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Why Climate literacy? - doesn’t everybody already know about ‘climate change’?

Whenever I am asked what sort of action by governments is needed now, to address the climate and ecological emergencies, I list three things: 1) Shut down the fossil fuel industry immediately; 2) Create an extensive social safety-net that includes guaranteed income and housing so that no one is left behind during the massive economic transition that will result from #1; and 3) Educate everyone (including decision-makers and teachers) about why #s 1 & 2 need to happen through a far-reaching climate literacy campaign.

So what do I mean by ‘climate literacy’? It is similar to language or mathematical literacy- a person needs to know the alphabet, grammar, and vocabulary in order to communicate in a language; one must know what numbers mean, as well as basic addition, subtraction, etc., in order to do household math. It seems obvious that people need to use language and numbers, but why should we be climate-literate?

Because the climate and ecological emergencies are the biggest existential threats to human civilization and the natural world that we have ever faced; and they require immediate collective action to give us a chance at a livable world in the coming decades. It is imperative that every citizen in a democracy understand the scale and urgency of the actions that need to be taken, and what is at stake, so that we are able to judge whether the ‘solutions’ offered us are appropriate- if they are enough to avoid catastrophe.

The following are four points that every climate-literate person should know:

1) The climate emergency is bad- worse than you probably think. The IPCC reports, on which the COP negotiations are based, are founded in doubly-peer-reviewed science conducted by thousands of highly-trained specialists from hundreds of ethnic groups and countries. The science is as solid as it gets. However, the scientific consensus is tempered by government officials and industry gatekeepers in the final published report; that together with the cautious language that is central to scientific research, the recommendations from the IPCC reports are the bare minimum of what the world should aim for.

So the much-talked-about goal of ‘Net-zero by 2050’ CO2 emissions, is conservatively, a race to a 50/50 chance of avoiding catastrophe. It is a way of kicking the can down the road, banking on the development of technologies designed by kids who are now in grade school, to ‘save’ humanity. We need to steer clear of any mathematical uncertainties in estimates of ‘how much by what date’- we must stop using fossil fuels immediately. Yes, of course that is a ‘big ask’- but this is do or die- please take a moment to really understand that.

2) The latest climate science consensus says that the climate will stabilize very quickly- on the order of years instead of decades or centuries- once humanity stops emitting greenhouse gases. This is amazingly good news- and it is somehow left out of most dialogues about climate mitigation, perhaps because once understood, one must admit that we have the means right now to stop the climate from degrading further, yet choose not to do it. I’ll repeat that: We could stabilize the climate right now if we chose to.

3) Privileged humans in wealthy countries do not have much time to dramatically change our course to lessen the “atlas of human suffering” that the coming decades will see- but we do have time, and that is key. If we shut down the fossil fuel industry ASAP and learn to live with far less consumption of energy and material goods, we’d have a decent chance of preserving a livable world for our kids and our elderly selves. Climate heating is caused by cumulative greenhouse gas emissions- the more GHGs in the atmosphere, the worse the heating and the higher the chances are of passing tipping points that will accelerate it.

4) Massive change is coming anyway- our only way through it is to embrace it. It is almost cliché now, but it is impossible to have a continuously-growing economy on a physically finite planet. Period. Our global economy is dependent on extracting and using up fossil, mineral, and biological resources. Those are all either running out or being destroyed. Get used to the idea of having, consuming, using, and wasting, a lot less stuff. Technology, whether tied to the decoupling of production from environmental damage, or betting on a future wiz-bang invention, will not ‘solve’ this crisis (more on techno-optimism in another post). Each of us needs to understand that the world we grew up in is gone. What replaces it, and how we get there, is up to us: either a controlled descent and a soft landing, or a hellish crash, into a new low-consumption world.

Climate literacy is essential for a functioning democracy, and we do not have that right now. This is not to say that there is an information deficit amongst the general public that ‘climate change’ is real, and that we must do something about it. Most citizens are so busy with their everyday lives that the best most can do is to acknowledge that it is real, worry about, and then drive the SUV to the grocery store, or to pick up the kids. We live in a state of passive hope or passive denial, and that is totally understandable, because there are few social or political signals that we are facing emergency.

So when the government declares a climate emergency, then buys a fossil fuel pipeline the next day, some of that trust or hope dissolves into worry and fear, or anger. When climate-delayers tied to the fossil fuel industry argue loudly that the world needs more Canadian fossil fuels in light of horrific world events, some people might find that reasonable. However, if every citizen understood clearly what the climate science consensus requires that we do to avoid a hellish life for our kids, we would know who to trust, which one of those emotions to feel, and would be more likely to act beyond our middle-class comfort zone on their behalf.

Our present course of climate inaction, or inappropriate action, would not be possible with a climate-literate public. We cannot possibly know where to aim, what is necessary to avoid the worst impacts of climate breakdown, or know if our leaders are responding proportionately to this existential threat, if we don’t have the tools to understand what the latest climate science or policy soundbite means.



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