One of the more frustrating issues I deal with as an educator is the focus by many governments, NGOs, foundations, and much of the scientific community on “climate literacy” as a strategy for shifting the climate change policy debate.
Climate literacy is the label given by organizations, such as the U.S. National Science Foundation, to the work of teaching the lay public about climate science and global warming. Let’s be clear, I soundly believe that the world would be better if more people had a deeper understanding of science (perhaps starting with the reality of biological evolution through natural selection).
But working to expand climate literacy, executes on a strategy that assumes teaching more people will change people’s opinions on the topic. This assumption is based on the premise that we are each rational fact-seeking and analyzing actors, open to new evidence and information from generally credible sources. Yet, social scientists (yes, even economists) are increasingly recognizing that humans are not really very rational much of the time. Our consumption of science is not immune from this irrationality. Instead of seeking out new credible evidence, we process information through highly biased filters that can distort our understanding in radical ways. As a case in point, a recent study published in Nature Climate Change showed how attempts to increase climate literacy can actually be counterproductive for some populations (the article is behind a pay wall, but you can read a laymen’s summary here).
Now, I won’t go as far as to argue that we stop trying to teach kids about climate science in schools. If anything we should teach it more, given that it is going to be their problem to deal with since we seem to be mostly postponing doing anything about it now. But putting on my financial watchdog hat, I’d say that investments to teach and convince the broader public of the realities of climate science deserve close scrutiny. To us it seems far wiser to use those resources to help prepare with the skills necessary to address the problem the sub-population that is already interested and engaged. A strategy of focused deep skills development, rather than shallow and broad awareness.
Put more succinctly, in a world of limited resources, we think it’s critically important to separate out public awareness, education, and training, which are all too often lumped together under the banner of “climate literacy.” (To this end, we are excited to see developments to more coherently track these initiatives, for example the reporting infrastructure emerging under the Doha work programme on Article 6 under the UNFCCC.)
Changing minds, moving policy
It’s my belief that ultimately, the visceral impacts of climate change will eventually move a sufficient number of deniers and activate a sufficient number of the ambivalent. You can only deny that the Earth’s core is molten so long if you live on the top of an active volcano. But in the meantime, there are still a number of things we can do, starting by looking at how people actually form their opinions on issues and the powerful role of social networks. In these efforts of persuasion understanding the psychology of those that deny or simply ignore climate change is key (see this useful short video as a start). Making personal connections and gently leveraging social pressure is a good next step. People abhor being out of step with their peers.
But make no mistake, this is easier said than done. Success requires flipping highly networked individuals within communities with a propensity to deny or ignore climate change. I will not pretend to have the optimal strategy for how to do this, although here is a useful guide.
Professional service, personal ethics
Changing public opinion is not part of the mission of the GHG Management Institute for a number of reasons. For one, we are not an advocacy organization. But we do think that all of us individually, as GHG practitioners, bear a professional and ethical responsibility to leverage our personal story. So, the next time you find yourself rubbing shoulders with a dinner party guest who’s all too happy to tell your host that a one-world-government conspiracy underpins climate change, speak up. With all respect and with no prejudice just explain that you do not see it that way because your life experience has brought you to another conclusion. There’s no need to try and argue or convince anyone, and thereby provoke a defensive response. And in contrast to what you may want to do, which is distance yourself from an ideologically driven idiot, make an effort to identify with the person on a broader level while maintaining the awkward social disharmony on the one point of climate change. (For example, I will often create some shared identify with those from the conservative South here in the USA by talking to them about how I am a native Texan and Aggie alum.)
Your thoughts on how to deal with those that deny or actively avoid the issue of climate change are welcome. As a GHG professional community, one of our informal roles will be interfacing with the broader public. When doing so, we should at least strive to do more good than harm. My and your kids will thank you.
Happy New Year.