Academic journal article Journal of Geoscience Education

Improving Climate Change Communication Starting with Environmental Educators

Academic journal article Journal of Geoscience Education

Improving Climate Change Communication Starting with Environmental Educators

Article excerpt


Climate change is an issue facing our planet that is complex and not easy to understand without in-depth study and analysis. However, the American public increasingly desires information in the form of easily expressed and digested snippets. Saylan and Blumstein (2011) stress that climate change is one issue that cannot be learned through this approach. Today's public has wider access to science information than any other time in history. Yet, public knowledge about science remains inadequate (National Science Board, 2008). According to Nisbet (2010), a major reason for this knowledge gap is due to choice and the majority of citizens having little interest in science-related information (Prior, 2005). Furthermore, Jasanoff (2010) argues that climate change is often portrayed by the science community as impersonal and apolitical, while the interpretive social science perspective can foster a more complex understanding of humanity's climate predicament. The result is only a few interested people becoming more informed, while the broader American public remains disengaged (Nisbet, 2010). Saylan and Blumstein (2011) propose that the broader public must be informed about environmental issues and stimulated to act. The primary responsibility for making this happen falls on education in both formal and informal settings.

As educators of environmental educators, we chose an action research approach (Mills, 2011) to examine and improve the teaching and learning of climate change within an elective course in an environmental education master's program. This paper describes the curriculum and instructional approach and the resulting changes in students' understanding, perceptions, and capabilities to communicate about climate change.

These students will pursue informal and formal environmental education careers. Hence, this study has important implications for the communication of science, and climate change in particular, in the context of public environmental education and formal school settings.


According to FrameWorks Institute, an organization dedicated to advancing science-based communications research and practices, the lack of understanding of basic issues is the root cause of public misunderstandings about climate change (FrameWorks Institute, 2006). FrameWorks Institute claims that Americans do not need further convincing that climate change is real and that there are severe negative consequences. Instead, they require a deeper understanding of climate science concepts and the connections between the causes and consequences (e.g., increased burning of fossil fuels causing an amplified greenhouse effect) (Bales, 2009). Due to a lack of foundational knowledge about climate change, Americans can easily become skeptical of what they view as political posturing, scientific overstatement, or environmentalist exaggeration. This leads them to either disengage from trying to understand the topic or embrace solutions that are ineffective (Bales, 2009). Somerville and Hassol (2011) agree, stating that one of the major factors for the large-scale public confusion about climate change is scientific illiteracy. They list additional factors, such as a well-funded disinformation campaign, the media's handling of the topic as if it is a debate with equally credible sides, and the way that scientists communicate about the topic.

The need for a more thorough understanding of climate science concepts is highlighted by several recent studies on public perceptions and attitudes about climate change. The National Survey of American Public Opinion on Global Warming (Krosnick and Maclnnis, 2011) and a Gallup Poll study (March 2011) are recent surveys on the public's opinions on climate change. Climate Change in the American Mind is a series of reports of ongoing national surveys of Americans' climate change and energy beliefs, attitudes, policy support, and behavior. …

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