Climate change for mere mortals: the ECO-System approach

Can an integrated approach linking education, communications and outreach help inform, engage and prepare the public in order to develop adequate responses to climate change?


(Guest post by Mark S. McCaffrey author of Climate Smart & Energy Wise)


Over twenty years ago the nations of the world agreed to “prevent dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system” by joining the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, which has since been ratified by 196 Parties, essentially all the nations of the world.


Over the past two decades, experts have wrangled and wrestled over the complex scientific, technical, equity and financial challenges of the Convention, but the public has had little opportunity to be involved in the process, even though they were meant to be an integral part in developing solutions.


Often overlooked and substantially underfunded, Article 6 of the Convention calls for international collaboration and cooperation to support locally developed climate change education, training, public information and awareness–and most importantly, clear ways for the public to be involved with developing “adequate responses” to climate change and its effects.


Until recently, many Parties to the Convention all but ignored Article 6, with many experts convinced that the problem of climate change was too big and too complex for mere mortals–the public at large–to be involved. Then, at COP18 in Doha and again last year at COP20 in Lima last year when a Ministerial Declaration on Education and Awareness-raising, efforts to revitalize Article 6 were initiated. This past June, the UNFCCC Secretariat, charged with leading, rebranded Article 6 as ACE: Action for Climate Empowerment.


Next week in Paris at COP21, the Young and Future Generations Day on Thursday, December 3 and Education Day on Friday the 4th will highlight progress that has been made to inform and engage the public, particularly young people.


This is all positive and to be commended.


Still, there is a missing element, a way to frame how the various components nest together. What Article 6’s eight short paragraphs don’t provide is a roadmap of how Parties should develop and deploy their education, information, and public engagement programs. Nations, for better and for worse, have been largely left to their own devices to comply with (or not) the letter and spirit of Article 6.  


The ECO-System approach–integrating education, communications, and outreach rather than treating them as separate silos–can perhaps provide a fresh lens to frame these efforts to inform and engage the public about global change challenges.


The basic idea is simple and can be represented in a Venn Diagram with long-term education, shorter-term communications, and short and sweet outreach being overlapping realms.


ECO-system: climate change knowledge and know-how


Education involves pedagogy, learning goals, and assessment, and is geared toward long-term literacy building. In the case of climate change, it means fostering knowledge about the causes, effects, risks and possible responses to climate change, ideally providing learners with the know-how and skills to be able to develop their own design solutions to complex challenges like climate change. The new Next Generation Science Standards in the United States are geared toward just this type of skills-building.


Communication is at its heart information sharing through a variety of media and methods. Whether an article in the New York Times or Science Magazine, or an in-depth television or lecture, communication is important. But is no substitute for and should not be confused with pedagogically robust education, which is what ultimately shapes behavior and builds know-how.


Outreach, the third leg of the stool, is a form of communication, but its succinct messaging is primarily emotional, and potentially inspirational. Social media is the epitome of outreach, and it is a vital tool for conveying concise, crisp memes from trusted sources, and repeating them often.


Many efforts to inform and engage the public around climate change have been done at the level of outreach and communications– sign this petition, read this article, use this hashtag, send money for our worthy cause. But when climate change isn’t being taught well in schools, as a forthcoming survey in the United States has found, outreach and communications efforts ultimately fail, like a two-legged stool that lacks a supporting third leg.


The ECO-system approach acknowledges that education, communications, and outreach are a bit like long-term climate, shorter-term seasons, and every-changing weather: related and connected as part of a continuum, but driven by different dynamics, requiring unique approaches to understand and master. It also looks for the areas of overlap and synergies, the “sweet spots” between them that make up the greater gestalt.


Educational goals supported by outreach through social media can help reinforce learning. Communications that understands and appreciates learning goals in education can help maximize teachable moments, providing links between timely events and learning outcomes. Communications and outreach can support advocacy for specific responses or agendas while allowing education to remain neutral or agnostic to specific policies, which in many communities is important in order to avoid the politicization of science education.


Key to the ECO-system approach is systems thinking and the understanding that, as John Muir wrote over a century ago, “When we try to pick out anything by itself,  we find it hitched to everything else in the Universe.”


Confucius suggested that if you are planning for one year, the best thing to do is plant rice. If you are planning for ten years, plant trees. But if you are planning for 100 years, he recommended educating children. Of the three legs of the stool, education is arguably the most important for generational change. But it can’t stand without the other legs: clear communications and targeted, effective outreach.


Education, communications, and outreach are all interconnected tools for enlightening and empowering people, enabling them to connect the proverbial dots and tackle challenges like climate change in a methodical, effective scientific way. On their own, they have their limits and constraints, but together… Well, let us see what is possible.


Mark S. McCaffrey is the author of Climate Smart & Energy Wise, co-author on a forthcoming paper in Science Magazine on the teaching of climate change among U.S. secondary science teachers, and a member of the education advisory board of Climate KIC.