Global Change Research Program 2009a). Climate change literacy is relevant to all citizens, so that they are “able to make informed and responsible decisions with regard to actions that may affect climate” (USGCRP 2009a). An understanding of the Earth’s climate system improves the ability to make decisions about activities that increase resilience and reduce vulnerability to the impacts of climate change.

Informed climate decisions require an integrated approach. Reducing our vulnerability to these impacts depends not only upon our ability to understand climate science and the implications of climate change, but also upon our ability to integrate and use that knowledge effectively. (USGCRP 2009a)

According to the US Global Change Research Program (2009a), mitigating and adapting to climate change “will bring economic and environmental challenges as well as opportunities, and citizens who have an understanding of climate science will be better prepared to respond to both.” For example, according to Jacobson and Delucchi (2010), the main barriers to getting to 100% clean energy are social and political, not technical or economic. Climate change literacy can assist in overcoming such barriers to the achievement of effective mitigation.

It is vital to remember – and respect – the sustainable development principles of intragenerational equity and intergenerational equity when making decisions related to climate change mitigation and adaptation.

Actions taken by individuals, communities, states, and countries all influence climate. Practices and policies followed in homes, schools, businesses, and governments can affect climate. Climate-related decisions made by one generation can provide opportunities as well as limit the range of possibilities open to the next generation. Steps toward reducing the impact of climate change may influence the present generation by providing other benefits such as improved public health infrastructure and sustainable built environments. (United States Global Change Research Program 2009a)

Communicating About Climate Change

An increasingly prevalent competence in climate change literacy programs is the ability “to communicate in a meaningful way about climate and climate change” (Azevedo and Marques 2017, p. 9), which is made difficult by polarized views on climate change (Kahan et al. 2012) and other challenges.

Unfortunately both the politicians and the public have been manipulated by powerful lobbying by the oil and coal industry. Widespread denial of anthropogenic climate change competes with the data reported by climate scientists. Peer-reviewed articles are written in scientific language which is not easy to understand. The media tends toward sensationalism and often misrepresents scientific results. (Miléř and Sládek 2011, p. 152)

Azevedo and Marques (2017) uncovered a gap between the “two cultures” of science education and science communication. They recommend considering both technoscientific and humanistic perspectives of climate change together in order to improve climate change communication (p. 11). Strategies they collected for bridging this gap include:
  • Providing local, unbiased climate resources and monitoring their use by the intended audience

  • Dispensing science information within the context of a story (thereby increasing the chances of its being understood and recalled)

  • Using sophisticated, networked visualization tools

  • Collaborating closely with several stakeholders (“to provide scientific information compatible with the public’s cognitive processes”) (p. 10)

Hendricks (2017) suggests focusing on the “framing” of a message, not just the facts about climate change.

It turns out the language you use and how you frame the discussion can make a big difference. The problem isn’t that people haven’t been given enough facts. It’s that they haven’t been given facts in the right ways. Researchers often refer to this packaging as framing. Just as picture frames enhance and draw attention to parts of an image inside, linguistic frames can do the same with ideas.

Metaphors are an effective way to provide frames when communicating about climate change. For example, in one study, reading about the “war” against global warming led to greater agreement with scientific evidence showing that it is real and human-caused than reading about the “race” against global warming (Hendricks 2017). “This group of participants indicated more urgency for reducing emissions, believed global warming poses a greater risk and responded that they were more willing to change their behaviors to reduce their carbon footprint.”

Where and When to Educate for Climate Change Literacy

There is a growing gap between what is known about climate change by the scientific community and what is understood by the public. There is an urgent need to enhance climate literacy, which is currently critically low as proved by several surveys. We assume that efforts towards climate literacy should be intensified. (Miléř and Sládek 2011, p. 155)

Opportunities to learn about climate change and to develop climate change literacy exist in and out of school, in three arenas: (1) formal education, (2) nonformal education, and (3) informal education. “Climate education can be formal (schools) and informal (media, museums, libraries, zoos)” (Miléř and Sládek 2011), with nonformal education situated in between.

Climate Change Literacy Through Formal Education

Formal education is a mandatory, continuous process, with an official structure and curriculum and leaving certificate (Palumbo et al. n.d.). Otto (2018) finds that “the classical educational system is the first important lever for climate literacy” (p. 132), as borne out by Indicator 13.3.1 (Education on climate change) of Sustainable Development Goal 13, which relates to the number of countries that have integrated mitigation, adaptation, impact reduction, and early warning into primary, secondary, and tertiary curricula, the goal being to improve education, awareness-raising, and human and institutional capacity on climate change mitigation, adaptation, impact reduction, and early warning by 2030.

There are three levels of formal education where learning for climate change literacy can take place (note: these levels might have different names in different jurisdictions): (1) preschool and primary (early elementary), (2) late elementary (middle) and secondary, and (3) tertiary or postsecondary (colleges and universities).

Miléř and Sládek (2011) ask, “[W]hat level of knowledge is appropriate for different ages of pupils?” (p. 150). It is important for educators and educational researchers to determine what (and how) to teach for climate literacy respecting the different developmental stages or readiness levels of students. Below are some examples of climate change teachings at different levels (see also section “What Are the Vital Components of Climate Change Literacy?” for specific terms and concepts).

Level 1: Climate Literacy for Preschool and Primary School (Early Elementary)

  • Nature bonding (Johnston 2007)

  • Weather observation and simple weather terminology (Johnston 2010)

  • Food growing

  • Fun, hands-on, discovery learning

  • Naturally integrated learning

Level 2: Late Elementary School (Middle School) and Secondary (or High) School

  • More complex climate terms and concepts

  • Scientific literacy

  • Ecological principles involved in the climate system and climate change (Johnston 2010)

  • Energy literacy (USGCRP 2009b)

  • Real-world problem-solving through sustainable development principles

  • Integrated and holistic learning across subject areas (science, history, geography, language/communications, mathematics, art, health)

Level 3: Postsecondary Institutions (Universities and Colleges)

  • Innovative teaching approaches (UNESCO 2010)

  • Interdisciplinary whenever possible (to cross the divide between humanities and sciences) (Siperstein 2015)

  • Multidisciplinary action research

  • Simulations (such as the World Climate Project simulation)

  • Team-based learning using the principles of sustainable development

  • Critical discourse analysis in climate change communication

Climate science is a highly interdisciplinary, pedagogically challenging subject that does not fit easily into discipline-based science curricula or assessments. Curricula and the teaching of climate change therefore need to promote pedagogical approaches that take the challenges of interdisciplinarity into account. (UNESCO Climate Change Initiative 2010, p. 11)

Technical and Vocational Education and Training (TVET)

“TVET performs a crucial role in developing the skills, knowledge and attitudes needed for the world of work and human well-being” (UNESCO 2010, p. 12).
  • “Green” economies skills training in renewable energy and other technologies

  • Incorporation of elements of climate change adaptation and mitigation to contribute to reductions in energy consumption and greenhouse gas emissions

  • Skills needed in and by communities affected by climate change (i.e., climate change refugees)

    (UNESCO Climate Change Initiative 2010, p. 12)

One way to deepen or intensify education for climate change literacy at any level or in any arena is through integration. “It is increasingly relevant to reflect and value an interdisciplinary approach to teaching and learning, because it is a key factor in climate change education and awareness” (Alves and Azeiteiro 2018).

According to Azevedo and Marques (2017), climate change literacy now needs an “integrative, inter/transdisciplinary and epistemological model” (p. 3) and a “re-thinking […] to encompass the multiplicity of perspectives we face when trying to understand and participate in discussions about the complex issues posed by our contemporary post-industrial society” (p. 10).

Climate Change Literacy Through Nonformal Education

Nonformal learning is structured and organized learning that is intentional, planned and offered by an educational provider, and deliberately chosen by the learner, but it does not lead to formal certification or qualification. People of all age groups can participate in nonformal education, which can be offered through courses, workshops, seminars, etc. (Palumbo et al. n.d.).

Much nonformal education for climate change literacy is done through distance learning, a strategy that provides a high level of accessibility for learners. Alves and Azeiteiro (2018) point out that online learning has the “capacity to reach an extensive number of people, scattered around the world and with diversified cultural backgrounds.”

