Research-Based Climate Change Public Education Programs

Research-Based Climate Change Public Education Programs

Mary Beth Hartman (Florida Atlantic University, USA)
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-4666-6046-5.ch083


Despite widespread natural disasters being linked to a warming planet, Americans continue to be a nation divided on climate change-related issues. This division and resulting disengagement stand between the implementation of new and effective policies. There is a critical need to move beyond the gridlocked debate on global warming to a place where decision makers can begin to develop effective strategies to make our communities and future more resilient. An informed and engaged public is necessary to implement change. Utilizing the research behind science communication, opinion leadership, and issue framing, effective public education programs and campaigns can be developed to build public understanding and engagement. This is explored in this chapter.
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The climate related science readily available to the general public has been backed and peer-reviewed by the world’s top climate scientists. This research is a major part of what constitutes the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) reports, which are updated every six years. In 1999, climate scientist Stephen Schneider wrote Science as a Contact Sport: Inside the Battle to Save the Earth’s Climate. As an integral member of the IPCC, he explains that “the IPCC’s purpose is to provide a comprehensive and objective assessment of scientific, technical and socio-economic information that could lead to a better understanding of human-induced climate change, its potential impacts, and the options for adaptation and mitigation.” The IPCC reports are the product of thousands of scientists from around the world who serve as volunteer authors, contributors or reviewers.

The IPCC’s reports set forth conclusions about the causes and effects of climate change as well as the costs and benefits of solving the problem. These reports are intended to assist policymakers worldwide make informed decisions and develop effective strategies to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and control climate change related issues. The IPCC redoes its assessments every six years (the most recent was released September 2013) since new data and improved theory allows scientists to update their prior assumptions and increase their confidence in the conclusions.

As a historical climate scientist, Schneider provides clear, peer-reviewed evidence for things that ‘should keep us awake at night’. It has been said that it is far better to plan for things such as climate change related sea level rise as a ‘no regret strategy’ than to plan for nothing at all. At the top of Schneider’s consequences of worse case scenarios, human life would be vulnerable in many ways.

Cities on river deltas or close to coastlines, particularly in Asia, would suffer because of rising sea levels and intensifying tropical cyclones, potentially creating hundreds of millions of environmental refugees and consequent political instability. The extent to which environmental refugees would create a military security problem is controversial, but a group of retired high-ranking US senior military officers, when asked to examine the role of climate change as a security threat, called it a “threat multiplier.” They meant that climate doesn’t by itself create stressed human conditions but that climate change can be the final straw that breaks the already stressed systems and thus multiplies the threats. (p. 198)

“Ninety-seven percent of climate scientists agree that climate-warming trends over the past century are very likely due to human activities and most of the leading scientific organizations worldwide have issued public statements endorsing this position.” ( Despite this, climate scientists have struggled with climate skeptics, contrarians, deniers and a disengaged public for over three decades.

Climate change deniers seem to be ubiquitous and well represented in the popular media. Examples of techniques used to distract the public or discredit mainstream climate scientists include support of special interests that heavily block the transition to renewable energy by spreading doubt, supporting powerful anti-climate science lobbyists and public information campaigns that portray climate change mitigation options as unfair economic burdens.

Key Terms in this Chapter

Framing: A way of either perceiving or communicating a particular issue. The data remains the same but an issue can be framed in a variety of ways to appeal to the understanding of a particular audience.

Social media: Utilizes Web or mobile based applications to create an on-line community whereas users generate, share and consume information. Popular programs and apps include Twitter, Facebook and Linkedin.

Public Engagement: Occurs when a desired action is taken towards a specific outcome. For example, the goals of a public education program could be increased voter turnout or resulting policy changes that occurred from public engagement.

Opinion Leadership: Has been utilized for decades in marketing and politics and refers to the power of key individuals who informally serve as go-to sources of information. These individuals actively seek and reinterpret media messages for others and disseminate this either in-person or on-line via blogs, social media, etc.

Climate Change: Refers to changes in our climate over long periods of time. There is scientific consensus that climate change is man-made and is shifting our weather patterns due to an overload of carbon in the atmosphere.

Mitigation: Generally refers to reducing greenhouse gas emissions when discussing climate change. Examples of mitigation include adopting renewable energy sources and energy efficient policies.

Carbon Footprint: Refers to the amount of greenhouse gas emissions that are created by an individual, household, corporation, etc. It can be measured by the direct emissions of household’s electricity or gas use or go to the level of including the emissions created by the food and products they consume.

Baked In Climate Change: The damage that has already been done to date. In other words, if we reduce our CO2 emissions to the recommended 350 parts per million as of today, we would still have 30 years of baked in climate change related impacts to deal with.

Adaptation: Happens in reaction to climate change. It can be immediate, as when a road is washed out by storm surge and rising sea levels and rebuilt based on future climate projections. Successful long term adaptation utilizes climate models to plan for future infrastructure and community planning.

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