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Why don’t people engage climate change? Problem 1: Environmental Literacy

Sunday, November 1st, 2009

Prerequisite post: Why don’t people engage climate change? Overview

When awareness of or engagement in an issue like climate change is low, we often assume education will help.  And it can, but only to a point, as we will see in this and other posts.

With respect to climate change, there are at least four challenges with environmental literacy:

Challenge 1: People don’t know enough about how human and environmental systems work and interact.

This report by the National Environmental Education and Training Foundation presents ten years of research describing the state of environmental literacy in America.

As you might expect, it’s filled with stories of some basic facts that people get wrong, such as

  • 45 million Americans think that the oceans are our source of fresh water (it’s not –rivers, rainfall, reservoirs, and aquifers are)
  • 120 million Americans think that spray cans are still a source of ozone-damaging CFCs (these were phased out with the 1989 Montreal Protocol; most propellants nowadays include a variety of gases—interestingly, for food these gases include CO2 (which contributes to warming) and N2O (which contributes to both warming and ozone destruction)).
  • 120 million Americans think that disposable diapers are the #1 landfill problem (paper is actually).
  • 130 million Americans think hydropower is America’s top energy supply (it’s coal).

The authors also describe a hierarchy of environmental understanding:

awareness –> knowledge –> literacy

and argue that, with respect to environmental issues, many people are still in the awareness phase.  That is, they have heard of terms like ozone and climate warming, but they don’t have a deeper knowledge and are not literate with these concepts.

One of the biggest challenges they identified is what they called the “causal disconnect.”  This means that people don’t make connections between one set of actions and another.  For example, driving a car and heating/powering a home require fossil fuels.  Fossil fuel combustion causes greenhouse gases to rise, which causes climate to warm.  This, in turn, might be causing soil carbon to decompose, further releasing carbon to the atmosphere and accelerating warming.

Bottom line:  People need to learn the basic facts about environmental issues and then integrate them with a deeper understanding of ecology and earth system science to see how the parts interact.

Challenge 2: Personal actions don’t match required solutions.

When people are asked what they do to deal with climate warming, you often hear things like recycling or changing incandescent bulbs to CFLs.  Lorraine Whitmarsh showed recently in the Journal of Environmental Psychology that people in the UK often take actions (e.g., recycling) that are at odds with policy recommendations (energy conservation).

Part of the problem is that most people don’t know what their carbon footprint looks like, so they don’t know which actions have the largest impacts.  Usually, it’s home energy use and transportation that have the biggest impacts.  CFLs and recycling certainly help, but they come nowhere close to being a substantive reduction in personal carbon emissions.

Part of this challenge is also a challenge of behavior, which I’ll talk about in a future post.

Bottom line:  People need information showing them, specifically, how their lifestyles impact the environment and how specific behavior changes could lead to quantifiable reductions of those impacts.

Challenge 3: Bad mental models facilitate underestimation of the problem and the time scale to deal with it.

This was illustrated beautifully by a thought experiment posed by John Sterman and Linda Booth Sweeny in Climatic Change and Science (subscriptions required).sterman and sweeny (Small) (2)Sterman and Sweeny studied a group of MIT graduate students, who you might expect to be a little more environmentally literate than your average Joe.  They showed students graphs (A) and (B) above, which depict rising atmospheric CO2 from 1900 to 2000.   Then, they show two different stabilization scenarios from 2000-2100:  In (A), atmospheric CO2 levels off at 400 ppm, and in (B) it levels off at 340 ppm.

Then they gave students a graph of carbon emissions (from fossil fuels) and net removal by carbon sinks (things like absorption by the ocean and trees) (graphs C and D).  Sterman and Sweeny only showed them part of graphs (C) and (D)—from 1900-2000.

Here comes the test:  Given the emissions and sinks data from 1900-2000, the students were asked to draw in what they thought the emissions and removal would need to look like from 2000-2100 in order to stabilize atmospheric CO2 as shown in graphs (A) and (B).  That is, the hand-drawn graphs in (C) should generate the scenario in graph (A), and the hand-drawn graphs in (D) should generate the scenario in graph (B).

[Time out] Here’s how I teach this to my students—the MIT students did not have the benefit of this primer.  What we need to do is imagine the carbon in the atmosphere is like money in a bank account.  Adding money to the account is like carbon emissions from fossil fuel.  Withdrawing money from the account is like removal of carbon by sinks.  Thus, when deposits (emissions) exceed withdrawals (sinks), our account (atmospheric CO2) goes up. Conversely, when withdrawals (sinks) exceed deposits (emissions), our account (atmospheric CO2) goes down. When deposits equal withdrawals, our account doesn’t change over time.

