Ever wonder why many TV weathercasters dismiss climate change? Why politicians skirt or downplay the issue? Why energy companies act as if it's not happening even when they officially acknowledge that it is?
Ideology, cultural norms, and corporate profits certainly contribute to climate change denial. But arguably one of the biggest drivers of denial is ignorance. Most people, even many meteorologists, never learned anything about climate change in school. Climate change is complex, crosses many disciplines (from earth sciences to physics) and has been politically polarized, particularly in recent years. Most people don't understand how scientists know what they know about climate change, and they fail to appreciate why reducing our CO2 output is so vitally important for the future of the planet.
The irony is that science education in the 1950s discussed how our "industrial civilization has been pouring carbon dioxide into the atmosphere at a great rate", and how over time ice sheets could melt, sea level would rise and ecosystems would be substantially changed. But today climate change often isn't taught at all in science classes. In recent years, fewer than 30% of teenagers in the U.S. feel they've learned "a lot" about climate change; less than 20% feel they have a solid understanding of climate and energy.
Why are we so dumb when it comes to climate change?
For starters, if climate change is taught at all (and it often isn't), it's often skimmed over, or worse, taught as controversy. That forces teachers to discuss "both sides" of what is really a phony debate. The science backing climate change is solid--but few kids (and adults) are getting the message.
At the behest of industry and ideology, "merchants of doubt" deliberately muddy the waters, derailing and delaying policy action on climate change. Likewise, professional science deniers--such as the Heartland Institute--promote textbooks, DVDs, and other curricular materials designed to confuse and downplay climate change. The result? According to Yale's Six Americas research, most people fail when quizzed on climate and energy basics. “Many Americans lack some of the knowledge needed for informed decision-making about these issues,” the Six Americas researchers conclude.
The media, cherry picking or misunderstanding data from selected studies, aids and abets the dismissal of climate literacy. Consider a recent study by Dan Kahan that focused on polarized political beliefs and science literacy. Outlets at both ends of the spectrum got the story wrong. A Fox News headline proclaimed "Global warming skeptics as knowledgeable about science as climate change believers," while a Mother Jones story on the same report declared "Why Science Education Won't Solve Our Climate Problems."
But emerging research confirms that understanding climate change basics does matter. A recent report on Generation Xer's grasp of and concern about climate change notes that "better educated young adults tend to be more alarmed and concerned about climate change than other young adults," and those "who scored 90 or above on the [Civic Scientific Literacy] Index were significantly more likely to be alarmed or concerned about climate change." The Six Americas' research conducted by Yale University has arrived at similar findings: overall, higher levels of understanding about climate change correlate with higher degrees of concern.
In recent years, a few projects have been funded to develop sound, scientifically accurate climate education materials for educators, museums and science centers, key influentials such as community leaders, and yes, even TV weathercasters. The aim: to foster a more climate-smart, energy-wise and science savvy society.
The release in 2009 of Climate Literacy: The Essential Principles of Climate Science by the U.S. Global Change Research Program helped set the stage for Congressional funding of climate change education programs, such as CLEAN, the Climate Literacy and Energy Awareness Network, primarily from the National Science Foundation (NSF) and NASA.
The U.S. Department of Energy led the development of a companion framework on Energy Literacy that will help inform energy education efforts. These programs are beginning to fill the deep knowledge gaps, and help people connect the proverbial dots between climate, energy, human impact on the planet, and what we can do to minimize and prepare for changes that are already well underway.
The recently announced $19 million Climate Change Education Partnerships funded by the National Science Foundation are great examples of comprehensive, integrated approaches to preparing communities to minimize and deal with climate change. But as important and potentially catalytic as these programs are, they represent a few drops in the bucket, the bare tip of the proverbial iceberg of what is really required to prepare society with the tools and knowledge necessary to address the known--and unknown--challenges of climate and global change.
For a real sea change, a national climate and energy literacy initiative is needed so that humans and the ecosystems that sustain us can survive and thrive in the 21st Century. --Mark McCaffrey
Mark McCaffrey is a programs and policy director at the National Center for Science Education, www.ncse.com