One objective of the UNESCO Climate Change Initiative: Climate Change Education for Sustainable Development (CCESD) (2010) is “to raise awareness about climate change and enhance non-formal education programmes through the media, networking, and partnerships” (p. 14).

Climate Change Literacy Through Informal Education

Informal education is defined as non-institutionalized learning realized through activities in everyday situations and interactions within the context of work, family, and leisure (Palumbo et al. n.d.).

While formal education engages mostly the youngest generations, which is important for the future development of society, “informal education has the power to engage people of all ages and can achieve quick response” (Miléř and Sládek 2011, p. 153) – an important advantage given the urgency of the climate crisis.

Many climate change literacy initiatives in informal settings such as museums, libraries, zoos, and outdoor recreation venues now focus on lifelong learners and their participation in activities such as citizen science (research collaborations between scientists and the general public) (Dupigny-Giroux and Cole 2018).

Another significant source of informal learning for the general public is the media. A challenge for climate change literacy through media is that “[t]he rapid expansion of digital media has led to the wider dissemination of fake news articles, with the fast-paced nature of the modern newsfeed culture also encouraging less critical evaluation of news sources” (Fake news threatens a climate literate world 2017).

It is reasonable to assume that it [understanding of climate change] will be at least partly shaped by access to media, and the quality of media coverage in each respective country. If the news sources you pay attention to don’t report the issue at all, or don’t explain the causes, it’s unlikely most people will get the information from other sources. (Tien Ming Lee and Anthony Leiserowitz in McSweeney 2015)

Miléř and Sládek (2011) explain the dilemma that ensues when the media are climate change illiterate and the public is media illiterate:

On one hand the politicians usually follow public opinion, thus the public has the power to force the politicians to take action. On the other hand the public is confused by media spin and climate education is a slow process and not very effective. (p. 152)

Two strategies are needed to solve this twofold problem. First, the UNESCO Climate Change Initiative (2010) calls for “increasing media literacy through training for journalists on facts and myths around climate change [to provide] another means to deliver and reinforce relevant and accurate messages.” Next are calls for media literacy for the public. “To be climate change literate, the public must first be media literate, since print, TV and radio reports and opinion pieces are the main ways that the public gets its information about climate change science” (Cooper, in Ramanujan 2011).

How to Deal with Challenges to Climate Change Literacy

Is Denial the Opposite of Climate Change Literacy?

Are climate change deniers simply those who don’t understand the science of climate change? According to research (Kahan et al. 2012), the answer is no. The psychological mechanism at work is identification with cultural values, leading to cultural polarization.

Ordinary members of the public credit or dismiss scientific information on disputed issues based on whether the information strengthens or weakens their ties to others who share their values. At least among ordinary [people], individuals with higher science comprehension are even better at fitting the evidence to their group commitments. (Yale study concludes public apathy over climate change unrelated to science literacy 2012)

In this study, those with “the highest degrees of science literacy and technical reasoning capacity were not the most concerned about climate change. Rather, they were the ones among whom cultural polarization was greatest” (Kahan et al. 2012).

According to Kahan, the study suggests the need for science communication strategies that reflect a more sophisticated understanding of cultural values. “More information can help solve the climate change conflict,” Kahan said, “but that information has to do more than communicate the scientific evidence. It also has to create a climate of deliberations in which no group perceives that accepting any piece of evidence is akin to betrayal of their cultural group.” (Yale study concludes public apathy over climate change unrelated to science literacy 2012)

According to Braman, a co-researcher, the solution won’t be found in trying to increase trust in scientists or awareness of what scientists believe. He concluded that “[t]o make sure people form unbiased perceptions of what scientists are discovering, it is necessary to use communication strategies that reduce the likelihood that citizens of diverse values will find scientific findings threatening to their cultural commitments” (Why “scientific consensus” fails to persuade 2010).

Some of the Terms and Metaphors We Use Are Inaccurate or Misleading

According to John P. Holdren (2007), former senior science and technology advisor to US President Barack Obama, the term “global warming” is a misnomer. “It implies something gradual, uniform, and benign. What we’re experiencing is none of these.” Holdren uses “global climate disruption” instead.

