Climate Literacy in a Time of Climate Silence

On October 23, 2012, experts, officials and aficionados on all things education and all things climate attended a Climate Literacy Forum in Washington, D.C. Hosted by the National Center for Science Education, the Alliance for Climate Education and the National Education Association, over 40 people representing over 25 government agencies and nonprofit organizations learned the history of climate knowledge, gained perspective on national trends in climate literacy, and worked together to establish ways to increase the climate literacy of current and future students and educators.

You may be wondering what the term “climate literacy” means. In the 2009 publication “Climate Literacy:  The Essential Principles of Climate Sciences,” a climate-literate person is defined as having the following four characteristics:

  • understands the essential principles of Earth’s climate system
  • knows how to assess scientifically credible information about climate,
  • communicates about climate and climate change in a meaningful way, and,
  • is able to make informed and responsible decisions with regard to actions that may affect climate.

The forum could not have been held at a better time–the day after the final presidential debate, during which neither candidate mentioned the “C” words, “climate change,” for the first time in several election cycles, and after a summer of  extreme weather events such as the Mid-Atlantic derecho and the near-nationwide drought. It was clear to forum attendees that the extreme weather was climate change-fueled, and that if our political leaders and the media are to recognize those connections in the future, we need to continue to increase climate literacy at all levels in our society.

Reassuringly, we’re not starting from scratch. Countless studies and reports already offer some facts on which to base programs. The more that people know about climate change, the more concerned they are; the Alliance for Climate Education travels to high schools across the nation holding school-wide climate emergency assemblies presenting the basics of climate science and asking students to commit to “Do One Thing” to reduce their carbon footprint. They have reached over one million students and spurred environmental projects at high schools nationwide. Earth:  The Operator’s Manual is a documentary film about ways ordinary people are already mitigating and preparing for effects of climate change. Writer-director Geoff Haines-Stiles calls the storytellers in this doc “unusual suspects,” as they don’t generally fall into the demographic categories that regularly talk about the importance of addressing climate change, further conveying the point that we all have a role to play when it comes to climate change.

Talking about climate change can be an overwhelming experience for young children, or anyone, really, so the experts say that when breaching the subject, talk about a local issue, something small but highly visible, and then, over time, increase the scope of your discussion.

After a variety of panels, attendees broke out into groups for brainstorming sessions, coming up with dream headlines about climate literacy in 2020–“US leads in green jobs, unemployment rates lowest in decades” and “Climate change major topic in presidential debates,” as examples–and then thinking about ways to turn these dream headlines into reality. After being exposed to the hard work of everyone at the conference, there is no doubt that climate literacy will continue to increase in the future. In fact, it already is: