Mark McCaffrey's picture

Climate KIC START

Recently I found myself around the corner from Buckingham Palace in the boardroom of Rolls-Royce, maker of airplane engines and wind turbines (they spun off the luxury car division years ago), sitting across the table from the renowned climatologist Jean Jouzel, listening to his passionate plea to for us to educate society to prepare for changing climate and limit its impacts.

The others gathered around the table were members of the education advisory board of Climate KIC, short for "Knowledge Innovation Community," which is made up of experts from not only the company started by Mr. Rolls and Mr. Royce, but also from Google and a number of other European academic and corporate institutions.

Climate KIC's dynamic Director of Education, Ebrahim Mohamed, chaired the meeting, which was meant both to provide an overview of what Climate KIC has achieved in its four years of existence and also to gain feedback from the advisory board on new directions and priorities for the coming years.

While many Europeans look with envy at the creative innovation and entrepreneurship that the United States has long been known for, listening to Ebrahim and others discuss the Climate KIC program, it was clear that they should take credit for pioneering an approach to climate education, communication, and outreach that is quite different than what we've done here in the United States. 

Climate KIC was kick-started through initial funding through the European Institute of Innovation and Technology (EIT) and has now become a robust public-private innovation partnership that is making major strides in helping solve the almost ridiculous task (which I've invented an acronym for: START) of climate change. They are helping pioneer efforts to infuse innovation and entrepreneurship in responding to the climate conundrum. 

Over the past several months, I'd had a number of conversations with Ebrahim about some of the challenges and opportunities we've faced in the U.S. around climate change education, and he invited me to join the education advisory board. I arrived a day before the meeting and stayed for a day after to learn more about their approach to education, which has primarily focused on master's-level students and business start-ups, and explore ways that they might benefit from the work we've done in the U.S., which has been focused more on countering climate denial and supporting secondary school science education.

Climate KIC is one of three existing and another five planned Knowledge Innovation Communities of the EIT that are being seeded through funding from the European Union. All are motivated by the premise that in order to compete internationally, Europe needs to foster more innovation and socially relevant entrepreneurial ventures. 

The nations of the European Union make up a geographical region about half the size of the United States or China. With over 505 million people (whose average carbon footprint is half that of the U.S.), if the EU were a sovereign nation, it would have the third largest population in the world, bumping the U.S. into fourth place.

Europeans face many challenges, to be sure, including language and culture, rising nationalism and isolationism, uneven economic development and stability … and for many years, a lack of a culture of innovation and new start-ups in the business sector.  

But they also have many advantages, especially in terms of climate change: with few exceptions, Europeans accept to a higher degree than their U.S. counterparts the scientific consensus that climate change is a result of human activities.

Climate science denial has never been an issue in Europe the way it has been in the U.S. While there have been a few flurries of climate denial in Europe in recent years, nearly 80% of Europeans feel that promoting clean energy to counter climate impacts will benefit the economy. 

In contrast, while attitudes and understanding in the U.S. are changing with the public, climate denial in Congress is still alive and well, substantially hamstringing and limiting the ability of government and businesses to move forward with a clear and effective climate policy.

In spending time with the good folks at Climate KIC, I had a chance to see first hand how, in a few short years, Europeans have developed strategies and products for increasing knowledge and the capacity to use that knowledge through innovation and entrepreneurial efforts that are transferable and scalable.

Clearly, there are opportunities for cross-pollination and collaboration. Ebrahim is working with people in China and Brazil, and we're exploring ways to link efforts here in the U.S. with them.

As I highlight in my forthcoming Corwin book Climate Smart & Energy Wise, we do have much to offer and have made some substantial progress around climate education, particularly at the high school and undergraduate level.

And we can learn from them how to engage with businesses and academia to develop master's-level programs—including teacher professional development—that encourage innovative solutions to climate change. Sounds like a win-win to me.