For C&L's participation in Blog Action Day, we invited science blogger Professor Matthew C. Nisbet to post here on how we activists can communicate
October 15, 2009

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For C&L's participation in Blog Action Day, we invited science blogger Professor Matthew C. Nisbet to post here on how we activists can communicate with the public more effectively on the issue of climate change. The article below is excerpted from Professor Nisbet's fine blog, Framing Science. -eds.

Dimensions of Climate Literacy: What Do We Want the Public to Learn?

There needs to be more focus and clarity about the goals and outcomes of public engagement and communication, even down to the most basic questions as to what do we want citizens to learn about climate change? Or put another way, what dimensions of knowledge matter to public engagement and participation?

Unfortunately, well intentioned commentators have confused the important distinctions on science literacy to the point that the term has lost its meaning in popular discussion. Yet based on the relevant literature in science communication, below are several dimensions of climate change literacy and knowledge that are likely to matter to public engagement. More work is needed in measuring these dimensions of knowledge in research studies and in evaluating different types of communication and media initiatives that might promote learning specific to one or several of these areas:

Civic science literacy refers to a level of understanding of scientific terms and constructs sufficient to make sense of a news report, and/or to interpret competing arguments on the reality and risks of climate change. It also involves understanding how scientific investigation works, and how expert agreement develops over time.

Social, legal, and ethical knowledge commonly refers to information about who funds climate change research, how relevant policy decisions are reached and by whom, the ethics and values that guide decisions, and the connections between the climate change debate and other societal areas such as the economy, partisan politics, or national security.

Participatory knowledge refers to information and details on how a citizen can get involved and have a say in decisions that are made about climate change at the community or national level. Civic education on climate change makes it easier for community members to voice their preferences, draw attention to perceived problems, and to express their ideas on possible solutions. Emphasizing this dimension of knowledge promotes a two-way exchange of information between experts and the public. Knowledge conveyed to the public might include the range of organizations in their community that are working on climate policy; upcoming major events, decisions, or meetings; and the names and contact information of key government organizations and officials. Web sites that make contacts and participation easier through direct email links or displaying maps for event locations would also reduce barriers to participations.

Consider that the recent Six Americas of Climate Change survey found that more than 90% of Americans had never written, emailed, or phoned a government official about the issue. When respondents were then asked about the reasons that prevented them from participating more frequently, 17% simply said they "didn't know how" while another 16% said it "took too much effort."

Localized and experiential knowledge involves evaluating and drawing connections between complex science-related topics and local impacts or relevance. For example on climate change, a resident living in a Midwest city may draw upon their own personal experience observing agriculture-related energy use or on the potential of biofuels whereas a reside of a Northeast city may reference their experience with commuting, urban sprawl, air pollution, and/or public transportation. Public education in a city or region should therefore be tailored to these unique connections and needs of the public.

Practical science literacy refers to knowledge that can be applied to solving common everyday personal problems such as consumer and household decisions or interpreting the packaging on energy appliances. For example, in a survey by Tony Leiserowitz and colleagues, when asked about the important energy reduction actions of insulating their attic or weather proofing their home, more than 20% of Americans said that a barrier was that they "didn't know how" and nearly a quarter indicated they didn't have the time to research the options. In addition, many Americans may erroneously assume they have already adopted the best and most effective energy efficiency practices in terms of heating and insulation and may not be aware of newly available options. Many Americans also express that they would like information on what personal actions they can take that would have the "most bang for the buck," in other words the actions that are likely to make the most difference in terms of energy conservation or cost-savings. As expert agreement emerges on these questions, focusing communication around these practical, consumer dimensions is likely to increase public engagement and action.

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