Learning to lead?
A recent post by David Roberts on Grist promises the top five stories of 2010 for "climate hawks" (Grist's new term for folks who want to see action to mitigate climate change). The selection presented is reasonable and indicative: three explicit bad-news stories and two kind-of-good-news bits about bad stuff which could have happened but didn't.
A recent post by David Roberts on Grist promises the top five stories of 2010 for "climate hawks" (Grist's new term for folks who want to see action to mitigate climate change). The selection presented is reasonable and indicative: three explicit bad-news stories and two kind-of-good-news bits about bad stuff which could have happened but didn't. (One of the latter is about the fact that the whole Kyoto process could have died but didn't -- an interesting perspective on that from a World Bank analyst here.)
Anyway, 2010 having been the year that it was, it's not surprising to see Tod Stern (the US's special envoy on climate negotiations) calling for an education effort to change public perception about climate change. Stern notes that more Americans think climate change is part of natural variation than understand that it's largely anthropogenic. He then calls on scientists and policy makers to lead the effort, which is in itself interesting.
Scientists aren't, as a rule, particularly good at (or particularly interested in) communicating to the public. And given the election of a whole bunch of climate change deniers (no, they're not skeptics -- skeptics are willing to be persuaded by factual evidence) to Congress, I wouldn't hold much hope for efforts from the policy-making community either.
The truth (as demonstrated by the dynamics of the process on "Don't Ask, Don't Tell") is that policy makers don't so much educate the public as they are educable by the public. The idea that Washington somehow leads the nation on major matters is largely ahistorical. When the nation has somewhere it wants to go, Washington eventually figures that out and moves in the same direction. Climate change is clearly a major matter -- just ask anyone in southern California, or the mountain states, or the southeast, or the northeast. Stern's right that the public needs to be educated away from its induced state of confusion, but I don't think he's picked the right folks to do the leading.
The text of the American College and University Presidents Climate Commitment states that "colleges and universities must exercise leadership in their communities and throughout society." And, at this point, some 676 colleges and universities are on board. That averages out to over a dozen schools per state -- enough to make a clear and credible statement. Not to each other. Not to the higher education community in general. Rather, to their communities and to the American public.
When the ACUPCC was first put forward, an objective of getting enough schools to sign was both reasonable and necessary. Indeed, the terms and conditions of the Commitment itself were written so as to minimize any barriers to signing on -- no prescribed dates or reduction levels, each school gets to set out its own plan, its own schedule, its own approach.
But now that enough schools to garner attention are on board, it's time for the signatories to educate or get off the pot. AASHE and Second Nature have assembled an army of educational institutions. The American public clearly needs educating, and the climate isn't going to hold off changing while we revise curriculum and produce a generation of alumni who "get it" (not that either of those are bad ideas, of course). If the signatories truly believe the words they've signed on to, it's time for them to get out in front and say so.
FWIW, I googled a number of variants of "climate education leadership". I found not a single news article or analytic piece talking about how educational institutions are exhibiting leadership on the climate issue, with the exception of items in the education industry trade press. We've talked to ourselves about climate change and education. We've apparently talked ourselves into assuming some sort of leadership mantle on the subject. The question is: are we willing to let the rest of the nation in on the secret?
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