Investing in Civic Education about Climate Change: What Should Be the Goals?

On Thursday, the National Academies will be holding the second in a series of roundtable events on climate change education.  Registration is open to the public.


In a white paper commissioned as background for the organizing committee, I argue that climate change education needs to promote a range of outcomes beyond just technical understanding of climate science. 

I highlight the cognitive i.e. promoting different forms of knowledge; the affective i.e. promoting efficacy and trust; and the skills-based i.e. skills that help citizens learn, connect, collaborate, participate, and plan. 

From the draft white paper, I've pasted a detailed overview of these three areas.

The Cognitive: Forms of Knowledge

The first set of outcomes involve dimensions of knowledge that include but also expand upon the focus of public education initiatives to date:

The first area of knowledge—and the most commonly emphasized—is climate science literacy.   This focus derives in part from the work of Jon Miller (1998), who has defined science literacy generally as awareness and knowledge of technical terms and constructs sufficient to make sense of competing arguments encountered in news coverage, policy debates, and public discussions.  Applied to climate change, survey assessments of climate literacy have included understanding the natural and man-made causes of climate change as well as current and future climate change-related impacts and risks (Nisbet & Myers, 2007).

The recent Yale University report “Americans Knowledge of Climate Change” is the most comprehensive conceptualization and measurement of climate science literacy to date.  This report evaluates climate science literacy relative to (a) basic awareness of terms such as greenhouse effect and belief that climate change is happening; (b) understanding of natural and man-made causes of climate change; types of greenhouse gases and types of fossil fuels; (c) understanding of the differences between weather and climate; changes in temperature over time; and the rise in CO2 levels; (d) understanding of regional variation in temperature, precipitation, and agricultural impacts; causes of sea level rise; and of other impacts such as ocean acidification and coral bleaching (Leiserowitz, 2010).

A second important dimension of knowledge focuses on understanding how climate science works as an institution and as a changing body of knowledge.  Understanding in this area includes how scientists conduct their work and resolve disagreements; the role of scientists and their organizations in societal decision-making including how scientific advice is used in Congress or the co-production of IPCC reports between scientists and policymakers; the political and social biases of scientists; in the current political climate, the connections between scientists, environmental groups, the Democratic party and other frequent allies in communicating about climate change; and finally, public perceptions of scientific agreement.  To date, survey assessments have focused on public perceptions of agreement among experts, but few if any of the other features of knowledge in this domain have been investigated.

A third area of knowledge involves understanding the political and policy dimensions of climate change.  This includes understanding of recent legislation or international agreements; the position of political parties, interest groups, and leaders on these proposals; the range of policy solutions proposed or available at the international, national, or local level, and their relative trade-offs.  As the recent Yale report does, this can also include understanding of the sources of greenhouse gas pollution such as coal powered plants or cars that can be addressed in mitigation-related policies.  It would also include understanding the difference between mitigation and adaptation actions.

A fourth area of knowledge involves participatory knowledge, which includes information and details on how a citizen can get involved and have a say in decisions that are made about climate change at the community or national level.  Knowledge in this area makes it easier for community members to voice their preferences, draw attention to perceived problems, and to express their ideas on possible solutions. Emphasizing this dimension of knowledge also helps promotes a two-way exchange of information between experts and the public.

Consider that a past George Mason / Yale University survey on climate change found that more than 90% of Americans had never written, emailed, or phoned a government official about climate change.  When respondents were asked about the reasons that prevented them from participating more frequently, 17% simply said they “didn’t know how” while another 16% said it “took too much effort.” (Leiserowitz et al., 2009a).

A fifth area involves conceptual and integrated understanding that might connect these knowledge areas.  As an example, the recent Yale report asks respondents to identify figures that represent their conceptualization of how the climate system works, ranging from a threshold conceptualization to a fragile, random, or gradual view (Leiserowitz, 2010). 

Another example is the mental model that Americans have about the best way to solve climate change-related energy problems.  Mental models involve using heuristics and frameworks, usually based on everyday experience, conventional wisdom, or popular culture to make sense of a complex scientific topic or policy problem.  Public understanding often depends on shifting the mental models that individuals use to make sense of an issue.

On energy, one mental model focuses attention on a “supply problem” with the solution either the discovery of new sources of petroleum through off-shore drilling, and/or greater reliance on renewable resources such as wind, hydro-electric, solar, and nuclear.  However, this “supply problem” mental model distracts public attention and action away from what experts, including the National Academies , describe as potentially more effective and feasible actions that reduce consumer and industrial demand for energy and in the process reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Examples include fuel standards for cars; and improvements in refrigeration, lighting, household, and industrial efficiency. One possible education goal, therefore, should be to shift the dominant mental model and focus in a community from “supply” to “demand” solutions. Polls show that the applicable mental model that the public applies to the energy challenge can tip based on swings in gas prices and media attention.

A sixth area involves practical or consumer literacy that can be applied to solving common everyday personal problems such as decisions about energy use or interpreting the packaging on energy appliances.   

For example, in a national survey, when asked about the important energy reduction actions of insulating their attic or weather proofing their home, more than 20% of Americans said that a barrier was that they “didn’t know how” and nearly a quarter indicated they didn’t have the time to research the options. In addition, many Americans may erroneously assume they have already adopted the best and most effective energy efficiency practices in terms of heating and insulation and may not be aware of newly available options (Leiserowitz et al, 2009b).

Consider also that many Americans express that they would like information on what personal actions they can take that would have the “most bang for the buck,” in other words the actions that are likely to make the most difference in terms of conservation or cost-savings. As expert agreement emerges on these questions, there should be increased communication around these practical, consumer dimensions.

A seventh dimension of knowledge involves ethical, moral, and religious understanding.  What are the moral frameworks available and applicable to weighing and assessing the risks, trade-offs and complex questions surrounding climate change?  How does climate change fit as an issue within the context of specific religious teachings or secular traditions such as environmentalism or humanism?

A final “meta-dimension” involves localized knowledge and understanding.  How do each of the above categories apply to the scientific, social, and political dynamics of climate change that are specific to an individual’s local area or community?  For example in terms of the application of mental  or conceptual models, a resident living in a Midwest city may draw upon their own personal experience observing agriculture-related energy use or on the potential of biofuels.  In contrast, a resident of a Northeast city may reference their experience with commuting, urban sprawl, air pollution, and/or public transportation. Information provided in a region or city should therefore be tailored to these unique connections and needs.

The Affective:  Trust and Efficacy

Research on civic engagement and political participation generally, finds that the influence of knowledge is mediated by feelings of trust and efficacy.  Individuals who are more knowledgeable about public affairs tend to also be more trusting of government; more trusting of their neighbors and community members; and more efficacious, believing that their participation or collaboration with others can make a difference and those government officials will respond to their activity and preferences.

Apart from socio-demographic variables such as education and income, it is these feelings of trust and efficacy that have the strongest impact on the likelihood of an individual to become involved in their communities or to participate politically.  Knowledge is one factor shaping trust and efficacy, but there are other important contributors to these feelings (McLeod, Scheufele, & Moy, 1999; Scheufele, Nisbet, Brossard & Nisbet; 2004).

Survey research specific to climate change has tracked public trust in different societal actors—including scientists—as sources of information about climate change.  But little work has been done on the factors that shape trust in scientists and other actors, and the role that trust plays in direct public involvement.  Similarly, feelings of efficacy and their relationship to civic involvement on climate change also remain unexplored.

Climate change education initiatives can and should contribute meaningfully to feelings of trust and efficacy.  As discussed later, this can take place through the organization of localized deliberative forums, but also through media presentations that portray individuals with whom a targeted audience identifies as effectively participating in their communities and nationally on the issue, in collaboration with a diversity of others, and in successful collaboration with government officials and institutions.

Civic Skills and Media Literacy

If Americans are going to act on their knowledge of climate change, what skills do they need to effectively participate and collaborate with others?  Civic education on climate needs to not only promote different forms of learning and affective outcomes, but also impart information and resources on how to host a meeting; recruit volunteers; speak at public forums; or find sources of financial support for local and regional efforts at mitigation and adaptation.

While these civic skills might be of use to a smaller sub-set of Americans, media literacy skills are important for almost any individual.  To motivate and prepare Americans to use digital media to learn about climate change, share information, express their views, and coordinate activities, science organizations should partner with universities, social scientists, and journalists to develop “civic science media literacy” curricula.  These modules can be formally incorporated into university, junior college, and high school science courses across the country or offered as part of continuing education at public libraries.  

The modules would introduce students to quality online news sources about climate change; teach students about how to constructively use participatory tools such as blogs and other social media applications; educate students on how to critically evaluate evidence and claims as presented in the media; introduce students to the relationships between science and institutions as they are often covered in the news; and socialize students into enjoying and following the issue of climate change by way of digital media after they complete course or training. In short, this type of media literacy curriculum would not only potentially grow the audience for information about climate change but also impart the skills, motivation, and know-how that students need to be participatory citizens in the online and real world (Nisbet & Scheufele, 20009).

What do readers think? Are there dimensions or outcomes missing from this list?

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New fossils suggest human ancestors evolved in Europe, not Africa

Experts argue the jaws of an ancient European ape reveal a key human ancestor.

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  • The jaw bones of an 8-million-year-old ape were discovered at Nikiti, Greece, in the '90s.
  • Researchers speculate it could be a previously unknown species and one of humanity's earliest evolutionary ancestors.
  • These fossils may change how we view the evolution of our species.

Homo sapiens have been on earth for 200,000 years — give or take a few ten-thousand-year stretches. Much of that time is shrouded in the fog of prehistory. What we do know has been pieced together by deciphering the fossil record through the principles of evolutionary theory. Yet new discoveries contain the potential to refashion that knowledge and lead scientists to new, previously unconsidered conclusions.

A set of 8-million-year-old teeth may have done just that. Researchers recently inspected the upper and lower jaw of an ancient European ape. Their conclusions suggest that humanity's forebearers may have arisen in Europe before migrating to Africa, potentially upending a scientific consensus that has stood since Darwin's day.

Rethinking humanity's origin story

The frontispiece of Thomas Huxley's Evidence as to Man's Place in Nature (1863) sketched by natural history artist Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

As reported in New Scientist, the 8- to 9-million-year-old hominin jaw bones were found at Nikiti, northern Greece, in the '90s. Scientists originally pegged the chompers as belonging to a member of Ouranopithecus, an genus of extinct Eurasian ape.

David Begun, an anthropologist at the University of Toronto, and his team recently reexamined the jaw bones. They argue that the original identification was incorrect. Based on the fossil's hominin-like canines and premolar roots, they identify that the ape belongs to a previously unknown proto-hominin.

The researchers hypothesize that these proto-hominins were the evolutionary ancestors of another European great ape Graecopithecus, which the same team tentatively identified as an early hominin in 2017. Graecopithecus lived in south-east Europe 7.2 million years ago. If the premise is correct, these hominins would have migrated to Africa 7 million years ago, after undergoing much of their evolutionary development in Europe.

Begun points out that south-east Europe was once occupied by the ancestors of animals like the giraffe and rhino, too. "It's widely agreed that this was the found fauna of most of what we see in Africa today," he told New Scientists. "If the antelopes and giraffes could get into Africa 7 million years ago, why not the apes?"

He recently outlined this idea at a conference of the American Association of Physical Anthropologists.

It's worth noting that Begun has made similar hypotheses before. Writing for the Journal of Human Evolution in 2002, Begun and Elmar Heizmann of the Natural history Museum of Stuttgart discussed a great ape fossil found in Germany that they argued could be the ancestor (broadly speaking) of all living great apes and humans.

"Found in Germany 20 years ago, this specimen is about 16.5 million years old, some 1.5 million years older than similar species from East Africa," Begun said in a statement then. "It suggests that the great ape and human lineage first appeared in Eurasia and not Africa."

Migrating out of Africa

In the Descent of Man, Charles Darwin proposed that hominins descended out of Africa. Considering the relatively few fossils available at the time, it is a testament to Darwin's astuteness that his hypothesis remains the leading theory.

Since Darwin's time, we have unearthed many more fossils and discovered new evidence in genetics. As such, our African-origin story has undergone many updates and revisions since 1871. Today, it has splintered into two theories: the "out of Africa" theory and the "multi-regional" theory.

The out of Africa theory suggests that the cradle of all humanity was Africa. Homo sapiens evolved exclusively and recently on that continent. At some point in prehistory, our ancestors migrated from Africa to Eurasia and replaced other subspecies of the genus Homo, such as Neanderthals. This is the dominant theory among scientists, and current evidence seems to support it best — though, say that in some circles and be prepared for a late-night debate that goes well past last call.

The multi-regional theory suggests that humans evolved in parallel across various regions. According to this model, the hominins Homo erectus left Africa to settle across Eurasia and (maybe) Australia. These disparate populations eventually evolved into modern humans thanks to a helping dollop of gene flow.

Of course, there are the broad strokes of very nuanced models, and we're leaving a lot of discussion out. There is, for example, a debate as to whether African Homo erectus fossils should be considered alongside Asian ones or should be labeled as a different subspecies, Homo ergaster.

Proponents of the out-of-Africa model aren't sure whether non-African humans descended from a single migration out of Africa or at least two major waves of migration followed by a lot of interbreeding.

Did we head east or south of Eden?

Not all anthropologists agree with Begun and his team's conclusions. As noted by New Scientist, it is possible that the Nikiti ape is not related to hominins at all. It may have evolved similar features independently, developing teeth to eat similar foods or chew in a similar manner as early hominins.

Ultimately, Nikiti ape alone doesn't offer enough evidence to upend the out of Africa model, which is supported by a more robust fossil record and DNA evidence. But additional evidence may be uncovered to lend further credence to Begun's hypothesis or lead us to yet unconsidered ideas about humanity's evolution.