Climate Change Education

The driving question for this blog has been: How can we encourage more people to think clearly about climate change? This post focuses on educational materials for varied audiences, adding to the resources discussed in earlier posts. The examples below illustrate the diverse range of material available designed to help people learn about climate change. Notably, the first item draws heavily on the type of psychological and communications-related research about climate change that has often been highlighted on this blog.

The National Network for Ocean and Climate Change Interpretation (NNOCCI) is a collaboration of zoos and aquaria in the U.S., like the New England Aquarium, many of which provide the public with information about climate change. Together with the Frameworks Institute, financially supported by the National Science Foundation, and based on extensive research, NNOCCI developed a 12-module, values-based, self-guided online course focusing on how to provide information about climate change in a form that is understandable to the public and that avoids traps limiting the usefulness of the information. NNOCCI says, as an example, that focusing too much attention on dangers caused by climate change (“the crisis trap”) may garner people’s temporary attention but can often lead to a feeling that nothing can be done; and, that the “do one thing to combat climate change” approach is inadequate because it does not help people understand the importance of more comprehensive strategies based on community-wide actions. The course is available free online at Frameworks Academy and focuses especially, but not exclusively, on climate change and the oceans, using the metaphor of the ocean as “climate’s heart.” NNOCCI suggests spending 45 minutes on each of the 12 video and print modules; however, you can quickly sample modules in the course to see whether it fits your needs.

There are many “massive open online courses” (MOOCs) related to climate change aimed at adults and college students (see https://www.mooc-list.com/tags/climate-change). Most are free of charge. I enrolled in Climate Change in Four Dimensions last year, an outstanding college-level course then offered by U.C. San Diego and the Scripps Institution of Oceanography through Coursera (which still offers related courses). The four dimensions in the title are science, policy, international relations, and psychology/communication. Lectures and many other resources from the course are still available online via YouTube, including presentations by Professor Naomi Oreskes, lead author of the books Merchants of Doubt and The Collapse of Western Civilization.

The science education standards developed collaboratively by dozens of states, called the Next Generation Science Standards, identify climate change as a topic that should be taught to all elementary and secondary school students. One website that curates climate change resources for use in schools and provides links to many of them is http://www.climatechangeeducation.org/. NASA also maintains a useful website about climate change, including resources for “climate kids.” The National Science Teachers Association (NSTA) and the National Earth Science Teachers Association (NESTA) also offer useful resources, some for teachers and others for students.

Nonprofit groups across the country create slide shows and provide briefings aimed at state and local policymakers. These materials often focus on particular pieces of legislation related to climate change, such as proposed laws intended to increase use of renewable energy sources. There must be high quality briefing materials for national policymakers, such as members of Congress, but I cannot point to any. International organizations also develop educational materials for policymakers, such as a recent two-part IMF seminar on new opportunities to combat climate change that the IMF says are now possible in light of historically low oil prices.

I sometimes wonder why one does not see more spots or ads about climate change on television or in print, along the lines of public service announcements. I suppose that the answer is that a national media campaign focused on climate change would be very expensive and that no individual, foundation or organization has chosen to fund such a campaign.

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Why is the World Combating Climate Change So Slowly?

I do not believe the United States is primarily responsible for the world’s slow response to climate change, but I am angry nonetheless at individuals, news media, and other organizations in the U.S. that have intentionally or carelessly supported disinformation campaigns. I am appalled that so many Republican candidates for President seem willfully ignorant and childish about climate change (and many other issues). It seems a shame that the United States has not played an even more significant leadership role than it has, say by investing more heavily in renewable energy, or by placing a carbon tax on gasoline and other fuels decades ago.

Who or what is mainly responsible for slowing the world down? After all, humanity has acquired far more scientific knowledge and technological capacity than ever in history. Why, then, has the world moved so slowly to replace old technologies based on burning fossil fuels with safer and more sustainable technologies?

Answers include personal and corporate greed, lack of imagination (e.g., believing the transition will be impossible or too expensive), and the tragedy of the commons, meaning that individuals, corporations, or nations perceive that their self-interests are not aligned with the interests of all. Although this list might be extended, just two reasons for the world’s slow response to climate change seem paramount.

First, research published during the past 50 years, and discussed often on this blog, documents the many ways in which human minds can become biased and reach erroneous conclusions—about economics, government, race and ethnicity, probability, and a nearly endless number of other topics, including climate change. It is easy to believe that psychology researchers are talking only about someone else’s biased mind, or that the problem of flawed thinking is restricted to evil and stupid people. But that is not the case; everyone, even an expert, is more prone to errors in thinking than one would wish.

