There is an irony in the recent climate strikes. Many of the students out marching, foregoing school, holding hand-lettered signs, teaching us what we should already know — that climate change demands action now — have gone back to schools where climate education is lacking, where it is a rough patchwork, or an afterthought, or worse yet, a subject avoided. Climate literacy, which should by now be universal, lags out of all proportion to the crisis — and yet it promises large returns for a relatively small investment. If every student was climate literate, we could begin to effect change on a large scale. If every person was truly climate literate, imagine the change we could make.
A quarter century ago, the representatives of virtually every nation in the world signed and ratified the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, and they all committed to education, training, and public engagement efforts — later re-branded as Action for Climate Empowerment (ACE) — to address what then was considered a looming, but still somewhat distant crisis. The results of those efforts? Paltry at best. While some examples of effective programs can be found around the world, only a handful of nations have fully followed through with that commitment to climate literacy — the effort to inform and empower students, citizens, communities, so that they might meaningfully and purposefully address the crisis of our times.
Making informed decisions about anything requires a degree of basic understanding and literacy. This is true as much for climate change as it is for balancing a budget, or choosing a candidate for office. Social media posts, tweets, and hashtags may prompt our attention, but they fail to address the complexity of issues that climate change has thrust before us.
Articles and op-eds such as this one, are mere starter courses for the full-meal deal that our times require, that our students demand, and our world needs. We must develop and implement a robust and well-funded global climate literacy initiative, like the one envisioned a quarter century ago. It must reach into schools and homes and workplaces, across barriers of race, class, and gender, empowering people of all ages and places, creating climate literate communities ready to take on the challenges that we face.
Climate literacy can and will inspire sustainable, low-impact lifestyles, and engender creative solutions and new paradigms. It will be integral in developing both the workforce and the resilient communities needed to achieve the just societal transition that, as youth activists insist, is long overdue. And, too, it can and will provide an antidote to our fears, our paralysis. Education is, at root, about fostering insight and courage: insight into how the world works and courage that empowers us to confront the hard challenges, which we face.
What should this initiative look like? What principles should guide it? How can we all be a part of it? A decade of robust research-based experiments and diverse pilot projects has helped point the way — and, importantly, offers compelling evidence that climate literacy is a translatable skill that can lead to action — one that students, workers, and community members can utilize to address impacts, solve problems, and share solutions. Ultimately each nation, each community, must customize their climate literacy program in keeping with local culture and local needs.
Building off of the UN’s ACE program’s guidelines, we offer a set of principles for nourishing climate literacy in your community:
1. Make it local . . . and global. Climate and related global changes caused by human activities may seem distant and too daunting to tackle on a global scale, but even seemingly insignificant local actions can have a larger cascading effect. Recent research indicates that the “sweet spot” for implementing most strategies for reducing greenhouse gases, many of which also have other social and environmental benefits, is at a community scale of between 10,000 and 100,000 people. This is a scale where the local and global converge.
2. Make it relevant. Every student, every classroom, every school, every learning environment is unique. Being able to make complex, often counter-intuitive science and social issues come alive in the minds of learners is as much an art as it is a science. Connecting climate change and sustainable practices curriculum to local culture, society, and issues, allows students to understand, own, and invest in the curriculum.
3. Make it hopeful. Contemplating the prospect of a bleak future needn’t always be avoided, but describing or dwelling on a substantially hotter, more polluted and conflict-filled world will inevitably raise emotions of fear, guilt, anger, and depression. To allay the emotional drain that such information or discussions may raise, emphasizing practical solutions — like those Project Drawdown highlights, such as reducing food and energy waste — and improving community health and well-being through service learning, can help provide a sense of “can-do” optimism without glossing over the stark urgency of our current situation.
4. Make it human. Who are the people in your community, your society, who know how to grow and prepare food, who already recycle and reuse, who embody frugal living, who can be models for us now and into the future? Who are the scientists, inventors, entrepreneurs, and youth leaders, who are coming up with practical solutions? What can we do with our friends, our families, our communities? Together, how can we use the process of inquiry and the creativity of the human spirit to come up with new approaches that will benefit all of humanity, as well as the planet we inhabit?
5. Make it pervasive. If effective education, communication, and outreach are to become part of the solution rather than part of the problem, we can no longer treat environmental education, climate sciences, and sustainable practices simply as add-ons to an already packed curriculum that perpetuates the status quo. Instead, they must be central to education itself, and virtually all studies, from the arts and sciences to business and engineering, must support the sustainability imperative, which is inherently interdisciplinary and integrating.
6. Make it persuasive. Facts rarely persuade people to take action, but stories and emotional connections that resonate in a personal way can inspire and motivate us. Climate action can come alive through arts and humanities, role-playing scenarios, and peer-to-peer learning and sharing.
7. Make it integrated. Education, especially formal, school-based education, is not enough on its own to transform society. If we are to build truly healthy communities and robust capacity, it must be transformed with an ECO-system approach, that blends education, communication, outreach, participation, training, engagement, and empowerment.
8. Make it just. Climate education must acknowledge the unequal impacts of industrial development and consumer culture across the globe. It must turn and listen to the very communities that have been most affected, for they hold answers that we all need to hear.
Climate literacy, leading to empowerment and action, must be deployed across society and at every scale. It must reach communities, households, and individuals so as to empower informed climate action, reduce emissions, cut food waste, support regenerative agriculture and renewable energy alternatives, and prepare youth for tomorrow’s workforce. The emissions gap cannot be closed without also closing the education gap — that is, the gap between society’s understanding of climate change, the threats it poses, and the energy transition and lifestyle changes it demands, and the science itself.
Climate literacy isn’t a choice; it’s a necessity — but it’s also a tool — one that will lead to positive climate action. Let us not disappoint the youth of today, who speak for future generations. Let us, instead, heed their call for informed, urgent action.
Supported by Climate Educators around the world:
James A. Brey
Angela I. Ebeleke
Connie Frey Spurlock
Frank D. Granshaw
John H. Perkins
Ryan W. Vachon
Diane White Husic