As you can see from graphs (C) and (D), the students didn’t understand this.  When asked to stabilize atmospheric CO2 at 400 ppm in (A), they drew emissions as a gently sloping curve that flattens out over time.  Sinks they drew as a flat line.  What would happen to atmospheric CO2 in this case?  It goes up because emissions exceed sinks.  The authors argue that the students were simply pattern matching their drawing in (C) with the trend they wanted to achieve in (A).   This is a bad mental model that’s incorrect.  I show the correct answer for emissions with the red line: If you want to stabilize CO2, emissions need to drop rapidly and equal sinks by about 2050.  The situation is worse in graph (D), where they commit the same mistake:  pattern matching and emissions exceed sinks over all times.  This means that atmospheric CO2 will continue to rise, not fall.  Again, the red line shows that the correct emissions trajectory is a dramatic reduction so that emissions falls below sinks immediately and stays below the sinks.  Having emissions (deposits) smaller than the sinks (withdrawals) is the only way to reduce atmospheric CO2.

Bottom line: These students had bad mental models that caused them to dramatically underestimate the rate and timing of CO2 reductions.  To stabilize or reduce atmospheric CO2, we need dramatic reductions now.  Instead, the student believed that we could change emissions slowly, not even reducing them in graph C.  There’s no sense of urgency in this mental model, which can translate to no sense of urgency in dealing with the problem of climate warming.

Challenge 4: Environmental literacy is affected by how we structure disciplines in higher education

Okay, this really isn’t an easy problem to deal with but I include it here with environmental literacy, even though it is partly a behavioral issue that I’ll address later.  If we want students to become more environmentally literate, how do we do it?  Part of it requires addressing the issues in challenges 1-3 above (more knowledge, better understanding of the problem, and better understanding of the solutions), but environmental literacy is also a deeper, structural concern in higher education.

Some colleges and universities have chosen to align their mission with sustainability.  Examples include College of the Atlantic, Northern Arizona University, Warren Wilson College, Northland College, Unity College, and Arizona State University.  With this kind of commitment, it should be easy to foster environmental literacy across the natural sciences, social sciences, and humanities.

Most schools haven’t done this and are not likely to.  Less-ambitious measures include instituting an environmental literacy requirement, where students take one course about the environment.  Although this sounds like a good idea, I’m not sure it is for a couple of reasons:

  • Environmental literacy requirements are often left up to Environmental Studies and Science (ESS) programs to implement.   The problem of environmental change, and climate change in particular, is huge and will require the engagement of all disciplines.  Focusing environmental literacy within ESS programs absolves the rest of campus from dealing with it. Everyone needs to become part of the conversation.  What does it mean to train students to be able to navigate a world dealing with climate adaptation and mitigation and to become leaders of business, science, civil society, and government in a more ecologically sustainable and socially just world?  Sure ESS will take a leading role and can provide a venue for deeper analysis, but it can’t do it alone.
  • Environmental literacy requirements consisting of a single course don’t offer substantive change.  This is likely the case if students take a course from an ESS program and return to their majors only to learn about their disciplines as if environmental challenges never even existed.

Bottom line:  We need to think of environment as one frame of many that students need to learn how to apply widely in their education.  We value the study of race, gender, class and competencies like writing, quantitative literacy, and languages.   Environment needs to be an additional arrow in this quiver that faculty across disciplines engage in their classrooms.  And the same goes for instructors of ESS courses—we need to think of how we can better include race, class, and gender in our courses.

Coming up:  We will examine the problem of communication.

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7 Responses to “Why don’t people engage climate change? Problem 1: Environmental Literacy”

  1. [...] Why don’t people engage climate change?  Problem 1: Environmental Literacy [...]

  2. [...] Problem 1—Environmental literacy:  When people don’t know enough about climate change, they can be easily persuaded by contrarian arguments.  If the average person can’t explain (1) why modern warming is more influenced by greenhouse gases than natural causes and (2) how we know we are breaking out of natural ranges of climate variability (i.e., a clear sign that warming is anthropogenic), then climate deniers will always be able to peddle credible-sounding misinformation to the public (more on how to answer these correctly in a future post). [...]

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  4. [...] Related post: Why don’t people engage climate change? Problem 1: Environmental Literacy [...]

  5. [...] like to continue the conversation about environmental literacy initiated in the context of why people don’t engage climate warming.  In that discussion, EL was mostly framed as a matter of knowledge about climate warming and the [...]

  6. [...] too angry for their own good, at Slate today that adds another view to the ongoing discussion about environmental literacy and [...]

  7. [...] a fan of nutritional literacy, as I am with environmental literacy, but only as one of several approaches in a portfolio of strategies for improving the quality of [...]


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