Another problem arises when a term has both a colloquial meaning and a (different) scientific meaning. For example, Rebich and Gautier (2005) discovered that the term “aerosol” was often used incorrectly to describe a type of greenhouse gas, “which we considered to be evidence that many students were making colloquial use of the word aerosol (to mean CFC [chlorofluorocarbon]) and hadn't learned the scientific meaning of the term [a tiny solid or liquid particle suspended in air or gas]” (p. 361).

The term “greenhouse effect” is an example of a term that leads to “flawed mental models” (in this case of shortwave and longwave radiative processes); Rebich and Gautier (2005) found that some students:

understood the greenhouse effect as the trapping of this extra (reflected) solar energy by greenhouse gases or clouds. Other students thought it was the greenhouse gases themselves being trapped. This misunderstanding of the greenhouse effect may result in part from the direct analogy to a greenhouse maintaining heat by trapping warm air inside. In many cases, it seemed that longwave radiative processes did not play any part in students’ models of the greenhouse effect, which indicates that they probably do not conceive of the earth (let alone greenhouse gases and aerosol particles) as radiating bodies. (pp. 360–361)

One solution to this challenge is to help those learning about climate change to examine and reflect on their prior knowledge, metaphors, and mental models and schema relating to climate science concepts and terminology.

Misconceptions or Faulty Prior Knowledge

Rebich and Gautier (2005) gleaned from various researchers that the prior knowledge which learners bring to their learning – the “scaffold” for their future learning – “is a very strong determinant in what information they attend to, how that information is perceived, what learners judge to be important or relevant, and what they are able to understand and remember” (p. 356).

But while prior knowledge can be seen as “the foundation for integration of new concepts, it is also commonly viewed as an obstacle to conceptual change” (Rebich and Gautier 2005). Existing mental models can prevent adoption of new scientific learnings by limiting learners’ perception and processing of conflicting information. Research shows that misconceptions can be resistant to instruction and that prior knowledge can be characterized by “affective entrenchment related to social values, ideology and identity” (p. 356).

Presumably higher levels of affective entrenchment would correspond with greater difficulty in achieving conceptual change. Revision of misconceptions may also prove costly at the level of cognitive processing if revision of a particular mental model will require revision of a number of related models. (p. 356)

According to the Climate Literacy and Energy Awareness Network (CLEAN), the most common misunderstanding about climate change is that the Earth’s climate has changed naturally in the past; therefore humans are not the cause of global warming, which is a non sequitur. They provide analogies to help debunk this “myth.”

At the heart of this misconception is the idea that if something happens naturally, then it can only happen naturally. But of course that's not true. Here are some examples. Forest fires occur naturally. Does that mean that arson is a hoax? People die of natural causes. But sadly, people are sometimes murdered. But if people can die on their own does that mean that murder does not happen? It rains, which makes my lawn wet. But sometimes, a sprinkler is used to make the lawn wet. So the lawn can become wet for either natural or human-caused reasons. Rivers have always flooded. But some floods are either caused by or made worse by human actions. If a dam ruptures, the resulting flood is because of humans—not because floods happen on their own. Many processes on Earth have more than one cause. The presence of a natural cause does not negate the reality of a human trigger. (CLEAN Question 11)

Because a principal factor in whether respondents in a global survey (Lee et al. 2015) consider climate change a threat was whether they consider climate change to be human-caused, education to correct misconceptions and faulty prior knowledge can be vital to their climate change literacy.

Gaps in Knowledge

Pretests given to students before teaching them about climate change can identify gaps in their knowledge. For example, Rebich and Gautier (2005) identified gaps in:
  • Awareness of thermal expansion as a cause of sea level rise

  • Appreciation for feedbacks in the climate system

  • Understanding of the connection between the greenhouse effect and the hydrological cycle via water vapor

  • Knowledge of the historical context of climate change

  • Understanding of the mechanisms of global climate change

  • Appreciation of the role of computational models in climate change research (pp. 362–363)

“Our efforts to modify the course curriculum to facilitate meaningful learning will be based in part on knowledge of these misconceptions [and gaps in knowledge], and modifications to our instructional approach will depend on our interpretation of their likely causes” (Rebich and Gautier 2005, p. 360). Any gaps still present at the summative evaluation can be addressed in future offerings of a course or program on climate change.

Scientific Illiteracy

Scientific literacy is the basis and starting point for climate science literacy.

Science, mathematics, and technology have a profound impact on our individual lives and our culture. They play a role in almost all human endeavors, and they affect how we relate to one another and the world around us…. Science literacy enables us to make sense of real-world phenomena, informs our personal and social decisions, and serves as a foundation for a lifetime of learning. (American Association for the Advancement of Science 2007)

Scientific illiteracy can, therefore, pose a significant barrier to teaching or learning about climate change, its impacts, and the mitigation and adaptation measures necessary for dealing with it. Effective science teaching in educational institutions is a societal policy choice – one that takes years to produce its effect in a scientifically literate generation of graduates.

However, in the meantime, people who know that they are not scientifically literate can learn how knowledge is created in science. For example, an understanding of scientific concepts and practices such as weight of evidence, peer review, shifting baselines, different timescales, the precautionary principle, and ecological limits to science (Johnston 2007) can give these individuals the confidence to accept and act on what they don’t actually understand.

Leaders, Educators, and Journalists Can Be Climate Change Illiterate

People in positions of power and influence might not have the level of climate change literacy needed for them to avoid passing on misconceptions and faulty knowledge. For teachers and others, there are web-based and other resources that are designed to help them become prepared to teach climate science or pass on climate change knowledge, deepening their own knowledge as they go. (See, e.g., CLEAN’s Climate Literacy Quiz.)

Cognitive Dissonance

When those who have learned about the urgency of the climate crisis see no evidence of urgent action around them, especially from their leaders, cognitive dissonance can be the result. The evidence (what they’re witnessing) does not match (indeed, it contradicts) their new understanding, belief, idea, or values about climate change, causing mental conflict or discomfort, even feelings of helplessness and immobilization. It is important to note that these feelings are not caused by climate change or learning about it, but by the lack of urgent response to climate change on the part of leaders that were trusted (Olofsgård 2018).

A Climate Change-Literate Citizen …

Climate change literacy is an understanding of one’s influence on climate and climate’s influence on oneself and society (U.S. Global Change Research Program 2009a). A climate change-literate person is, therefore, someone who:
  • Has a basic understanding of the climate system (including “the essential principles of all aspects of Earth’s system that govern climate patterns,”) as well as the natural and human-caused factors that affect it

  • Is aware of the fundamental relationship between climate and human life and the many ways in which climate has always played a role in human health

  • Understands how climate observations and records, as well as computer modeling, contribute to scientific knowledge about climate

  • Knows that climate science can inform our decisions that improve quality of life

  • Learns how to gather information about climate and weather, accesses scientifically credible information about climate, and has the ability to assess the validity of scientific arguments about climate and to use that information to support their decisions

  • Communicates about climate and climate change in a meaningful way

  • Makes scientifically informed and responsible decisions with regard to actions that might affect climate (p. 4)

Put in an abbreviated way, society will benefit from a citizen who:
  • Understands how our climate works

  • Knows how to distinguish fact from fiction

  • Talks about climate in a meaningful way

  • Makes informed and responsible decisions

    (Climate Literacy (2016), an e-learning program in Europe)

In short, the climate change-literate citizen understands the science of climate change, as well as the importance of employing it as the basis for decisions on mitigation and adaptation measures in the face of its impacts.

As Chad Kauffman (2014) explains in Our Changing Climate: Introduction to Climate Science, an e-textbook on climate change, “We have choices. We can fatalistically accept climate change and do nothing about it or, based on scientific understandings of Earth’s climate system, we can reduce, and even prevent, negative impacts through mitigation and adaptation.”

Cross-References

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Copyright information

© Springer Nature Switzerland AG 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Royal Roads UniversityVictoriaCanada
  2. 2.Sustainability Education CoachGreenHeart EducationPender IslandCanada

Section editors and affiliations

  • Anabela Marisa Azul
    • 1
  1. 1.Center for Neuroscience and Cell BiologyUniversity of CoimbraCoimbraPortugal