In discussing climate change I saw how common it is for many intelligent, accomplished people to make errors in thinking. One friend, a university scientist, told me, “that’s a problem for our children”—but experts and President Obama say that if we don’t deal with the problem soon our children won’t be able to act in time. Other smart people have been much too skeptical about the reality of climate change, and its imminent threat, in the face of near unanimity among the world’s climate scientists—apparently not wondering how unlikely it would be for hundreds of experts to be wrong in issuing warnings that are based on decades of research  and that are vetted by governments around the world. Too many people I talk with demonstrate a lack of curiosity about the issue, despite alarming headlines. In contrast, an educated friend who is well connected around the world told me she finds climate change terrifying—but does not want to discuss it with friends or family and, like many people, has not acted on what she believes (a sure recipe for no progress, if everyone adopted the same attitude). A state legislator accepts that climate change is happening but focuses his energy primarily on reducing the price of electricity rather than on reducing GHG emissions, not willing to see renewable energy as essential, or that total electricity costs ought to include not only consumer prices but also the immense damage done by GHG emissions.

The second big reason the world has acted slowly is related to culture. The prevailing world view today is far different than in ancient Rome, or medieval Europe, or among primitive tribes (now mostly a part of history). In the main, people today have different views than people in the past about science, religion, morality, government, humans’ place in the universe, world interdependence, gender roles, etc.

Modern culture has achieved many remarkable things, but at the same time seems prone to certain particular errors in thinking more than did past cultures—which, of course, had their own blind spots, ones that we are glad to have left behind. This is a main argument that Oreskes and Conway make in The Collapse of Western Civilization, where they focus on some modern cultural beliefs—such as the virtues of the corporate free market, and the sacrosanct 95% confidence interval in science—as significant barriers that help explain why humanity is not coming to grips with climate change more rapidly.

To reiterate, humans’ prevailing thinking has changed over thousands of years (adopting a scientific world view; or the growing acceptance of democratic governance; or expecting standards of living in the world to grow without limit, which would have been an alien idea for most of human history). In trying to understand why it has been difficult for the world to combat climate change, the most useful explanation I find is to point to well-documented biases in the way human beings think, and presumably always have thought throughout history, combined with certain inadequate or erroneous beliefs prevalent especially in the modern world.

Individual and cultural blinders, operating separately and together, have made it surprisingly difficult for large numbers of people to clearly see, understand, and then act to mitigate the dangers of climate change. There are numerous of these blinders, and by definition for many people they are not visible, making the task of moving quickly to combat climate change exceptionally challenging. In short, and to repeat an idea from the last post, the problem is: “We have met the enemy and he is us,” as in Walt Kelly’s 1971 Pogo cartoon.

Is the United States to Blame for Climate Change? Part 3.

Considering arguments pro and con about whether to blame the United States for climate change (see Parts 1 and 2) my conclusion is that blame—responsibility, if you prefer—deserves to be widely shared. Climate change seems an example of what a classic Pogo cartoon by Walt Kelly claimed almost a half-century ago about pollution of the natural environment: “We have met the enemy, and he is us.” That cartoon was also a poster for Earth Day 1971, shown below (and licensed via Wikipedia).

Pogo_-_Earth_Day_1971_poster

One can easily appreciate the reasons why the world has harnessed fossil fuels, including moving billions of people out of abject poverty, thereby cutting world poverty rates by more than half in recent years. In just one or two generations China (whose GHG emissions now exceed those of the U.S.), India, and other less developed countries raised the standard of living of vast numbers of people, in part through burning fossil fuels. But despite 50 years of warnings, the nations of the world and most individuals have responded slowly, or not at all, to the threats posed by greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions from fossil fuels.

Technologies are always double-edged swords, providing benefits while also causing or exacerbating problems. The industrial revolution saved lives and increased standards of living—and also contributed to exponential population growth, the consumer society, and excess GHG emissions. (Similarly, computers and the internet have resulted in many benefits to the world yet also lead to concerns about hacking on a giant scale, erosion of personal privacy, cyber warfare, job loss, and more.)

In this context, one notes that the United States is a leading technology innovator. Many American icons, such as Thomas Edison, Henry Ford, the Wright Brothers, Albert Einstein, and Steve Jobs, are known for their innovative ideas, products and discoveries, most of which rely on energy in one way or another. Around the world, people have adopted countless American technological inventions and devices, and many aspire to American lifestyles. With respect to responsibility for climate change, the U.S. may be a technology and a lifestyle leader, but dozens of nations are eager followers.

