Mark McCaffrey's picture

Climate Education: For What It's Worth

When esteemed experts question the value of education in addressing climate change–which  happened to me again last week at Stanford–I’m initially surprised. But then I remind myself that, while they may be experts in their realm, they don't necessarily appreciate the worth of providing young people with the background and skills so they can understand the causes, effects, risks, and responses to climate change.

I'd received an invitation a few months back to attend the Connecting the Dots 2014 symposium on the Climate, Energy, Food, and Water Nexus sponsored by the TomKat Center for Sustainable Energy at Stanford University. I'd nearly forgotten about it, but it fit in with my schedule, so Friday morning I headed down to check out the event, which featured many of the Stanford scientists involved with the most recent (and prior) Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change assessment reports.

Neither Tom, as in Tom Steyer, nor Kat, as in his wife Kat Taylor, who together form the TomKat dynamic duo, were in attendance as far as I could see. But their vision of connecting dots and connecting people doing research and work on the vital, interlinked topics of climate, energy, food, and water permeated the proceedings.

There were a number of talks, mainly on the IPCC Working Group II report Climate Change 2014: Impacts, Adaptation and Vulnerability, and then breakout sessions. I choose one on the ethics of climate change which proved interesting.Then Lauren Sommer of KQED radio hosted a panel with the vague title "Our Changing Climate". When Lauren opened the panel up to questions from the audience, I asked a loaded and, to be honest, perhaps self-serving question. (I recently submitted a manuscript for a book scheduled to be published this fall called Climate Smart & Energy Wise". I anticipated that, in their own way, everyone would agree with my premises.

My question to the panel was as much a statement as a query: "My question is about the role of education in addressing climate change. Most people seem to support clean energy and are somewhat concerned about climate change, though maybe not as much as we would like. One in four people in the US is a student, and most of them have never had a course on climate change and would fail a quiz on the basics of climate or energy. Shouldn't a national initiative to substantially raise climate and energy literacy be a priority so that people will have the knowledge and know-how to make informed decisions about climate change?"

In other words, I was asking "is climate change education really important or not?" And, like most of those making statements posing as questions during the Q&A, I figured the answer would be a resounding "Yes!"

This affirmative, that climate change education is a worthy enterprise, is backed by data such as the Six Americas Knowledge of Climate Change surveys, Ranney’s research on understanding of the Greenhouse Effect, and Jon Miller's research on Generation X, which show that those who know more about climate change are also more concerned. These and other studies also point to a general lack of understanding of climate and energy issues, presumably because these aren't taught or taught well.

Two of the panelists seemed to agree, but one questioned the premise of my question, claiming that we should leave the challenges of climate change to the experts.

The first to respond, Noah Diffenbaugh, Associate Professor of Environmental Earth System Science; Senior Fellow at the Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment; and lead author of Working Group II; affirmed that climate change education was important, mentioning a NASA-funded project for teacher training that Stanford was involved with.

The second responder, Terry Root, Senior Fellow at the Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment specializing in ecosystem impacts, lead author on two previous IPCC assessment reports and review editor of current one, touted the work of our friends at the Alliance for Climate Education, which has reached nearly two million of the 56 million K12 students in the US; a good start but not nearly enough. 

It was the third panelist who disagreed with the premise of my question.

Jon Krosnick is a professor of communication and political science at Stanford University, senior fellow at the Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment, and Frederic O. Glover Professor in Humanities and Social Sciences, as well as the drummer for a jazz band called the Charged Particles that played during the reception after the event. I've written about Krosnick's survey work before, which differs from some other polling by suggesting there is much greater acceptance of the human role in climate change. I wasn't entirely surprised that he disagreed since he’s not particularly immersed in science education, although I was surprised at his reasoning.

He riffed on the idea that everyone has their pet projects that they think education will solve, using the example of how during the Vietnam war most people didn't know where Vietnam was. Efforts to improve geography education were promoted with the idea that if more people knew where Vietnam was, it would help stop the war. I grew up during that era and don’t recall anyone thinking the war was going to stop from more people knowing where Vietnam was, but he suggested that climate change is like that now: a problem that people mistakenly think will be solved through education. 

He admitted that maybe it's important that people know that climate change is happening and is being caused by humans, and his research indicates that they do by and large. But he doesn't think it matters whether they understand the basic science or not, suggesting they should leave it up to the experts, like the people on the panel, to help make the right decisions. He concluded by suggesting the question I'd asked wasn't backed by the data. 

What data he was referring to wasn’t clear. Yes, there are studies, like the recent Gallup survey, that find education level makes only a slight difference in concern about climate change, but one can argue, as I do, that this is due to the fact that most people never learn any of the basics of climate and energy in school.

"Experts" who dismiss the value of climate change education don't know what the data about climate education actually says: that many teens and adults never learn the essentials, and those that do are generally more concerned and have better knowledge and preparation  to make informed decisions. Leaving response to climate change to the experts? How well has worked out so far?

Tempting though it was to debate on the spot with a rebuttal, I let it slide, keeping my proverbial powder dry to fight another day. But it was yet another reminder of how unappreciated climate change education remains even among those who are immersed in it.