The Climate Curricular Conundrum

By Mark S. McCaffrey, Associate Scientist at the Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences, University of Colorado Boulder

(This article appears in the May, 2011 issue of The ACUPCC Implementer)

If tested on their knowledge about the basics of climate, energy or the relationship between them, most Americans would score a D or an F according to two recent national studies[1]. The reasons for this lack of literacy are numerous and complex. Both climate and energy tend to fall through disciplinary gaps in traditional elementary and secondary science education, with climate occasionally tagged at the end of a unit on weather and energy being taught, if at all, in physics, or indirectly in other disciplines.

Climate and energy are multifaceted topics, with the science involved often being non-intuitive and difficult to master. Both topics tend to be blurred by misconceptions, misrepresentations and/or misinformation. And both can become lightening rods for ideological, political and even generational passions. Both are issues that are creating a perfect storm of confusion that, to mix metaphors, leads to a climate of inertia, in part because as a society we have yet to really have an adult conversation about either.

 Facts & Our Future” 2004

Modified from the Marian Koshland Science Museum of the National Academy of Sciences’ “Global Warming: Facts & Our Future” 2004

The societal consequences of this illiteracy on current and future generations are enormous. Whether minimizing the impact of human activities on the Earth’s climate system through curtailment of the release of heat trapping gases, preparing for changes in climate and the environment that are well underway, or taking meaningful steps to transform our individual and collective lives to be more energy conservative and efficient, we currently lack the wherewithal and critical mass to be able to make truly informed choices for this generation and those to follow.

To reach the “tipping point” of climate and energy literacy that will address the current climate confusion, Higher Education must play an integral role in transforming society. As ACUPCC Program Director Toni Nelson has said, “If you can graduate climate-literate graduates in every area — people who are going to become leaders in business, government, non-profit organizations and legal system, etc. — if you can get a shift happening in their education and climate-literacy, then you shift the whole culture around climate.”

This approach is in line with what Michigan State’s Jon Miller describes as “civic science literacy,” which he notes has risen from about 18% of adults in the U.S. in the late 1980s, early 1990s to 28% in recent years, in large measure due to the required science courses that most students need to graduate from higher education. Clearly there is much room for improvement, with over 70% of adults lacking the basic science literacy that will allow them to make informed decisions about topics such as climate change or energy policy. Most of those who are “civic science literate” have had some college level science which they will then bring to their careers and communities.

The Climate Literacy Essential Principles effort was developed and led by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) with input from experts in Higher Education and numerous science organizations, many of them associated with Universities. The Climate Literacy framework has been reviewed and endorsed by over a dozen federal agencies that participate in the US Global Change Research Program (USGCRP), and has become a central document in Climate Change Education programs. The Climate Literacy Network (CLN), formed in 2008 as a way for individuals and organizations outside the federal government to support Climate Literacy efforts, has been holding weekly telecons virtually every week for over three years.

Elsewhere in this newsletter, Matthew Inman will describe the current Energy Literacy efforts being led by the U.S. Department of Energy, which have been modeled on the Climate Literacy framework.

Energy and climate are “forever wed,” (as Herman Melville commented on water and meditation,) and to solve the challenges of each, we need to be literate in the fundamentals of both realms. Focusing on measuring carbon footprints and recycling, talking about green jobs and clean energy, and addressing social equity issues, while vitally important, are no substitute for having a solid foundation in climate literacy, which can be summed up as the following:

  • Climate Change is Real
  • Climate Change is caused by Humans
  • Climate Change is bad for Humans
  • Climate Change is solvable

But understanding climate change first requires understanding how the climate system and Earth’s energy balance work. There are seven Essential Principles of Climate Literacy:

  1. The Sun is the primary source of energy for Earth’s climate system.
  2. Climate is regulated by complex interactions among components of the Earth system.
  3. Life on Earth depends on, is shaped by, and affects climate.
  4. Climate varies over space and time through both natural and man-made processes.
  5. Our understanding of the climate system is improved through observations, theoretical studies, and modeling.
  6. Human activities are impacting the climate system.
  7. Climate change will have consequences for the Earth system and human lives.

The seven Essential Principles are also framed by a “Guiding Principle for informed climate decisions,” which simply states that “Humans can take actions to reduce climate change and its impacts.”

While students graduating from college don’t need to be climate experts, they should ideally appreciate the basic nuts and bolts of how carbon and climate are connected and what options, opportunities and hard choices there are in mitigating and adapting to climate change by the time they graduate.

Signatories of the Presidents’ Climate Commitment have agreed to the goal of providing courses and other educational experiences about climate and sustainability to all students. But providing courses and other experiences specifically about climate (as opposed to more general sustainability) is not easy. At the University of Colorado at Boulder, instructors in the Program of Writing and Rhetoric have been meeting with climate scientists to learn more about the science themselves so they can better integrate the topic into their courses, which all students must take at some point.

In part through the development of the Climate Literacy Essential Principles and the designation of climate change education as a Presidential Priority in 2009, over 90 climate literacy projects have been funded by federal agencies such as NSF, NOAA and NASA, with several including a focus on Higher Education. One of the funded projects is called CLEAN, the Climate Literacy & Energy Literacy Network (CLEAN) funded by NSF, which includes teaching tips as well as a catalog of high quality learning activities. About a third of the current CLEAN collection is geared toward the undergraduate level, and in the coming months, CLEAN selected learning activities will be augmented with other “useful bits” such as videos and visualizations.

In addition to CLEAN, many climate literacy programs are focusing on teacher professional development, both at the pre-service level in Higher Education as well as for current teachers, who in many cases can receive graduate level credit to enhance their skills and content knowledge.

An important emerging “best practice” is to integrate where appropriate science with solutions. For example, in focusing on the first Climate Literacy Essential Principle: “The Sun is the primary source of energy for Earth’s climate system,” rather than emphasize only the physics and chemistry of the Earth’s energy balance, there’s also an opportunity to explore cooking or purifying water with solar ovens, making hot water or electricity with various solar energy systems, and the use of design to help heat and cool buildings, which have been used in many cultures for thousands of years.

Ultimately, Climate and Energy Literacy will necessarily be complementary and integrated, woven together with related sustainability education. These vitally important topics must be studied and well understood in order to foster a resilient and sustainable society. They must be infused throughout the curriculum, throughout mass media, inside our institutions and households. It is imperative for Higher Education, as the gateway to civic science literacy, to lead by example in order to prepare society for changes that are already well underway.

[1] See- Knowledge of Climate Change Across Global Warming’s Six Americas ( and Energy Literacy Assessment Project (