Ever since Alexis de Tocqueville wrote Democracy in America in 1835, thoughtful observers have written about the “exceptionalism” of the United States, sometimes as praiseworthy and sometimes in disbelief (e.g., the amazement of most people outside the U.S. about the lack of adequate gun control in America). Many people wish to do away with “incurable American excess,” as New York Times columnist Roger Cohen recently wrote, meaning guns, obesity, luxury lifestyles, large per-capita GHG emissions, and more. But Cohen concludes, as others have, that “America’s virtues—its creative churn, vitality, and energy,” and its innovative spirit, are inextricably linked to its vices.

The same appears to be true of the world’s use of fossil fuels. Many nations have focused too much on the virtues (real and apparent) of abundant, inexpensive energy, and not enough on the problems caused by burning fossil fuels (some of which, like coal mine deaths, and polluted air, have been tolerated in many places for more than a century). For a long time the world has embraced the tangled combination of virtue and vice in using fossil fuels, now including growing awareness of excess GHG emissions. In this matter the U.S. is not as exceptional as one wishes it were.

Is the United States to Blame for Climate Change? Part 2.

I presented an argument on this blog that the United States bears primary responsibility for greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and climate change. This post explores an alternative view, that responsibility for climate change is widely shared and therefore that the U.S. is no more to blame than other nations. The argument is based on these perspectives:

  • The industrial revolution, starting with the invention of the steam engine, began more than 200 years ago. As a result, industrial practices, economic policies, livelihoods, and people’s material expectations changed around the world before climate change was a concern. For centuries, and up to the present, most nations have shared one of the same goals as the United States: raising the standard of living of citizens in part based on burning coal, oil, and other fossil fuels.
  • In recent decades, plenty of nations have had poor records related to combating climate change. E.g., Christiana Figueres, who leads the U.N. Framework on Climate Change, recalls that the Saudis were “brilliant” in past climate change negotiations. “They would throw a wrench in here and get out of that room … then appear over in this other room, in which it was a completely unrelated issue, throw a wrench in there.” She added, “I don’t blame them. It’s very understandable [because of their ongoing income from oil reserves].” In fact, until 2015 virtually no leader in the Islamic world had called for action to combat climate change. As another example, Canada was part of the Kyoto Protocol but withdrew from the agreement effective in 2012. Also, a conservative government in Australia—the fourth largest coal-producing nation in the world—repealed its carbon tax in 2014, and then-Prime Minister Tony Abbott was said to be “in complete denial about climate change.” China has built about a thousand new coal-fired power plants—so many that “all of Europe’s [emissions] cuts were effectively cancelled out by a few months’ worth of emissions growth in China.” More examples could be provided.
  • There would almost surely be less progress combating climate change if President Obama and Secretary Kerry had not been working for many years with Chinese leaders and other governments to address the issue. Indeed, the U.S. has provided indispensable leadership on climate change for fifty years. E.g., MIT scientists were instrumental in producing the 1972 study The Limits to Growth, which argued that humanity needed to change course to avoid disaster. Earlier, the U.S. President’s Science Advisory Committee warned about the dangers of excess carbon dioxide in 1965—the first report to a national government about climate change. Former Vice President Al Gore won a Nobel Prize for his work on the problem, including his efforts in 1990 to establish a Global Marshall Fund to combat climate change, his 1992 book Earth in the Balance, and his 2006 film An Inconvenient Truth. Former NASA scientist James Hansen has been one of the most educated and outspoken voices on climate change since the late 1980s.
  • Current national pledges to reduce GHG emissions, made as a part of the U.N. framework process, represent long-awaited progress but are “not even close” to the level needed to keep global warming to a maximum of 2° C or less. Inadequate commitments to reduce emissions are not limited to any one nation.
  • The American economy (which provides about 22% of world economic output) is responsible for less GHG emission per dollar of output than the world average, and energy efficiency in the U.S. has increased since 1990.
  • American fossil fuel companies may have an awful history with respect to funding disinformation about combating climate change, but so do corporations based in other nations, such as British Petroleum and Royal Dutch Shell. A German company, Volkswagen, recently admitted to blatantly lying about equipment supposedly installed to reduce pollution in 11 million diesel cars. Many huge corporations spread disinformation, not only American companies.
  • Naomi Klein, a fierce critic of unfettered capitalism and of fossil fuel companies, has written extensively on climate change, and in This Changes Everything she concludes that “humans have behaved in this shortsighted way [about climate change] not only under capitalist systems, but under systems that called themselves socialist as well”—and also in monarchies, as noted in a bullet above—and that “[climate change] is not a problem that can be blamed on the political right or on the United States.” She believes instead that responsibility for climate change is widely shared by many cultures and nations around the world.

These and other perspectives indicate that a reluctance to acknowledge the grave threat of climate change, as well as most nations’ slow progress to combat it, are widespread phenomena. Finding a villain or scapegoat may be satisfying; however, in this situation there seem to be too many responsible parties to single out only one.