Why Climate Literacy Matters
In reading about the hoopla and choreography around the new EPA power plant regulations and thinking about the “teachable moments” the new regs offer, I can’t help but wonder: Would the situation today be different if we’d included human impact on the climate system—the causes, effects, risks and possible responses—in science education over the past 50 years?
More than fifty years ago, science education materials in the United States, including the video above from the Bell Science Hour—which was incorporated into the recent Cosmos episode about climate change that asked “Are We The Problem?”—covered the topic of human geo-engineering of the climate system.
The National Academy of Sciences produced science education materials and educational films that explored the ramifications of continued, unfettered release of carbon dioxide from burning fossil fuels into the early 1960s, acknowledging that not only would a warmer atmosphere result but it would also cause ice sheets to melt, sea level to rise, and ecosystems to be substantially altered.
But for a variety of reasons—perhaps most important, the deliberate and effective efforts over decades to deny, delay, and cast doubt on the science of human-caused climate change—the topic has largely been missing from science education and related disciplines in the United States lo these many years.
In my forthcoming book published by Corwin Press, Climate Smart & Energy Wise, I drill into some the reasons why climate change has until recently not been taught or taught well. There have certainly been many missed opportunities, among them Article 6 of the UNFCCC (United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change) that the United States and most other nations signed over twenty years ago.
Article 6 calls for nations to develop and implement education and public awareness programs on climate change and its effects, and encourages public participation in developing adequate responses. In the two decades since the UNFCCC was signed, few countries have followed through in depth on this part of the framework.
Climate literacy does matter, and now, because we've neglected it, we are playing catch-up. While we are making some progress at ramping up climate and energy literacy here in the United States, much more needs to be done to make sure the ~76 million Americans who are students in any given year learn the essentials: the causes, effects, risks, and possible responses to human-induced climate change.
One thing we can do is look for more teachable moments behind every news article or blog posting about the latest science or policy plan. The EPA regs are an interesting case in point. On the EPA website there are videos from Administrator McCarthy giving an overview of the Clean Power Plan and Joe Goffman, EPA's Associate Assistant Administrator for Climate, going over the nuts and bolts of how the plan will cut carbon pollution by 30% by 2030. But this is more promotional than educational.
There are plenty of opportunities for STEM teachers to have students crunch the numbers, learn about different types of coal, different types of power plants, where the coal is mined, and what some of the environmental impacts beyond climate alteration are. Social studies and civics teachers can bring in the history of the Clean Air Act, how vested interests have contributed to a climate of confusion, and exmaine the failure of Congress to address climate issues over recent decades.
The teachable moment that the White House has chosen to emphasize in promoting the regulations is an interesting one: there’s no overt mention of climate, but because modernized power plants will reduce soot and smog by 25%, they are emphasizing that we will breathe easier, miss less school, live longer, stay out of hospitals, and get back to work sooner. And there are numbers (although no detailed citations) to back up the claims.
The Climate Literacy framework (which CLEAN helps unpack for teachers here), includes a fundamental principle that covers public health: 7f ) Human health and mortality rates will be affected to different degrees in specific regions of the world as a result of climate change.
Emphasizing human health—the last concept mentioned in the Climate Literacy framework—may be the right first step moving informed climate action forward after decades of doubt and delay.
These are baby, incremental steps, but like a baby's first steps, they are heading in the right direction no matter where they go.