Research-Based Climate Change Public Education Programs

Research-Based Climate Change Public Education Programs

Mary Beth Hartman (Florida Atlantic University, USA)
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-5225-0803-8.ch046


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.

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