CLEAN Teleconference Call June 2, 2015

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Provenance: Daniela Pennycook, University of Colorado at Boulder
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Enhancing Climate Literacy through the Social Sciences

Abstract: Coordinated efforts to improve climate literacy have been underway for over two decades, culminating in the publication of Climate Literacy: The Essential Principles of Climate Sciences (1). Developed through a collaborative process involving a number of US government and science agencies, non-governmental organizations, and individual scientists and educators, this guide outlines a consensus on what climate literacy is and why it is important. As the guide notes, climate-literate individuals should be able to: (a) understand the basic principles of Earth's climate system, (b) assess scientifically credible information about the climate, (c) meaningfully communicate about climate and climate change (CC), and (d) make informed and responsible decisions about CC. Achieving these competencies requires an interdisciplinary approach that integrates social science knowledge with biophysical science knowledge. To facilitate such integration, this review identifies important social science knowledge that is vital for cultivating climate literacy.

Recent years have seen continued calls for greater participation by social scientists in climate science and (formal and informal) climate education (2). At the same time, social scientists have amassed substantial bodies of CC-relevant knowledge. Indeed, several social science disciplines—psychology (3), anthropology (4), and sociology (5) —recently have summarized the state of their respective disciplinary knowledge about CC. Thus, the social sciences are ready to engage with climate literacy.

This review offers a framework for conveying the social science dimensions of climate literacy. We first identify the most robust social science knowledge relevant to the current climate literacy principles mentioned above. We then describe key social science contributions to our understanding of CC decision-making that are not clearly located within the current climate literacy principles. Finally, we identify areas where climate social science theoretical development and empirical research need strengthening to further advance climate literacy.

1. NOAA. 2009. Climate literacy: The essential principles of climate sciences. NOAA Guide: 14

2. Victor DG. 2015. Climate change: Embed the social sciences in climate policy. Nature 520: 27–29.

3. Swim J, et al. 2009. Psychology and global climate change: Addressing a multi-faceted phenomenon and set of challenges. A report by the American Psychological Association's task force on the interface between psychology and global climate change. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association. 

4. Fiske SJ, Crate SA, Crumley CL, Galvin K, Lazrus H, Lucero L, Oliver-Smith A, Orlove B, Strauss S, Wilk R. 2014. Changing the Atmosphere. Anthropology and Climate Change. Final report of the AAA Global Climate Change Task Force: 137. Arlington, VA: American Anthropological Association. 

5. Dunlap R and Brulle R. Forthcoming 2015. The Sociology of Climate Change. Washington, DC: The American Sociological Association's Task Force on Climate Change.

Bio: Rachael Shwom is a sociologist who is interested in how different groups of people in society make sense of and respond to energy and climate change problems. She understands these processes as not just technological or economic processes, but inherently social and political processes. She is particularly focused on the role of civil society, such as environmental groups and the public in general, and their role in perceiving and acting to remedy climate change. She has studied public opinion on climate change, non-profits' decisions to partner with businesses to address energy issues, household energy consumption, long-term risk governance, and risk communication. She uses both quantitative and qualitative methods to study these issues including surveys, social network analysis, and semi-structured interviews. Her work is strongly interdisciplinary. She teaches undergraduate courses in Energy and Society, Innovative Solutions to Environmental Problems, an interdisciplinary class on Energy and Climate Change, and Environmental Politics. She also teaches graduate courses in Human Dimensions of Environmental Change, Organizations in the Environmental Movement, and Long Term Risk Assessment and Governance.

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